What provides the glue that holds any multi-arts venue together? At the Mizel Center for Arts and Culture, thematic wizardry seems to do the job. Under the direction of Joanne Marks Kauvar, the Mizel continues to pump out thought-provoking interdisciplinary projects once or twice a year. Previous endeavors explored everything from McCarthyism to Bob Dylan; this time around, the usual players -- including Singer Gallery curator Simon Zalkind, the Colorado Chamber Players and Boulder film critic Kathryn Bernheimer -- once again give shape to an entire ethos in Russian Revolutions: Russia, Jews and the Avant-Garde, which kicks off Sunday for a kaleidoscopic four-month run.
"It's our signature programming," Kauvar says of the comprehensive approach. "Instead of just creating exhibits in isolation, it's so much richer to have that cross-reference there." The current angle, she notes, was chosen partly because it echoes the twentieth-century themes of past series. But she also points out another motivation for the display: Kauvar hopes this particular vein of study reaches out to a specific local community -- Russian-Jewish émigrés who've flocked over the years to the neighborhoods adjacent to the Jewish Community Center.
In addition, as Zalkind observes, Russia's twentieth-century cultural contributions to the world have been popular lately: Colorado State University in Fort Collins recently hosted a series of exhibits and activities centered around Russian poster art, and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra just completed its own four-day bow to Russian composers. "At first I thought, 'They're going to steal our thunder,'" notes Zalkind, who says the various projects simply sprouted simultaneously, with no collaboration among the organizations. Certainly, there's plenty of food for thought in this subject matter -- for instance, there's the obvious question surrounding the notion of Russian-Jewish art: Who's Jewish, anyway? "A lot of these people were never thought of in terms of their Jewishness," Zalkind says. "In Russia, people who were Jewish were thought of either as another ethnic group, or they went to great pains to see themselves as socialist revolutionists like everyone else. A lot of times we found the Soviet authorities did the work for us. They decided who was a Jew."
Either way, Zalkind doesn't find the hazy distinctions confusing: "One of the advantages of being a despised minority is that Jews were never accepted into the official art school and therefore were never inculcated with realist dogma. Almost by virtue of being Jews, they had a greater freedom to explore different ways of doing art. If they had all ended up as socialist-realist hacks I wouldn't have been able to do a show. Marginalization actually fuels a larger creative possibility."
In keeping with that concept, the fine-art arm of the project follows the artists of Soviet Jewry in several directions, from the forward-thinking constructivism of the socialist revolution to Chagall and the modernists of Paris. A more recent dissident artist faction of the '70s is exemplified by contemporary Russian art's so-called bad boys, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid; their inclusion, Zalkind adds, gives the exhibit a decidedly local twist, provided by the pair's rejected mural designs for Denver's Alfred Arraj Courthouse. Zalkind will also host a Sunday symposium with three University of Denver scholars that coincides with the gallery opening.
Coming up, the Colorado Chamber Players will present a program echoing Zalkind's Paris-circle theme and another focusing on works by Shostakovich and Weiner, while Bernheimer has chosen three films spanning a period from the '20s to the '90s.