On a pleasant September evening, the Washington Monument appears dreamy and abstract as the light permeates its cloak of scaffolding. A man in a well-worn overcoat and farmer’s hat relaxes on the grass in front of the obelisk. Next to him is another figure, an incandescent object that looks like a crescent moon.
Russian artist Leonid Tishkov follows his own private moon, one he can bring (or reconstruct) wherever he goes. The 6-foot-6-inch sculpture lit from inside is simple but bigger than Tishkov, 61, whose work can be absurdist, sorrowful, strange and deeply romantic.
Tishkov brought his moon to Washington with the help of Dennis O’Neil, his longtime friend and collaborator.
O’Neil, a professor of fine art at the Corcoran College of Art + Design, recruited several Corcoran students to help photograph installations of Tishkov and his moon at night on the Mall; in the predawn hours at the National Aquarium and the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum in Baltimore; and at night at Antietam, the site of a brutal Civil War battle in Sharpsburg, Md. “We couldn’t have done this without the students,” O’Neil and Tishkov said, almost in unison.
An exhibit of “Private Moon: America” is being shown until Oct. 14 at Hand Print Workshop International in Alexandria. Tishkov maintains an ongoing photo journal of his decade-long “Private Moon” odyssey on blogspot.
O’Neil, 67, has been collaborating with Russian artists since he took a trip to Moscow in 1988 during the political reforms under Mikhail Gorbachev known as Perestroika. O’Neil met Tishkov in 1993, when O’Neil brought his printmaking methods and workshop to the Russian capital. In an unpublished memoir about his print work called “Process & Alchemy,” O’Neil describes his first meeting with Tishkov, the artist who would later become his friend.
“Leonid has a big, wide smile as if it had been unzipped rather than opened. His smile is a disarming invitation to enter his world for which he is an enthusiastic guide. . . . He is an anomaly, and an outsider, even to the sometimes quirky art world of Moscow.” Tishkov’s fanciful work and mythological world would “fly in the face of the more serious and critical art of the day.”
“I love children’s stories and fairy tales,” Tishkov said at the Alexandria opening on Sept. 12. It’s not surprising, perhaps, that one of his favorite children’s books is Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.” He says he identifies with the young boy, Max.
Like many contemporary Russian artists, Tishkov has written and illustrated children’s books. “Malchik i Luna ’’(Boy and the Moon). He also is deeply attached to the stories of Nikolai Gogol, and he has created many cartoons and visions of mythological creatures in cartoon form. But the moon series has become a more accessible, universal way for him to tell his stories.
The most whimsical piece in the current show is “Lincoln Spaceship and Landed Moon.” The scene is lit and photographed as magic realism; the Lincoln Memorial appears to be floating in space while the moon is grounded at the edge of the reflecting pool. Another fairy-tale photo, “Moon Lighthouse of the Masonic Temple,” celebrates a magical feeling with a star-like floodlight twinkling on a point of the moon, which Tishkov holds aloft.
Tishkov also has a darker, brooding side. The places he finds most compelling are often legendary sites with a haunted past. Knowing this, O’Neil decided to use Corcoran students and help Tishkov create a series of installations at Antietam National Battlefield. Antietam is where 100,000 soldiers fought a Civil War battle. In 12 hours, 23,000 of them died, were gravely wounded or went missing.
“I’m very much in love with, and moved by, the Antietam story,” Tishkov said. “It’s beyond the imagination. There are so many ‘dead souls’ in the place . . . it’s a very sad place and a very sad story.”
The prints from Antietam are chilling, and quite strange, as the ever-lit moon at first looks too cheerful for the battlefield. But then it earns a certain weight as well as gravity (it is always on the ground). After spending a few moments with the prints “Fallen Union Soldier on the Mumma Farm” and “Lunar Preaching,” it’s clear that Tishkov is most successful when he appears to be simply waiting and listening.
The screen prints O’Neil makes lead to an even richer life for some of Tishkov’s digital prints. “The prints I make with Leonid are wax and pigment screen prints made through a process I developed in my studio over the past decade,” O’Neil said. The use of wax and oil paint applied with hand tools on “Private Moon in the Arctic” leads to a new image with a different feeling than the digital print.
At a dinner in his honor in September, Tishkov sat on a comfortable couch and spoke about the trajectory of his life and career.
“The Ural Mountains where I was born and grew up is a very deep place in Russia,” he said. “It is a small town called Nizhnie Sergy in Sverdlovsk. . . . I keep in my soul a fantastic mix of this part of the Earth, and I remember a lot of folk stories from these places. Memory has become a big part of my work.”
Tishkov began as a cartoonist in the 1970s. His work was censored simply because it was shown abroad, he said. After the Soviet Union collapsed, his work steered more toward a kind of ironic mythology. More than a decade ago, Tishkov was invited to create an installation in a wooded lake area near Moscow. He said he recalled Rene Magritte’s “Tree with Crescent Moon.” Soon after, he created his moon and started on his journey, which has included the Arctic, Kazakhstan, Taiwan, the streets of Paris, and now, D.C., among many other locations. Baltimore’s Poe House was one of his favorite stops on this trip. “I love Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry,” Tishkov said. “He was an incredibly romantic man who lived in his dreams.”
FitzGerald is a freelance writer.
Through Oct. 14 by appointment at Hand Print Workshop International
in Alexandria. Fridays and Saturdays and evenings recommended.
For more information,