Russian-American artist Noi Volkov doesn’t take a straight-on view of the world around him the way a lot of people do. He likes to mix things up.
In his three-dimensional ceramic sculptures, Volkov evokes Renaissance masters, while incorporating imagery by more modern painters and pop culture, throwing time and expectations off kilter.
In one of Volkov’s multicolored ceramic works now on view at University of Maryland University College in Adelphi, Picasso sits astride a horse looking like Napoleon, complete with three-cornered hat.
“I put things in unusual situations,” says Volkov, who invests his work with surprises and wit. “I’d like people to think in some different way.”
More than 30 of the artist’s pieces, most of them ceramics, but also several paintings, are on display in an exhibit called “Reforming the Masters. Unleashing the Humor in Art!,” which runs to Sept. 2.
“It’s a visual explosion of color and humor,” says UMUC’s curator, Brian Young.
The catalog is in both English and Russian, and images of the pieces also are posted on the UMUC website. A public reception for the artist will take place tonight at UMUC’s Inn and Conference Center.
Volkov uses a mix of materials glazed ceramics, paint on metal, paint on canvas to express his ideas.
“I use different textures,” says Volkov, who lives in Baltimore County. “I’m constantly experimenting.”
His work reflects a creativity that blossomed after he emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1990 and began exhibiting his work, first in Baltimore and later in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., West Palm Beach, Fla., and other cities.
Volkov says it was not an easy victory to finally gain his personal and artistic liberty.
“To be a free artist was very difficult,” he says. “It was about what they say to you, propaganda, and it’s not true, it’s a lie, and I don’t like to be a liar all my life.”
Born in 1947 in Agapovka, east of Moscow, Volkov moved with his family to Odessa on the Black Sea when he was five years old.
“By the time I was 12, a lot of my teachers were asking my parents, ‘Please do something with this guy we don’t want him drawing and painting all the time,” he laughs.
Volkov studied drawing and art in secondary school, then enrolled in the Vera Mukhina Higher School of Art and Design in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg.) There he immersed himself in the Hermitage museum and its collection of paintings by Caravaggio, Rembrandt, da Vinci and other European masters.
It was there that he also began working with ceramics, studying the work done by Italians centuries earlier.
But in the 1970s in Russia, an artist’s only options were to express the state agenda or be tagged as a “nonconformist,” a path with serious political consequences.
In the late 1970s, Volkov applied for a visa to leave the country, but it was denied, and he was jailed for two months.
Two of his works were confiscated, one of which was “The Cranes Are Flying,” a version of which is in the exhibit.
Painted in 1977, it shows two peasants “heeding nature’s call against the backdrop of Soviet banners after a festive all-nighter,” writes art dealer Mark Kelner in the catalog.
Because it was difficult to earn a living in Russia, Volkov at one time made ceramic teapots and vases to support his family.
But when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the late 1980s and restrictions eased, Volkov applied again for a visa, arriving in Maryland with his family in 1990.
Out of his work with Russian samovars evolved his interest in sculpting shapes in the form of Western teapots.
One is a self-portrait, showing his face as seen in a convex mirror, his glasses repeating the curve of the pot, according to Young.
Also interested in surrealism, Volkov makes ample use in his work of Salvadore Dali’s head and long, curving moustache.
“The Genius Should Not Die” features the head of Dali connected to the head of a masked doctor by a tube passing across what looks like an old-fashioned telephone stand.
“Some pieces are more grotesque than humorous,” Volkov says.
Now 65, Volkov says he continues to develop new pieces in his home-based studio.
“I work every day, from morning to night,” he says. “It’s my life.”