Published: September 3, 2019
VOLGOGRAD, RUSSIA – An investigation put forward by Russian writers Yulia Vishnevetskaya and Misha Yashnov released in August on the Russian website Meduza.io allege a fraudulent production scheme surrounding the Russian outsider artist Foma Jaremtschuk, who since 2006 has been exhibited in North America and Europe, including at the Outsider Art Fair in New York City. The artist’s work was championed by outsider art scholar Colin Rhodes, who wrote articles on him in Raw Vision, Wrong Wrong Magazine, as well as a 200-page album in 2017 titled Foma Jaremstchuk: An Art Brut Master Revealed.
The investigative report is available here: https://meduza.io/en/feature/2019/08/23/the-elusive-star-of-soviet-art-brut
Credentials for these writers are as-yet unverified, as they have not appeared in Western media prior.
The investigation begins by recounting Jaremtschuk’s alleged discovery in January 2006, when a Russian man introducing himself as Alex Gess walked into the Cologne, Germany gallery, Delmes & Zander. Gess is said to have presented a cardboard box containing 233 drawings by a then-unknown Russian psychiatric patient named Foma Jaremtschuk. The gallery bought them all for $54,415 and began selling them a few weeks later at the Cologne Fine Art Fair.
The investigation reports that Gess said the artist was nearly illiterate and had never learned to draw, had spent ten years in a Stalinist labor camp for slander against the USSR and was then treated at a mental hospital from 1947 to 1963. The works were produced during the artist’s tenure in the mental hospital. The report alleges that Gess told Zander he had purchased the work from the head of the hospital, something Gess reportedly maintains to this day.
A few years after presenting his initial batch, Gess returned to Zander with another which lead to a subsequent exhibition. Thereafter, Gess offered another box of the artist’s work to the London-based Henry Boxer Gallery.
The investigation weaves its way through a variety of people affiliated with Gess’ Coccoon Gallery until, it alleges, the writers found the original artist: Stanislav “Stas” Azarov, still living, breathing and seemingly struggling to find a market for his original artwork.
The following four paragraphs are taken from the report:
“When we pushed an album of Foma Jaremtschuk’s drawings toward him, Azarov suddenly seemed to be at a loss for words. He spent a long time flipping through the pages, murmuring aloud about how high the print quality was. It was clear that the artist had never seen this publication before. Nonetheless, when asked directly, he reluctantly admitted that the drawings in the album were his.
“Azarov told us that during an exhibit, a couple of strangers had approached him and taken an interest in his work, so he invited them to see his workshop. That was in 2005. ‘At the time, I was drawing some pretty hardcore stuff,’ the artist recalled. ‘I was in the hospital myself up until then – that’s where all the bunks and bathtubs came from.’ Azarov’s visitors were particularly curious about his hospital-themed sketches. They bought an entire folder of the drawings but paid only 300 rubles apiece (about $10.60 at the time). ‘Money wasn’t important to me back then,’ Azarov remembered.
“He described the two buyers as ‘buff guys with buzz cuts.’ They said their names were Ruslan and Alexey. Some time after their first purchase, the two men paid Azarov another visit and asked him to ‘draw 100 more’ for a ‘project’ they were working on. This time, they asked for a shift in style: Ruslan and Alexey wanted the drawings to be ‘even more trashy – just raw meat.’
“Azarov said his clients also asked him not to draw any modern-day technology for their order – they wanted the pictures to recall another era. Using old paper, however, was Azarov’s own idea. ‘At the time, I was experimenting a lot with paper,’ he told us. ‘Shilov and I did prints on whatever, even on flatbread. I had a [expletive] ton of old wallpaper that my grandma and grandpa left behind. It was good material, and it was free. I tried out my etchings on them, made sketches.’ It was also Azarov’s own idea to dedicate some of the drawings to the history of the Gulag – he said he was inspired by Solzhenitsyn’s books as well as ‘music and alcohol.’ The two clients were satisfied with the results and made several more orders in the course of 2005.”
According to the report, Stanislav’s friend, Alexey Shilov, who had connections to the Cocoon Gallery, was the first person within that network “to admit that Foma Jaremtschuk never existed. ‘The idea was to keep that part secret,’ Shilov noted.” The report says that Shilov credits a “pair of mysterious buyers” with the development of the Jaremtschuk idea.”
The report also alleges that more than 1,000 different Jaremtschuk pieces have been exhibited at various times.
Perhaps most importantly, this situation – not the first of its kind by any means – reveals a hole in the walls of the outsider art market, where a picture, exploding from the confines of isolation and into the infinite and less-credentialed expanse of the self-taught aesthetic, rests atop the foundation of an artist’s manic life story so that both elements are integral to market building. And how exactly can the art world police these backstories – outside of outright rejecting them when non-verifiable information is produced – particularly one such as this, which manifests itself during a time when the USSR was in chaos and poverty, cut off from the rest of the world behind the iron curtain? It is indeed a perfect recipe for fraud.
Henry Boxer has since removed any work by Foma Jaremtschuk from his website, Delmes & Zander continues to promote the artist’s work as of publication date. In response to the article’s posting on an outsider art forum, Susanne Zander said, “…in the end it’s not about the money and not about an artist story – we still believe in the outstanding quality of the work by this artist. By the way I cannot read one single proof in the article that [Jaremtschuk] has or hasn’t existed.
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