Critical Incites

Politics dominate shows at two local galleries, as well as in Denver's new courthouse.

It must be hard to make credible political art, because, to be honest, most of it is pretty darned bad. The trouble is that the artist has to try to create a plausible work of art, as well as inform the viewer about a particular cause. And it doesn't help that most of those who try just aren't up to the task.

Not that there aren't artists who can address the problem masterfully. A case in point is Israeli graphic designer Yossi Lemel, whose posters are now on display in Yossi Lemel: Beyond the Front Line, at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design's Philip J. Steele Gallery. The show features a nice selection of powerful political posters done over the last decade; the computer-generated prints have been appropriately hung unframed and are held to the wall with nails and grommets.

As the posters' messages reveal, Lemel, like the vast majority of artistically successful political artists, is a dyed-in-the-wool left-winger. Born in Jerusalem in 1957, he came to an early awareness of social issues because his father, a Polish immigrant, was an Auschwitz survivor. After graduating from Bezelel Academy, Israel's premier art school, Lemel worked for a series of advertising firms and eventually established his own. But he didn't forget his upbringing, and in addition to designing ads for such companies as KIA Motors, Ray-Ban and Speedo, he worked for various political causes. "Advertising has power," he once wrote, that "can be used to promote non-commercial issues."

"Color Lines in Vertical Motion," by Ilya Chashnik, ink and watercolor on paper.
"Color Lines in Vertical Motion," by Ilya Chashnik, ink and watercolor on paper.
"Lenin Hails a Cab," by Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, oil on canvas.
"Lenin Hails a Cab," by Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, oil on canvas.

Details

Through February 26, 303-753-6046

Revolutions: Generations of Russian Jewish Avant-Garde Artists
Through April 7
Where: Singer Gallery, Mizel Center for Arts and Culture
350 South Dahlia Street, 303-399-2660

Philip J. Steele Gallery, 6875 East Evans Avenue

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This is clearly what Lemel is doing in the heart-stopping "Six Numbers," from 1995. Running across the top of this twenty-foot-long poster is a photo enlargement of his father's arm with its six-digit serial-number tattoo, a souvenir of Auschwitz. Below are the words "50 Years Since the Liberation of Auschwitz."

"Kosovo," a 1998 comment on the atrocities committed in the former Yugoslavia, shows a red crescent nailed to a black cross. The poster created a stir in Tel Aviv and brought Lemel to the attention of Amnesty International; the organization commissioned him to do a series of posters, a number of which are included here. All follow the same format: a close-up portrait of a person in peril. In one, a woman is gagged in red duct tape; in another, a man is blindfolded with black silk. One of the posters in the exhibit was rejected by AI; in it, a man wears a crown of thorns made from barbed wire.

But the Lemel show isn't the only current attraction highlighting political art. At the Singer Gallery of the Mizel Center for Arts and Culture, gallery director Simon Zalkind has put up Revolutions: Generations of Russian Jewish Avant-Garde Artists as part of the Mizel's annual thematically organized interdisciplinary program, which also includes films and concerts. Although Russian Jewish art is not solely dominated by politics, the subject is a major concern for most of the artists in the exhibit.

Zalkind examines several artists from the golden age of Russian vanguard art -- essentially the 1910s to the 1930s -- and also features a number of artists who've been working over the last couple of decades. But there's nothing in between, a time gap that reflects a reality in Russian history: Strict control over the arts beginning in the Stalin period meant that vanguard art was outlawed. Painters and sculptors were only allowed to create work in the official socialist realist style, which is characterized by idealized figures rendered conventionally and set in heroic narrative scenes that promoted, in parable form, the virtues of Soviet life.

Zalkind didn't take historical considerations (or stylistic or thematic ones, for that matter) into account when he installed the show, however. Instead, in the manner of a contemporary show -- Zalkind's stock in trade -- he took a thoroughly aesthetic approach. As a happy result, Revolutions is stunningly beautiful, but the downside is that it's hard to follow the threads of modern Russian art history. For this reason, I found myself orbiting the gallery several times, returning to look at things again. Art shows spanning many decades benefit from a chronological installation, and historical shows such as this one make the most sense when you start with the oldest things and work your way up to the newest. That's what I wound up doing -- at least for my last lap through the Singer.

Although abstract art in Russia predated the Revolution of 1917 by a decade, it quickly became associated with the new Soviet government. During the Lenin years, modernism was officially encouraged, and modern artists gained respectability. It was also during this time that attempts were made to eliminate widespread anti-Semitism, so that Jews and, in particular, Jewish artists became a part of the newly emerging Soviet social order.

In retrospect, it makes sense that a revolution in abstract art would be linked to 1917's social and political revolution. Like the Soviet leaders who were recasting society, Soviet artists were taking apart the conventions of painting and sculpture and replacing them with a completely new set.

Zalkind includes several of these first-generation modernists, notably El Lissitzky. A key player in the Russian constructivist movement and an important experimental photographer and groundbreaking graphic designer, Lissitzky was also a committed Marxist. Zalkind has selected a pair of his constructivist lithographs, a book of prints, and two photos, including 1924's famous (and surprisingly small) "Self Portrait."

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