American Dreams

The idea of creating contemporary art that refers back to traditional art while still breaking new ground is called conceptual realism. Though the movement embraces a range of expressions, what connects it all is recognizable imagery used to some kind of conceptual end, and often with a sarcastic, sardonic or mocking edge to it.

Although internationally this approach is very hot right now, it's hardly new, having a direct lineage back to the 1960s, when artists like Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid first embraced it in what was then the Soviet Union.

At the time, freedom in the arts was unheard of in the Soviet Union, and painters were expected to follow the socialist-realist style that involved traditional depictions of heroic political leaders. Oddly, this was the perfect hothouse for growing conceptual realism. All Komar and Melamid, who worked collaboratively, had to do was put in an ironic twist via their choice of subject, execute it in the socialist-realist style, and voilà: They had stumbled on a cutting-edge contemporary sensibility.

The two had a falling-out a few years ago and ended their artistic partnership. But in an irony for the kings of that particular sensibility, their older work is avidly sought after by museums and collectors who spend big bucks to get them. One of those important collectors, Dr. Wayne Yakes, lives in metro Denver and was able to acquire an entire body of work by the artists that dominates the impressive exhibit American Dreams, now showing at the Singer Gallery in the Mizel Center for Arts and Culture.

The paintings were made in the mid- to late 1990s specifically for the opera Naked Revolution at the Kitchen in New York, where transparencies of them were projected during performances. By acquiring all forty collages in the suite, Yakes, a co-sponsor of American Dreams, has prevented them from being scattered.

In Denver, we've had mixed blessings vis-à-vis Komar and Melamid. On the one hand, the two have a local representative in the person of Mina Litinsky, director of LoDo's Sloane Gallery, who guided Yakes in his selections. On the other, the artists were commissioned to do murals for the Alfred A. Arraj United States Courthouse ("Critical Incites," February 21, 2002), but the court rejected them because it didn't approve of the proposed content. This censorship must have reminded them of youthful run-ins with the authorities in the Soviet Union.

The trouble at the courthouse was most likely a result of the pair's irreverent political humor, which informs many of the pieces in American Dreams. For instance, one piece merges the images of George Washington and V. I. Lenin, or — as Singer director Simon Zalkind puts it, "Komar and Melamid have conflated Washington and Lenin."

The artists also make references in their work to Freud, Marcel Duchamp and Isadora Duncan in supporting roles. As extras, they include the likes of Hitler and Stalin. All of it is set in the context of art history and the histories of the United States and the Soviet Union. Believe it or not, it almost always works, owing no doubt to Komar and Melamid's accomplished technical skill and their eye for a striking composition.

This combination of characteristics can be seen in "Lenin, Washington, Duchamp and Duncan," wherein the figures of Washington and Lenin emerge from the darkness, while Duncan, in the guise of an angel holding a red flag, turns toward Duchamp, who catches gold coins being dropped by Duncan. It's definitely an allegory of some sort, though it's hard to know what it all means. But the absurd cast, carried out in Old Master style, gives it the edge that made these guys famous.

Very different in character and having a neo-dada flavor are the elegant, somewhat funny collages. A good example is the one that includes Duchamp's famous abstract painting "Nude Descending a Staircase" with the heads of Washington and Lenin attached. The whole thing is then placed over a scene evocative of Freud's office — a repeated image throughout the forty collages.

Komar and Melamid can always be counted on to provide viewers with a thought-provoking experience, but American Dreams, with its in-depth view of a specific theme, is even more special.

Conceptual realism is also on tap in a group of marvelous shows set to close in just a few days at Robischon Gallery. They relate beautifully to the Komar and Melamid exhibit, and I loved seeing one after the other, because they worked together like a little museum blockbuster on the topic of contemporary realism.

David Kroll features paintings by this artist from Washington state. Like Komar and Melamid, Kroll is interested in traditional realist styles of painting; instead of politics, however, he tweaks these styles by merging still-life and landscape genres into a single idea. In these paintings, Kroll has set meticulously rendered ceramic and porcelain vessels, often with songbirds alighting on them, in the romantically untamed wilderness. The pieces are almost photographic in their accurate rendition of the scenes.

The star attraction at Robischon is Deborah Oropallo, which features an artist who's on a roll after a recently concluded de Young Museum solo show in her home stamping grounds of San Francisco. The work on view in Robischon's center space is from her "Guise" series, in which, using computers, Oropallo overlays reproductions of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century portraits of prominent men with images from fetishist catalogues. Seems an unlikely way to come up with something compelling, but that's exactly what she has done. The idea itself has a feminist theme, with powerful women from the catalogues superimposed over the once-powerful men, but the real strength of these pieces is purely visual. Oropallo selects fetish models who are posed in roughly the same positions as the men in the paintings. She makes the figures the same size, so they'll essentially line up when she's finished, using the eyes as a key connection between the face in the painting and the face in the fetish ad. The result is sort of like a cross between cubism and pop art, as demonstrated by "Napoleon," a digital pigment print in which Napoleon is morphed with a naughty French maid.

In addition to a wonderful selection of these prints, Deborah Oropallo includes a gorgeous tapestry, "George," that was based on one of the "Guise" prints and then digitized and sent to Italy (e-mailed?) and put through a computerized weaver.

Wes Hempel, ensconced in the small space off to the side of the gallery, is made up of only one piece, but it is also an incredible weaving. "Late Call" depicts in great detail a young standing man talking on a cell phone and checking his watch, with a mural of the drama-filled ascension of Christ unfolding behind him.

Across from the Hempel tapestry is Anne Connell, made up of eight tiny paintings of enigmatic subjects, typically patterns suggestive of painted decorations or wallpaper designs. Connell, who has studied extensively in Italy, embraces many age-old techniques associated with that country, including pastiglia, in which surfaces are built up with gesso, as well as gilding, in which she covers parts of her paintings with gold leaf.

In the back space is an informal group show made up of selected works by Gary Emrich, Stephen Batura and Christl Lidl, as well as "George," a portrait of George Washington with his head on fire, by Jack Balas and Wes Hempel.

And that, of course, brings me back to Komar and Melamid and their obsession with Washington. See, I told you the shows at Singer and Robischon functioned collectively like a mini-blockbuster, even starting and ending on the same note.