Going to "Russian Artists' Expo: The Post-Glasnost Generation" is like stepping back into another world in art history terms -- at least before mid-century and, at times, centuries earlier than that. It's pleasant to see how remote it seems from our own.
The show comes to the BAUhouse because Alexander Friedman, a University of Maryland law student who emigrated from the Soviet Union with his family in 1979, took a trip back in 1990. While there he met some artists interested in selling their works in the West, and on his return to the United States, he approached the BAUhouse about doing a show. What resulted is a show of the works of nine artists living in Russia, Ukraine and Lithuania, together with four others who recently immigrated to this country, three of whom live in Baltimore and one who lives in New York.
It is at once obvious that they are well-trained, having a technical expertise gained at various academies and art schools. It's also obvious that, although as a group they are relatively young (eight are 40 or younger), they have little interest in leaving behind the traditions in which they were trained.
But that's not to pass them off as merely derivative. If they were, their work would be essentially lifeless, and much of it isn't. In truth, the show is quite uneven in two senses: Some artists are better represented than others (from one to five works of each), and some are of greater interest than others. Fortunately, the more interesting are generally the better represented.
In the colorful, crowded paintings of Noi Volkov, now living in Baltimore, one can see elements of Chagall (a cow floats down from the sky in "The Fair"), Bruegel ("The Wedding" owes much to "Peasant Wedding"), even pre-Renaissance painting -- the several simultaneous scenes and the shifts of scale and perspective in "Life of Fishermen." Yet in those very violations of realist representation this work is also modern in feeling (if not really contemporary).
Ilya Chichkan's canvases, with their highly decorative, patterned surfaces, are obviously based on the turn-of-the-century paintings of Gustav Klimt. They are striking and immediately appealing, although they lack the ominous undercurrent of Klimt's works.
Irena Ilyishova's surrealism is clearly indebted to Dali; the most interesting of her works, "Forbidden Apple," presents the snake as a male figure and the couple as two women. The lesbian interpretation is not the only one; this could just as well be male evil corrupting female good.
The attenuated figure, the color and the subject matter of Taras Gladerenko's "Harlequin at Play" are straight out of blue period Picasso. The work closest to a contemporary sensibility is Vladimor Artamonov's "Self Portrait," but it's hard to tell much about Artamonov, since this is his only work in the show.
The show will run through May 23 at the BAUhouse, 1713 N. Charles St. Call (410) 659-5520.