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A Sewickley gallery continues a tradition of showcasing work from the former Eastern bloc. 

click to enlarge Swiftly limned: Rumen Rachev's "Opening Night."
  • Swiftly limned: Rumen Rachev's "Opening Night."

In the late 1970s, Elena Kornetchuk negotiated with the Soviet government to become a licensed American dealer and ran a Downtown gallery called Russian Images. Since 1983, when she moved it to Sewickley's Flatiron Building and broadened its offerings beyond the borders of the U.S.S.R., the venue has been called International Images, Ltd.

Kornetchuk is a traditional gallerist, not unlike art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, a famed early champion of Cubism. She views her artists not as commodity-producers, but as respected colleagues and friends. Part Russian herself (as well as a cultured polyglot), Kornetchuk has written extensively on Soviet artists, amplifying their voices and bringing their rarified aesthetic to the West.

Taking a leaf from the Cubists' book, Kornetchuk has organized Color and Contrast, which draws parallels between contemporary paintings, etchings, ceremonial African masks and traditional Russian folk-art forms, like intricately designed nesting dolls. It is an aptly named exhibition, as Bulgarian-born painter Rumen Rachev employs brilliant acrylic color, while Moscow-born master etcher Demian Utenkov relies principally on line and tone to delineate his subjects.

It is the wooden masks from the Congo, like the concentrically lined, lip-puckering undated "Woyo/Holo Good Mask," which best complement Rachev's works. In the abstracted faces of Rachev's women, Picasso's primitivist period is unmistakable. Rachev's three-eyed, Cleopatra-coiffed female in the acrylic on canvas "Evening" (1992) recalls Picasso's 1907 "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" and his late-1930s portraits of such women as photographer Lee Miller.

Rachev also cites David Hockney as an influence, and while there are none of Hockney's trademark reflections in water, there is Hockney's revelatory psychology. Rachev depicts people's isolation and vulnerability even within a group, and deftly captures their frequent inability to connect. In works like "Man With Two Women Sitting" (1998), the figures and their Picasso-like masks indicate a protective yet showy tribalism that people don in the midst of others.

Rachev's undated "Opening Night" contains a self-portrait along with swiftly limned images of two Sewickley residents. Kornetchuk herself spins towards abstraction at the painting's center. Rachev has captured the gallerist in her element, pirouetting like a dancer between arriving guests and reception duties.

Where Rachev seems impulsive, given to colorful outline, and inclined toward recognizable generalizations of womanhood's primitive forces, Utenkov is an incisive observer, focused on the gothic intricacies of the natural world. While he acknowledges the influence of Hieronymus Bosch and the elder Pieter Breughel, his linear precision, hidden messages and fable-like narratives share a strong affinity with Albrecht Dürer.

With works like the 1975 copper etching "Self-Portrait With Mosquitoes (In Search of Adventure)," in which a hirsute, willowy Utenkov upturns his mountain-man mustache in a wry smile as mosquitoes land on his shoulders, the artist reveals his imperturbable desire to explore. A member of the former Soviet All-Union Society of Astronomy and Geodesy, Utenkov has traveled into isolated areas of Siberia to record the desolation created by fallen meteorites. His images of topographical ruin include the copper etching "The Herb of Oblivion" (1977), in which a man considers a cityscape overrun with weeds and splintered evergreens from his perch atop a dinosaur skull. Such works are the equivalent of memento mori and a celebration of the inexplicable beauty of chaos as it emerges victorious over the order imposed by man.

Utenkov and Rachev's works can be seen only in Sewickley, as Kornetchuk is the artists' sole stateside representative. And like the visual enchantment of Utenkov's linear microcosms and Rachev's carnivalesque brilliance, there is an obvious magic to Korentchuk's gallery, which inhabits two floors of the peach-and-purple, triangular Flatiron Building. Here lives a local legend: For 30 years, Kornetchuk has brought exotic and otherwise suppressed eastern voices to Western Pennsylvania. This alone is evidence of a remarkable career.

 

Color and Contrast continues through Nov. 15. International Images, Ltd., 514 Beaver St., Sewickley. 412-741-2036

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