Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Karen Kimmel, a student at Tufts University and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, wandered the streets of East Berlin. She wanted to find out what the young East German artists who hadn't been producing official art had been doing, cut off as they were from the mainstream of Western art. What she found, after considerable searching, was exciting enough to make her call back to Boston and Lelia Amalfitano, director of exhibitions at the museum school.
Over the next year the two traveled to Berlin, Dresden and Leipzig, and put together an exhibit of 17 artists, all born after pTC 1945, which debuted in Boston late last year and is having its second showing at the art gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park (through April 26).
If this show represents the best artists of the younger generation, East Germany had not been hiding a great number of major talents. But it does reveal lots of commitment and some artists of interest.
It breaks into two primary groups (with exceptions): one is basically expressionist, and its work tends to be more psychological and introspective; the other is more conceptual, and its work tends to be more socially and politically oriented.
The best of the former group is Johannes Heisig, whose "Self Portrait" and "The Nation of Signs" are energetic, colorful and questioning, revealing more uncertainty than either optimism or pessimism. There is no doubt, however, of the pessimism reflected in the blackened pages of Michael Freudenberg's books.
Angela Hampel's "Golden Age" more or less straddles the two camps. The painting on this six-sided screen is expressionist enough, and the message is both a cry of personal anger and a condemnation of a society whose forces drown the expression of individuality, especially among women. Jurgen Wenzel's series of colorful, gestural panels called "Sheep" may or may not have a subtext: perhaps these headless sheep refer to those who passively submit to a repressive regime.
On the conceptual end, there are works such as Micha Brendel's "Now will become and grow the welcome child . . ./Ruined Child." The left half of this is an official poster promoting children (the state sought to increase the birth rate) and showing a series of photos of babies. The right half is Brendel himself in the same poses as the babies, implying that the state keeps people babies all their lives.
Claus Bach's "Head Bodies" is a series of photographs of people holding signs in front of their faces (handprints, arrows) and standing in front of various backdrops (a concentration camp building, a bombed out building). One can think of this as saying that Germans will not have an identity until they deal with their past, or, conversely, as long as they carry it around with them, or, maybe, as long as the world, looking at Germany, only sees the past. It's one of the more successful works in a show that's uneven but should be seen.