Sunday, November 8, 2009

On the surface, the pairing of artworks by South African William Kentridge and Russian Oleg Kudryashov at the Kreeger Museum seems like a good match.

Both artists go “against the grain,” as the exhibit is titled, by bearing witness to the history of oppression within their native lands through sketchy scenes. Most of the approximately four dozen works on view are 1990s prints owned by Washington-area collectors.

However, the similarities between the art of these two foreign talents turn out to be superficial in a bifurcated exhibition that is not really a comparative undertaking. Each artist gets his own gallery and curator: the National Gallery of Art’s Eric Denker organized the South African section of the show while his colleague Christopher Wirth arranged the Russian part.

The division immediately raises the question over which half of the exhibit offers the better art. From the wall text, the obscure Mr. Kudryashov sounds like he might produce interesting work, but “Against the Grain” shows that the overexposed Mr. Kentridge is clearly the more original talent.

At 54, the Johannesburg-based artist is a darling of the museum world — and with good reason. His prints and drawings address South Africa’s stain of apartheid but also the universal human condition through an accessible, representational style.

At the start of the show, Mr. Kentridge’s severed “Blue Head” could be a metaphor for the civil rights struggle. Criss-crossed strings across the face and neck suggest bondage yet the head’s upward tilt hints at defiance.

In counterpoint, his portrait of the “General” resembles a military figure from the ruling class. At a glance, both portraits are understood as representing opposing archetypes of protest and authoritarianism.

Mr. Kentridge often examines highly charged political subjects through depictions of himself as a kind of pudgy everyman. In “Sleeper Red,” his nude reclining body sprawls against a scarlet background to suggest the white somnolence and black rage of apartheid-era South Africa.

In a series of prints titled “Ubu Tells the Truth,” Mr. Kentridge pairs his self-portrait with a rotund cartoon character based on the despot in French writer Alfred Jarry’s satirical play “Ubu Roi.” The imagery was inspired by testimony given during the hearings held by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up by the South African government in 1995 to investigate human rights violations during apartheid.

Metamorphosis is a recurring theme in Mr. Kentridge’s work, suggesting hopefulness about political change. This process of transformation is best captured in the videos of his charcoal drawings.

The artist makes these projections by filming one of his hand-drawn images, erasing and redrawing parts of the scene and then filming the drawing again. In some of his sequences, smoke hardens into a typewriter, a stethoscope turns into a telephone and a woman flattens into a field.

Mr. Kentridge uses the morphing, soft-lined imagery to address his country’s racial oppression through poignant stories of loss and reconciliation. His art is political, but carried out in a subtle way.

The same can’t be said for the 77-year-old Mr. Kudryashov. His animated prints recycle artistic styles from his native Russia without nuance or reinvention.

The most visually enticing of his works are influenced by suprematism and constructivism, the abstract art hatched by Russian artists such as Vladimir Tatlin and Kasimir Malevich in the 1910s alongside the communist revolution. Mr. Kudryashov creates three-dimensional versions of their dynamic geometries by cutting his prints into shapes, lifting them off the surface of the paper and slotting the pieces into one another.

The resulting reliefs suggest models for larger sculptures or buildings, with crumpled paper inserted into some tubular forms to suggest smoke emanating from chimneys.

Unlike the prints made by Mr. Kentridge, the abstractions by Mr. Kudryashov don’t reflect the same heartfelt ties to his native land. The Russian made them during a 13-year exile in London, apparently ignoring constructivism’s close ties to early communism, a system which he escaped in 1974.

Mr. Kudryashov also creates figurative scenes influenced by another offshoot of Russian art, a folkloric style of print known as a lubok. In these large, messy works, a soldier dines with the devil, a man drags a doll across a moonlit landscape and a saint stops an execution.

Recalling disturbing experiences from Mr. Kudryashov’s childhood, the imagery is so filled with scratch marks as to be almost incoherent.

Russian icons also find their way into his work. One of his prints pictures the Madonna and Child as bright, haloed shapes within a border of scribbled scenes.

Mr. Kudryashov’s embrace of such varied traditions only makes him appear nostalgic for all things Russian. Mr. Kentridge, on the other hand, draws from his South African background to highlight human experience rather than national pride. Too bad more of the exhibit wasn’t given over to his worldly art.

WHAT: “Kentridge and Kudryashov: Against the Grain”
WHERE: Kreeger Museum, 2401 Foxhall Road NW
WHEN: 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday (reservations required); 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday (no reservations required); through Dec. 30
ADMISSION: $10 adults; $7 for students and seniors; free for age 12 and younger
PHONE: 202/337-3050

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