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."

The lithographs, "The Spectacle of Machinery" and "Sentinel," both from 1923, are classic Lissitzky. In "Spectacle," which is one leaf of a larger multi-page work, various geometric elements are scattered over the sheet, including a "Proun" figure, an assemblage of geometric shapes seen from different perspectives and in imaginary spaces meant to suggest humanity.

Zalkind has also hung several examples of early Russian modernism by Ilya Chashnik. Done in ink and watercolor on paper, they're gorgeous and delicate-looking. In "Color Lines in Vertical Motion," from 1922-23, Chashnik assembles elongated rectangles in various toned-up colors, mostly red, into vertical bars bracketed on each side by black color fields. Chashnik's work is eighty years old -- you can tell by the antique look of the paper -- but stylistically, it could be brand-new.

Other first-generation modernists in the show include such big names as Marc Chagall, Ossip Zadkine and Sonia Delaunay.

As things got increasingly bad for Russian artists in the '20s and '30s, they began to leave; many wound up in exile in Western Europe. Others, such as Lissitzky, stayed and continued to work by switching from the fine arts to applied arts like graphics. Although the Soviets had clamped down on painting and sculpture, graphics was left alone, and modernism flourished in the field.

Zalkind hasn't included any works of this type by Lissitzky, but he hung a pair of Solomon Telingater photo collages from the 1930s that may have been designs for magazine covers. In them, the photos and text are aligned along diagonal axes and organized within an overall geometric pattern, a style that constitutes a forward progression of constructivism. Two color lithographs by Mikhail O. Dlugach, also from the 1930s, are done in the same radical manner.

To select the contemporary pieces for the rest of the show, Zalkind turned to Mina Litinsky, one of Denver's living cultural treasures. Litinsky is the director of the nationally known Sloane Gallery and, notes Zalkind, is more responsible than anyone for the public awareness of Russian contemporary art in our region.

Sloane, the oldest gallery in LoDo, rarely presents exhibits -- the last one was seven years ago -- but it is always filled with pieces by the most important Russian artists working today. The ones that Sloane lent to the Mizel are more obviously political than the show's earlier works. The early modernists considered their art political, but their messages are communicated in lines, bars and circles and are hard to understand. Not so with many of the more recent pieces.

Among the contemporary artists are a couple, Oscar Rabin and Ernst Neizvestny, who became world famous because of their resistance to Soviet control. Rabin, the founder of the 1960s dissident Lionozovo group, organized the legendary outdoor art show that was bulldozed by authorities in the 1970s, a cultural atrocity broadcast on worldwide television. Neizvestny was one of the featured artists in that show.

The generation that came after Rabin and Neizvestny benefited from their struggles and were ultimately freed by the collapse of the Soviet Union. This great event spawned work that contrasts Russia's Soviet past with its capitalist present, typically using a wry sense of humor. In his two acrylics on canvas, 1993's "Lenin-Coca-Cola" and 2000's "Molotov Cocktail," Alexander Kosolapov uses neo-pop-art style to convey the irony of changing times. In the former, Lenin's profile is paired with the Coca-Cola logo above the recast slogan "It's the real thing Lenin." In the latter, a '40s-era model holds a bottle of Coca-Cola with a burning fuse.

Among the most famous contemporary Russian artists are Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, who began to create collaborative, conceptually based work back in the 1960s, when they were still living in Moscow. The two emigrated to Israel in 1977, then came to New York the next year. Trained as painters in the official Soviet socialist-realist style, Komar and Melamid were skilled in the old-fashioned techniques of traditional representational painting; these skills set them apart in their adopted home of New York. At the time, and well into the 1980s, interest in representational painting was on the rise, and most of their American contemporaries lacked the training to pull it off.

But Komar and Melamid did not use the style to praise the Soviet Union, as the government intended; instead, they replaced the expected heroic (bombastic?) handling of their subjects with a darkly humorous, thoroughly subversive one. The piece that Zalkind included in this show, the 1993 "Lenin Hails a Cab," is a good example. In it, Lenin is seen in a familiar pose, his right arm extended as though he were making a speech. The locale, though, is not Moscow, but New York City -- as indicated by the lit-up Empire State Building looming in the distance.

Simultaneously funny and serious (I love the way the golden arches look like a hammer and sickle at first glance), "Lenin Hails a Cab" constitutes a short course in the type of work that made Komar and Melamid famous. This fame is why the artists were chosen to create a work of art for the Alfred A. Arraj Federal Courthouse now under construction on 19th Street in downtown Denver.

In a room adjacent to the Singer, as part of Revolutions, Zalkind installed a separate display devoted entirely to Komar and Melamid's proposed Denver commission. Since 1972, the General Services Administration -- which is overseeing the construction of the courthouse -- has had a public-art program called Art in Architecture; over the past thirty years, the GSA has awarded more than 200 commissions to some of the country's most important artists.

Komar and Melamid received their commission for the Denver courthouse in 1998. They worked closely with Anderson Mason Dale, the architectural design firm on the job. But last year, they were quietly dismissed from the project because the GSA's advisory committee had some objections. Zalkind's exhibit includes twelve preparatory drawings and copies of the minutes of relevant meetings, as well as letters that went back and forth between the artists and the GSA. The drawings reflect half a dozen versions of two succeeding proposals made for two different sites in the courthouse's interior.

Looking at the drawings, it's hard to understand what the problem was.

In the first proposal, Komar and Melamid suggested a lobby painting hung at eye level. The painting, "Eagle-Eyed Justice," depicts an American eagle holding a scale in its mouth; the eagle is surrounded by a circle of fifty stars, with the top star replaced by a columbine and on either side a male and female lark bunting, the state bird. The artists added another painting, "Liberty as Standard-Bearer," to this original suggestion. This piece, described as a "pendent," features an image of the Statue of Liberty waving an American flag in which the star field has been replaced by a representation of the cosmos.

Lewis Babcock, a U.S. District Court judge who served on the advisory committee, had difficulties with these paintings. According to the minutes of the June 27, 2000, meeting, he felt there was a problem with "the use of the state flower -- the columbine -- because of its implicit reference to the recent slaying of school children at Columbine High School." He went on to note that lawsuits related to Columbine were pending and that the use of the state flower "could be perceived by some as the courts favoring the victims." Babcock also objected to federal symbols such as the eagle, because "these symbols might imply that the judges were partial to the interests and views of the government."

Babcock's objections put Komar and Melamid in a difficult position, because their contract with the GSA called for the artists to create, "symbolic painting combining the Federal and State of Colorado symbols." Things like the columbine and the eagle. The artists pointed out that such symbols are often seen in government buildings, including some right here in Denver.

Nonetheless, it was back to the drawing board. The GSA gave Komar and Melamid three months to cook up an alternate proposal. In December 2000, they presented a scheme for the conical dome of the lobby's ceiling -- titled "Our Home, Milky Way" -- that involved painting thirteen sections in alternating red and white and eleven sections in blue. The blue sections are all accented by images of the universe.

"Our Home" also did not satisfy Judge Babcock, who expressed his "deep concern that many visitors...would perceive the work as a message that the US Government is interested in taking over the world."

On March 27, 2001, Komar and Melamid were summarily dismissed. According to a letter from GSA contracting officer Dannie Crowder, their work was "found to be unacceptable." (The irony of two former Soviet artists being censored in the U.S. is depressing -- but still delicious.)

It's unclear whether another artist will be hired or whether the commission will simply disappear. (A Sol Lewitt commission for the courthouse is still going forward.)

The shows at Steele and Singer share a certain sentiment with the courthouse controversy: It's politics, as usual.

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