Vladimir Ovchinnikov is undoubtedly one of most prominent figures of Russian Nonconformist Art and, starting from the mid-1960s, was a point of reference for artists claiming the possibility of an art not aligned with Soviet ideological propaganda. Furthermore, his work exerted strong influence on the subsequent development of the Nonconformist movement both in Russia and the West.
The term "Nonconformist" is usually employed in reference to Russian art that did not adhere to the dogma of Socialist Realism as ordained by Stalin and pursued, from the 1930s throughout the 1980s, by means of a policy based on violence and epuration. It should be specified that Nonconformist Art did not necessarily imply an anti-Soviet vision. In fact, the works of Ovchinnikov, Rabin, and Chemiakin were neither challenging the system nor trying to be sensational. Rather, they represented a spontaneous quest for an individual space beyond politics and Socialist ideology.
Ovchinnikov's production clearly shows that works of art find their raison d'être in the quest for inner freedom. His works are linked to a modern stylistic repertoire (Cubism and Expressionism in particular), but at the same time preserve their own deeply national character. Moreover, he exhibits a sort of obligation towards the banality of daily existence, being aesthetically remote from the triumphant style of Socialist Realism. We might say that Ovchinnikov is able to provide ordinary reality with a different form and appearance, away from the heroic symbolism of Soviet daily life. By doing so, he elevates the daily non-aesthetic to an aesthetic category.
In Royal Still-Life (2004), for instance, Ovchinnikov displays a repertoire of well-known objects. Sometimes he relates them to one another - as in a still life; other times he contrasts their strong symbolic meanings - like the blades of an electric shaver and that of a guillotine with a head wearing a powdered wig. In this work, Ovchinnikov elevates objects of ordinary use to an aesthetic category; transforming them and then assigning a secondary meaning, a new function that catches the viewer off guard due to the uncommon use of a daily lexicon. By drawing what is hidden to the surface and showing the psychological nuances of what it represents, his work ultimately narrates the progress of life in its real and practical forms. At times this progress adopts the character of a naïve description; other times it turns into witty irony and a melancholy detachment towards life. As the Italian art historian Carlo Giulio Argan wrote, Expressive Realism in painting is not a caricature of reality but rather it is beauty that, by moving from the dimension of the ideal to the dimension of the real, reverses its meaning and becomes ugliness, while still preserving its mark of election. In Ovchinnikov this transition is also a time of disenchanted reflection on a world - the Soviet Socialist one - which was perceived as being in precarious balance, as in Game without Rules (2011) about to collapse at any moment. During the 1970s and the 1980s in a transformed historical situation, new trends of Western contemporary art were appearing in the Russian art scene. The response to these new trends on the part of the Russian Nonconformist world was represented by Soc-art and Moscow Conceptualism: Soc-art mocked the ideological signs of Soviet culture, while Conceptualism attempted to locate in it the space that had not yet been crushed by ideology; i.e. those minute things that had remained foreign to its influence. In both cases, however, something peculiar happened as the symbols of the Soviet system were separated from social reality and converted into artistic material, and, as a result, artists were deprived of any aesthetic responsibility since what they utilised was not their own personal idiom, but rather the language of Socialist culture: the only one allotted to the Soviet man. The awareness that an ideology-free text was not possible - because ideology permeates each and every moment of life - brought about the paintings of Kabakov and Bulatov, as well as a number of irreverent works by Komar and Melamid.
However, whereas for Ovchinnikov and the Leningrad School the reflection on culture was a personal matter, and often one characterised by an esoteric meaning, Moscow Conceptualists considered Russian Socialist culture to be the language par excellence through which reality made itself known, and that it existed independently from the artist who, in turn, was a mere observer. Notwithstanding the limits that any classification entails, it might be said that Ovchinnikov's conception of painting and his working method were averse to these positions: with respect to Conceptualism, he simply transformed the artistic matter by turning his attention towards reality in its most banal and ordinary manifestation. Again, compared to Moscow Conceptualism, he was undoubtedly a traditional artist who shunned the mental speculations characterising the new generation of artists, which were often in accord with the new trends of Western art. Ovchinnikov was an artist who lacked the desire to be provocative or create, in the viewer, the sense of discouragement deriving from the typically post-modern awareness that art is useless; this Leningradian artist belonged to a generation of artists who believed in art's positive substance. On the other hand, the intent of Conceptualism, which went as far as deploying actual waste and refuse in some installations, was to represent a form of art that was ultimately fated to uselessness.
