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Komar & Melamid And The Universality Of Art

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Five painlings hanging in the U-M Museum of Art are from the first collaboration between professional human artists and an elephpnt painter. The paintings may be evidence that art is a universal expression of Life, not just a game played for effete connoisseurs. Attendees at the September 25 roundtable discussion with the human artists, Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, didn't quite know wtiat to expect f rom the two Russian Jewish emigres. They have most often painted in a style derived from their training in Soviet Socialist Realism. and this collaboration was their first Abstract Expressionist work. Did they expect us to take their collaboration with Renée, an African elephant at the Toledo Zoo, seriously, or was it just a gimmick poking fun at Abstract Expressionism? Komar and Melamid's seriousness is often doubted. It lies in depths of irony beyond the casual viewer-art's protective colloration behind the Iron Curtam For example, some of their most powerf ui works include Stalin. a figure in their childhood whose likenesses were destroyed but not forgotten. From their Nostalgie Socialist Realism series, The Origin of Socialist Realism shows a partially draped Aryan Muse tenderly holding Stalin's head as she traces his shadow with a brush. The painting has the appearance of total sincerity. Stalin gazes off into the distance with the heroic look of divine inspiration made cliché by a million official portraits. He has a firm, fatherly hold on the Muse. From what Komar and Melamid have said they sincerely appreciate the clangerous power of Stalin, and in this picture they show how he took Art and made it work for him. A painting of Hitler ín uniform smiling up into the lighl of Heaven was slasned by a viewer who said he was "tired of irony" - a cial interpretalion. Melamid explained the painting's serious in tent in this way: Hitler was a good thing for us Jews, a kind of Messiah. He threwJewsoutof Jewish history into worid history. Because ot him, Jews are world-personalities. Every nation needs its own Holocaust to understand what is going on in this world. The person without suffering is not a real person. It says in the Scriptures that every evil is a messenger from God. Hitler was a disaster for Germans. People f orget that the Germans tosí and the Jews won. (Komar & Melamid, Carter Ratcliff, p. 1 25.) The irony here is too deep for the slasher's knife - it is doubtful that he had penetrated even to this second layer of sincerity. Perhaps at the deepest level is a humorous expression of pain. (You can see these paintings in Carter Ratcliff's book, which is available at the Museum of Art.) From what Komar and Melamid said at the discussion, they were very serious in their collaboration with Renée. The irony is that Renée's work is good according to aesthetic standards applied to Abstract Expressionism. The paintings in the show, where the human hand is indistinguishable from the brush-wielding elephant's trunk, are attractive, energetic works in comparison to the purely human works from the Museum's collection which aredispteyed alongside. Komar said "Abstract Expressionism is a culmination of human art, but animáis are natural abstract expressionists ." Of course the elephant isn't the same as a professional artist. But even though very few cultures have a word translatable as "art," everywhere are practices that resemble what we cali art. I don 't have space to examine all the evidence of aesthetic appreciation and practices that also appear in children and the animal kingdom, but Renée, who has been paintingfor over 11 years. is a case in hand. Renée's trainer Don Redfox says she paints because he gives her carrots. but Alex Melamid stressed that he and Vitaly Komar also paint for the carrots that society rewards artists with. At the discussion, Toledo Blade art critic Sally Delongo, who is familiar with Renée's habits when working alone, said "Renée shows an ability to be fully present for the work. She has a definite sense of intention and purpose." Vitaly Komar feit the collaboration was like dance. This brings to mind the other name for Abstract Expressionism: "Action Painting." The painting is merely a relie of the action of the painter, which is a dance perf ormed with the brush on the canvas. I have found that the simplest way to explain how to look at abstract work is to say it is like music, which has a direct analogy to dance. Instrumental music is the first purely abstract art. representing feelings. atmosphere and motion, notordinary visual reality. The three painters were dancing together with the music of color, not soloing like Pollack or DeKooning. The two humans, alienated from any national culture by their exile, have found as artists what Melamid calis "one culture" that unites all life on earth. "We came to America looking for freedom, but there is no freedom anywhere. Painting with Renée I found freedom for the first time in my life." Komar and Melamid are most famous for conducting a scientific poll of the American public to define America's "Most Wanted" and 'Most Unwanted" paintings, and then painting them. The "Most Wanted" was a landscape that had George Washington in it, and the "Most Unwanted" an orange and yellow abstract with hard edged triangles. The irony is that in working at an even more universal level than the preferences of the American public, they ended up back in abstraction. Gallery news again - The 637 closed after a mere six gigs. Proprietor Krysta Ahn says she is moving on to bigger and bettercities. It was fun for a flash. ■ nTMÏÏWÏÏTTWf


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