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by Walter Robinson
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As someone who is looking forward to the new Conan the Barbarian movie (in theaters Aug. 19, 2011), it would be no surprise that one of my favorite works of Soviet art is the 25-foot-tall monument to Vladimir Mayakowsky that stands in a Moscow park. Like Conan, the people’s poet is a larger-than-life hero, and like Conan he’s a complete fantasy.

This statue makes a passing appearance in "Ostalgia," the lively new survey of art by more than 50 artists from 20 countries at the New Museum, via a photograph by Moscow artist Anatoly Osmolovsky (b. 1969). The dark, black-and-white “performance documentation,” dated 1993/2011 and lent by the artist, shows the massive statue and a tiny man who has apparently climbed up the thing to perch on Mayakovsky’s shoulder.

Otherwise, this whimsy is about as close to utopia as “Ostalgia” gets.

The title of the show makes the idea clear enough: “Ostalgia” is nostalgia for the communist old days, particularly in Germany, where during the post-unification economic slump some people would express a yearning for the lost “east,” or “ost” in German. The artists in “Ostalgia” -- yet another smart exhibition by New Museum curator Massimiliano Gioni, by the way -- don’t miss the old communist regime as much as they bear witness to its unhappy reality.

Generally speaking, the exhibition has a distinctly dystopian feel, and suggests a kind of Iron Curtain esthetic that pretty much confirms the grim vision of Soviet life we’re all familiar with.

One performance work, by the Slovakian artist Roman Ondak (b. 1966), even enlists people to form random lines as if waiting for the latest delivery of some sparse commodity.

Grimmest of all is the main gallery on the second floor, which is filled with vitrines displaying more than 80 color photographs taken during the Soviet ‘60s by Ukrainian photographer Boris Mikhailov (b. 1938). The pictures are wonderfully impoverished, showing ordinary working people in abject circumstances that might be most kindly described as elemental.

Filling the walls of the space is a kind of gulag version of a Hanne Darboven writing piece, page after notebook page of similar sheets by the Serbian conceptual artist Mladen Stilinovic (b. 1947). But instead of Darboven’s graceful escriture, Stilinovic’s obsession is the dictionary, on whose detached and spread-out pages the definition of every single word has been whited out and replaced with the written word “pain.”

Ouch. A similarly bleak outlook can be found on the museum’s open fourth-floor gallery, which is elegantly installed with works by just three or four artists. Off-center in the space is a striking trio of alien creatures by the well-known German sculptor Thomas Schutte (b. 1954), typically representing predatory politicians or foreigners or some kind of social monster or the other.

The Schutte is surrounded by more than 160 black-and-white photos on the walls, grainy and artless images from 1991-94 by Berlin photographer Michael Schmidt (b. 1954), recording the sad leftovers of the fallen socialist order.

A certain amount of mordant wit is on view, notably in the goofy little sculptures by the young Russian artist David Ter-Oganyan (b. 1981) scattered throughout the show. Titled This Is Not a Bomb (2011), they’re timers and wiring attached to innocuous objects like gourds or Coca-Cola bottles, and stashed behind plinths or elsewhere on the floor. Is this funny?

More interesting is the gridded installation of 150 drawings by the Russian-born, Berlin-based artist Evgenij Kozlov (b. 1955) from his Leningrad Album, which he made as a feverishly oversexed (and artistically precocious) teenager in 1967-73. Done almost coloring-book-style in an adolescent hand -- and resembling at first glance the vulgar “Sex to Sexty” cartoons used by Richard Prince and Mike Kelley -- the drawings are pornographic and imaginative, and perhaps more importantly set in the claustrophobic rooms of a communal block apartment. Clearly, political oppression and sexual repression make good bedfellows.

Also pleasantly Dionysian are some richly toned black-and-white photographs by Siberia-born photographer Nikolay Bakharev (b. 1950), who as an “amateur” photographer took too-erotic snaps of bathers, lovers, families and friends, which (happily?) led to the loss of his factory job. These pictures of people smiling, hugging, posing, engaging with the camera, have a real life force.

As Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) says to the Woody Allen character (Owen Wilson) in Midnight in Paris (2011), “The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair, but find an antidote.”

WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.