At UMBC, an exercise in post-Soviet confusion

January 24, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

The fine arts gallery at UMBC has a distinguished record of presenting shows of regional and national interest. For the current show, it has now gone international with "Layers: Contemporary Collage from St. Petersburg, Russia."

It's a tantalizing show built on an interesting premise, but it must be judged a failure for one overriding reason: The work is difficult to understand, and there's no attempt to explain it with clarity.

The show is based on the premise (I think) that the version of history so carefully constructed during the Soviet years has been shattered in post-Soviet Russia, and history is constantly being revised. This has left people so confused about the past that even the sense of self is fragmented, and many people show signs of mental disturbance. That's especially true in St. zTC Petersburg, which has changed its name four times in one century (St. Petersburg to Petrograd to Leningrad and back to St. Petersburg).

What better way could artists try to reflect this fragmented state than with collage, defined as "an art form in which bits of objects, as newspaper, cloth, pressed flowers, etc., are pasted together on a surface. . . ."

So it's not surprising that collage is a popular art form in St. Petersburg today. One form it has taken is textile collage.

"Layers" includes six collage artists, five of whom work in textile. "In these works," states a text at the entrance to the show, "weaving, embroidery and applique are used to create material texts that resist ideology by relying on sensory memory -- tactile and visual sensations, childhood impressions, the habit of craftsmanship. Individual memory, multilayered and nonlinear, is posed against collective history that constantly attempts to impose a suspect narrative."

Thus we know on entering that we are going to encounter works of art based on the personal memories and the cultural history of artists whose culture is different from our own. Such work cries out for some sort of explanation.

There's a catalog, written by the show's curator, Alla Efimova, and its co-curators, Olessya Turkina and Viktor Mazin; and it's in English. But it might as well be in Russian or Sanskrit for all the help its tortured and obfuscatory essays on the artists provide.

What, for instance, are we to make of the work of Sergei Bugaev (Africa), whose banners combine images of Lenin with texts and other images such as cave people or lions? By way of enlightenment, the catalog gives us an essay titled "Aphasia as a Technique." After a considerable discussion of the medical condition known as aphasia (loss of the power to use or understand words), the essay goes on to say that in the process of the banners' creation the symbols they employ undergo a metamorphosis "characteristic of aphasia, the disturbance of the capacity to use and understand linguistic symbols. But the banners are not recontextualized. The metamorphosis superimposes one symbolic layer (which has lost its 'real' meaning but retained its cultural meaning) over another (historic), and as a result the 'third meaning' arises at the juncture, the 'open meaning,' gaping between one symbol and another, the meaning that 'belongs to the family of puns, jokes, useless exertions.' "

Nowhere are we given a clue as to what that meaning might be. We are not even given a translation of the words used on the banners to help us out. One supposes that Sergei Bugaev and Africa are two names for the same artist, but even that is not made clear, and at one point they are written of as if they were two people.

It is quite possible that Bugaev and the other artists here -- including Andrei Khlobystin, Marina Koldobskaya, Marina Obukhova, Igor Ryatov and Timur Novikov -- have created distinguished works. But the works are, as the gallery's director of programs Symmes Gardner says, hermetic. And those responsible for this exhibit have done precious little to make them less so.

'Layers'

What: Contemporary collage from St. Petersburg, Russia

Where: Fine Arts Gallery, UMBC, 5401 Wilkens Ave.

When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; ends Feb. 17

Call: (410) 455-3188

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