From Russia with love, without explanation Art reviews

November 25, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

The Russians are here, and they look good. But they're speaking a foreign language, so it's not easy to understand them.

The art gallery of the University of Maryland at College Park has organized an impressive traveling exhibition of 13 contemporary Russian artists. They are not of a single generation, having been born between 1925 and 1958, but all are influenced to some degree by the early 20th-century Russian avant garde movement known as constructivism. Hence the show's cumbersome title, "Russian Constructivist Roots: Present Concerns."

Despite its good intentions and its good art, the show suffers from one great, but not quite fatal, fault. It never gives the visitor the needed information to understand what it's all about. There's no introductory text. There is a catalog, but no one visiting the show will stand there and read the catalog for an hour or so before touring the show. And even those who buy the catalog for perusal at leisure will be disappointed, for it's woefully inadequate.

First, it lacks a single essay that explains clearly what Russian constructivism was and how these artists relate to it.

Second, it doesn't even function as an adequate record of the exhibit. There's no checklist of works in the show. Instead, there's one pictured work, with title, by each artist. But three of the 13 pictured works are not in the show. Five others have different titles in the catalog from those on the show's labels. And yet another work is oriented differently in the show from the way it's shown in the catalog.

Nevertheless, there are some fine artists here whose work is worth a trip to College Park, whether or not one understands their relation to constructivism.

The movement had its roots in an abstract art of geometric forms created in Russia in the 1910s. It soon broke into two camps, a European one that believed that art should be pure and non-utilitarian, and a Russian or Soviet one that had a utopian belief in the social utility of art. In the years after the revolution of 1917, artists in the latter camp produced designs for everything from architecture to stage sets, books, furniture, ceramics and textiles.

In truth, there's not a lot that could be called an art of social utility in the current show, nor is all the work abstract. This is a diverse group of works that relates tangentially to aspects of constructivism.

Leonid Borisov and Eduard Shteinberg create works of geometric abstraction. Leonid Lamm, who now lives in New York, is a satirist who makes a gold dollar sign of the Communist hammer and sickle. Vadim Voinov uses actual objects to make socio-political points, such as an empty wooden bowl and spoon in "Famine." Maria Elkonina adds a religious element to her geometric relief sculptures by adding crosses and, in one case, nails. Francesco Infante-Arana's photographic works superimpose abstract geometry on the landscape. Yuri Avvakumov's and Oleg Kudryashov's drawings and constructions suggest architecture.

So it's a mixed bag, but of artists who are individually challenging and together form a handsome show. If only it were better explained to the viewing public.

Russian art

Where: University of Maryland College Park

When: Noon to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays (until 9 p.m. Thursdays), noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays; through Dec. 20

Suggested donation: $3; $1 students

` Call: 301-405-2763

Pub Date: 11/25/97

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