End Runs

Shows at Mizel, CU and Regis will soon close.

The season began only a scant six weeks ago, but already many of the first shows have closed -- or soon will. It's been a crowded calendar, with more than a hundred exhibits being presented simultaneously, a couple dozen of which are definitely worth seeing -- pretty good odds when you think about it. But in this elite group are several exhibits rapidly coming to the end of their runs.

Symbols of the Big Bang, at the Singer Gallery of the Mizel Center for Arts and Culture, is riveting, and it's so heavily layered with meaning that it would take either artist Vitaly Komar or Alexander Melamid to give a full explanation. Lucky for us, Komar is in town on Thursday, October 23, and will be presenting a lecture at the Mizel Center at 7:30 p.m.

Moscow-born Komar and Melamid, who are among the most significant Russian emigré artists in this country, began collaborating in 1965. In every project, they share a premise on which they base their series, but each piece is done individually by either Komar or Melamid. This act of collaboration was a response to American pop art, which was seen as outrageous in their homeland, because everything but the officially sanctioned socialist-realist style was illegal. As a result of that anti-art atmosphere -- and Soviet anti Semitism -- the artists left Russia in the 1970s. They went to Israel and, soon after, to New York, where their traditional painting skills came in handy, since representational imagery was coming on strong at that time.

"Facts," by Jerry Kunkel, oil on board.
"Facts," by Jerry Kunkel, oil on board.
"Symbols of the Big Bang #244," by Vitaly Komar and 
Alexander Melamid, mixed media on paper.
"Symbols of the Big Bang #244," by Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, mixed media on paper.


Symbols of the Big Bang and The Testament of the Priest and Teacher
Through October 27
Singer Gallery, 350 South Dahlia Street

2003 Faculty Exhibition
Through October 25
CU Art Museum, University of Colorado, Sibell-Wolle Fine Arts Building, Boulder

Steven AltmanThrough October 23
OíSullivan Arts Center, Regis University, 3333 Regis Boulevard

Despite emigrating to get away from politics, however, politics seem to have followed them everywhere -- even to Denver. In 2000, they were awarded a commission to create a work for the Alfred A. Arraj United States Courthouse downtown. Using his power to veto, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Lewis Babcock, a member of the art advisory committee, rejected their initial idea, a painting that included a columbine. The blossom is Colorado's official state flower, but, sadly, it also references Columbine High School. Komar and Melamid then put forward the idea of painting the ceiling in a flag motif, using images of the constellations instead of stars. Babcock also rejected this idea, and the artists were paid and dismissed. Artists from Russia being censored in the U.S. is an irony worthy of Komar and Melamid.

And the artists do have a reputation for being ironic, but in Symbols of the Big Bang, they say they are being sincere. One dominant theme of the show is how the Star of David can be elegantly entwined with a swastika -- which does seem a bit ironic -- or with any one of a cast of ancient symbols.

As might be expected, the artists' pieces are done at the highest level of technical ability. The mixed-media collages have an incredible sense of depth, and the interplay of lights and darks -- so appropriate in a show called the Big Bang -- is absolutely masterful. And if the drawings are good, the two important paintings, both titled "Symbols of the Big Bang," are even better.

The Big Bang pieces originated with Komar's near-death experience following cardiac surgery. When he awoke after an administered electric shock, he thought he was in the hospital where he was born. "I had a chance to re-experience that primal flash of light, my personal big bang." Combining this idea of the big bang -- referring to the light overcoming the darkness -- the drawings could be read as symbolizing the triumph of the Star of David over the swastika and the other less politically charged symbols.

This compelling show originated at the Yeshiva University Museum in New York, and when Singer director Simon Zalkind heard about it, he knew he wanted to bring it to Denver. So when he was talking about the show with Mina Litinsky -- owner of the Sloane Gallery, which is Komar and Melamid's Denver representative -- he mentioned how much he wished it could be presented at Singer. That was all he needed to say. "Mina did everything," Zalkind explains. "She was like a fairy godmother who waved a magic wand."

Litinsky also facilitated a second Komar and Melamid show, which is installed in the balcony gallery, opposite the elevator. Called The Testament of the Priest and Teacher, the show lays out a new book the two have written and illustrated, which tells the story of their leaving the Soviet Union. One tongue-in-cheek aspect of these mixed-media pieces -- and there are many -- is the style, which apes that of Russian Orthodox icons.

Excellent as these shows are, Zalkind is still reeling and "disheartened" by the recent unexplained dismissal of the director of the Mizel Center, Joanne Kauvar. "Her belief in beauty and in the value of contemporary Jewish culture inspired all of us to do the best we could do. I treasure the time I had to work under her direction and envy whoever next has the opportunity to work with her."

There are changes afoot at the University of Colorado, where the CU Art Galleries have been renamed the CU Art Museum. "We wanted the name to reflect the fact that we're a collecting institution," says museum director Lisa Tamiris Becker. "We have 5,000 works of art in our collection, but they've been in storage for years, and now there's a renewed interest in getting pieces back out on the campus."

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