Roman Genn’s refined palette

MOSCOW-BORN, Los Angeles-based artist Roman Genn has come a long way from drawing Communist propaganda cartoons as child. His incisive caricatures have appeared in magazines and newspapers across the country, often generating controversy with what he’s called the “ethnic grievance industry.” Now the libertarian-leaning artist has created a series of paintings of political figures from the past and is working on a group of portraits of U.S. presidents to exhibit in September at the James Gray Gallery in Santa Monica. Opinion talked to him last week.

Why did you make the switch from caricatures to paintings?

I was bored. Editors were very specific about not wanting me to do caricatures that are critical. They don’t want to offend anybody, so they asked me to draw faces with no offensive features — like a head shot. For one assignment, I was told that Leni Riefenstahl was not technically a member of the Nazi party, so it would not be appropriate to depict her as a storm trooper. So there is no satire! I find that appalling. But nobody can stop me in my own studio. That’s what led me to painting.

How did you choose your subjects?

I looked for people I liked, difficult people with brilliance to them, who were nonetheless in service to both good and evil. Like Albert Einstein, for example, who felt horrible about his contribution to the atomic bomb, which was relative at best. Or [Chilean poet] Pablo Neruda. The Times ran a story by Ariel Dorfman that said his “verses howl against terror.” I thought, are you nuts?

We all remember history differently. History was kind to Neruda, way kinder than it should have been. But as someone who had the pleasure of living in a Communist regime, I cannot sympathize with him in any way. I painted Neruda hoping perhaps to show people that Neruda collaborated with homicidal Stalinist maniacs.

Your paintings feature historically significant objects and places. How do you decide what to include?

I harass historians, writers and soldiers, and I grab as much information as I can. I search antique shops and EBay — I have this big collection of junk. As I was painting the Neruda, I stumbled across a story in the New Yorker by Michael Specter, who recalled how Neruda would wave a red flag on the shore whenever he wanted fresh lobsters. Very proletarian of him, don’t you think? That gave me the idea to put lobster legs in his hands. Neruda also won the International Stalin Peace Prize — which is really an oxymoron, come to think of it — so I found a domestic version of it on EBay and very carefully rendered it, and stuck it on his collar. That’s Stalin’s shadow in the background, and I’ve put Neruda in a weird S&M basement because essentially that’s what these great humanitarians were doing to humanity. Neruda for most of his life faithfully praised a regime that was terrorizing and murdering innocent people.

How about Churchill?

Winston Churchill was a bad student — that fact certainly endeared him to me. He once said that an appeaser is someone who feeds a crocodile hoping he’ll be eaten last. So I painted him fighting a crocodile.

With Ariel Sharon, I interviewed his soldiers, his driver and the presiding judge in his lawsuit against Time magazine. The judge, Abraham D. Sofaer, told me that Sharon “was a warrior, and had the capacity to kill and die that great warriors possess,” but also that he had humor and charm. One of his paratroopers told me that what people didn’t understand about Sharon was that he was quite open, so I painted him with open armor, a disregard for danger. More than once I heard his men call him “the king,” so I put the Tower of David behind him and gave him a 17th century club with which to defend his people.

Which artists influenced your style?

The cavemen. They had an astonishing ability to capture movement. I’m more influenced by writers, though — they guide you with their wisdom. And painting you learn from life. It’s less about style and more about what I’m trying to say.