The rise of Conceptualism and Soc-art marked a time of strong instability within the Nonconformist movement, especially with the political changes that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s. During this period, Unofficial Art had to confront a double image of the present: on one hand, the arrival in Russia of the new Western frontiers (Pop Art and Conceptualism), and on the other the awareness of belonging, in any case, to the Soviet world, which, on top of everything else, had remained artistically isolated since the time of the great avant-guards. The relationship between Russian artists and the West was therefore complicated by the objective difficulty of exhibiting Nonconformist Art in Europe and America, as well as censorship within the country of origin. The cognition/recognition of Unofficial Art in Europe was moreover a slow, arduous process due to the fact that Western support during the Cold War transcended mere artistic motivation. It was thanks to collectors and gallerists such as Norton Dodge and Eric Estorick that the works of Non-realist artists were displayed first in Europe and later in the United States. A memorable exhibition was the one held in London in 1977, entitled "Unofficial Art from the Soviet Union," which was soon followed by others in Zurich and Milan. We should also remember that, in the same decade, Ovchinnikov started to exhibit his work in Leningrad, at his studio in Kustarny Pereulok, as well as at the Gaz and Nevsky House of Culture, likewise in Leningrad.
It was a difficult start. Many exhibitions were almost clandestine and confined to the circle of the Nonconformist movement and consequently, the works were virtually unknown to the international public. It should be mentioned that the initial contact with these artists would occur through the dense diplomatic network existing in Russia during the Cold War. A number of collectors and art dealers were active behind diplomacy, who were introduced to the artists for this purpose. Norton Dodge mentions the case of Nina Stevens, a Soviet citizen married to an American journalist who would arrange meetings between artists, journalists, and diplomats. By partaking in these occasions artists were challenging official control, as an invitation to a diplomatic event meant sitting side by side with the Soviet authorities, including Soviet culture officers and officials in charge of censorship.
In other cases, it was the initiative of certain individuals that made it possible to display Nonconformist Art, such as on the occasion of the exhibition of works by Ovchinnikov, Lyagochev, and Shemyakin at the Hermitage Museum in 1964, when the then assistant director of the Hermitage, V.F. Levinson-Lessing, intentionally overlooked the activities of a group of museum workers willing to exhibit their paintings, preventing the Soviet authorities from shutting the exhibition down. This example, and perhaps that of the legendary 1974 "Bulldozer Exhibition", illustrates how difficult the circulation of dissident painting was within Russian boundaries. At the same time, the European exhibitions in the 1970-80s were evidence of an emerging Western interest in these artists.
At first, a portion of the support received by Russian Non-realists came from people encouraging political and ideological opposition to the Soviet regime. As noted by Michael Scammell, in the introduction to the book Unofficial Art from the Soviet Union: "It would be wrong, for instance, to exploit the human and political emotions aroused by contemplation of [the artists'] difficult situation as an alibi for the quality of their work". Similarly, it would be impossible to maintain the opposite; that is, that the work of Russian non-aligned artists was completely apolitical. Referring again to Ovchinnikov even though no explicit political images exist in his works, one notices that the spectre of the Communist regime nevertheless materialises in the unassuming symbol of a military uniform in Nobody Writes to the Colonel (2007), as well as in the desolation of a maimed soldier in Alexandro-Nevkaya Lavra (2010). The painter's style shows an emotional involvement toward the country and its people; however, the work of art is not adopted as a means of political dissent, as is evidently the case in the works of Komar and Melamid. Indeed, the subjects and content expressed in the works of Ovchinnikov and his contemporaries have not only drawn the attention of Cold War nostalgics, but in recent years we have witnessed a revival of Russian Nonconformist Art by the light of a certain "dissident art" that has developed in the West during the last decade.
The Nonconformist movement and Dissident Art share the same polemical spirit regarding to the denial of individual freedoms still existing in many parts of the world: prominent cases include those of Iranian artist Rokni Haerizadeh and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei arrested for his opposition to the Chinese Communist regime. Episodes like these have not only raised awareness in Western public opinion of issues like the right to free expression; they have, moreover, revived the attention given to artists who were once the torchbearers of such rights - and among them the Russian Nonconformists. Evidence of this may be seen in the astounding commercial success obtained by Ovchinnikov's works at Sotheby's and Christie's, and the success met by the 2010 exhibition "GLASNOST: Soviet Non-Conformist Art From The 1980s" which was shown at the renowned London art gallery Haunch of Venison.