ART REVIEW : 'Unofficial' Soviet Artists Paint a Spirited Picture of Persistence : Soviet Art: They are engineers and furnace-stokers, who choose to create artworks without being members of the official Artists Union. It's the price they pay to be independent.

Like snapshots of a state of mind, two small images in the exhibition, "Contemporary Art from Leningrad," capture the essence of the Soviet artist's enterprise.

Vladimir Shinkarov's painting, "Suite of Grief--One Man Dancing," shows a bare room with brown floor, olive walls and gray ceiling. A single bulb dangles from its cord, illuminating the room's sole occupant, a man whose lumbering frame is bent at the waist, his arms outstretched, one thick leg slightly raised. Though oafish, the dance breaks the gloomy spell cast by the dank environment. It signals release, expressive freedom and the persistence of spirit of those whose conditions would seem to stifle such gestures.

In Valentine Gerasimenko's etching, "Russian Dance," this contrast between the bleak and the ebullient resounds again. Here, three figures silhouetted in gray and black stand on a stark gray field, staring and motioning toward a spectacle in the sky. There, against a faint gray grid, leaps a majestic figure in red, blue and gold. His hair flutters and his wings of feathers and flaming patterns hold him aloft as he grips a palette in one hand and paintbrushes in the other. Like Shinkarov's dancing man, this one, too, revels in his unfettered expression, a burst of life and color within a still, empty landscape.

Despite the thawing effects of glasnost and perestroika , the conditions of life in the Soviet Union remain remote and mysterious to most Americans. The work in "Contemporary Art from Leningrad: The Fellowship for Experimental Art" derives much of its power from an understanding of its context, but such striking metaphoric images as Shinkarov's and Gerasimenko's transcend any lapses in information. Creation, color, movement and imagination will persist, they say, even in the most stagnant, gray surroundings.

As non-members of the Soviet Union's official Artists Union, the artists in this show--which is shared by the David Zapf Gallery (2400 Kettner Blvd., through Dec. 2) and the San Diego Mesa College Art Gallery (through Nov. 29)--are acutely aware of the value of persistence. Without membership in the union, they cannot be considered professional artists, and their incomes are not secured by the union's support of their art. Several in the show here work as furnace-stokers, engineers and poster designers to be able to pursue their art independently.

They belong to the Fellowship for Experimental Art, a group established in Leningrad in 1981 to demonstrate, through exhibitions of members' work, that significant art is being made outside of the official union. This show, an "unofficial" offering of San Diego's Soviet arts festival, confirms that fact through a diverse display of paintings--reverent, violent, melancholy and bittersweet, abstract, representational, crude and refined.

Lenina Nikitina's painting, "Famine," pits needy against needy, with one woman's outstretched, empty hand answered by another's. A deep blackness swallows the figures, leaving them to suffer in a featureless abyss. In "Corpses," Nikitina shifts from deep, jarring colors to a somber, dusty palette to match the mood of the quiet march to bury the dead.

Nikitina's paintings bear the haunting legacy of World War II, during which Leningrad succumbed to a devastating siege. They also serve as a requiem for the artist's mother and sister, who died of starvation during the war.

The theme of the prodigal son surfaces twice in this show, once in vague, generalized terms and once in a specific, contemporary context. In Elena Figurina's painting, "Return of the Prodigal Son," the wayward young man lies face down, lifeless, on a solid green ground. Five figures in red stand above him in various postures of mourning, sadness and above all, helplessness.

Kiril Miller's painting of the same name updates the biblical tale, casting the son as a punk, complete with safety pin earring and studded leather wristband. In another twist on tradition, the son here finds solace in the welcoming embrace of his mother, while his father looks on with an expression of disapproval and mild disgust.

Societal tensions are also implied in the "Heroes Don't Die Series" of Inal Savchenkov and in Vladimir Shinkarov's sketchy vignettes of vodka drinkers and unmotivated workers.

Other works in the show owe their intensity to the strength of their color or composition, rather than their social content. Dmitri Shagin's small landscape painting, "Three Trees," contrasts the deep, brooding colors of the land with the luminous gold of church domes, visible through equally brilliant yellow foliage. In "Lonely Horse," Valentin Savchenko splits the canvas down the middle and flattens the space on either side, giving a slight visual tension to his poignant view of a white horse on a blood red field.

The most complex and arresting painting in the show, however, is aggressive in both form and content. Named after the ancient Roman emperor, Vyacheslav Afonichev's "Nero" sets the depraved leader on a plateau overlooking his burning city. With one eye ringed in red, the other a blank white dash rimmed in black, and his mouth a grotesque red lozenge framing a dense grid of teeth, the emperor looks crazed and demented. His arms are outstretched but seem to be propped up by thin black rods, and he stands, puppet-like, the balls of his feet just barely scraping the ground.

A fury of destruction and despair rages below. Gaping mouths and desperate arms appeal to a fiery sky as buildings burn and ladders falter. Afonichev quotes from Picasso's monumental painting of the bombing of the Spanish village of Guernica to convey the pain of innocents at the hand of evil. Like Picasso, Afonichev refers to a specific historical incident but creates an image with timeless, terrifying power.

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