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MUGS BY A MUSCOVITE : A Russian's Cartoons of America's Notables and Notorious Are on View in Irvine

February 11, 1993|RICK VANDERKNYFF | Rick VanderKnyff is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition.

Two years ago, Roman Genn was hawking his comic renderings of Soviet political figures on the streets of Moscow. Today, his caricatures of such American faces as Bill Clinton, George Bush and Magic Johnson regularly grace the letters-to-the-editor column of the Los Angeles Times.

Genn's odyssey between those two points is a tale marked by both video-age good luck and old-fashioned perseverance. Examples of his work, starting with his days in the then-Soviet Union, are on display through Feb. 19 at Irvine Valley College in Irvine.

In 1990, KCET-TV "Videolog" host Huell Howser went to Moscow, met Genn on the street, and included a short segment on the young caricaturist and his mother, Ludmilla, in a one-hour public television special. Donald W. Pine, then editor of the Easy Reader in Hermosa Beach, saw the special, contacted Genn, and began featuring his work alongside that of U.S. cartoonist Matt Wuerker in a regular feature called "Cartoon Wars."

Meanwhile, back home, Genn's work was getting him into hot water despite the advances of glasnost. He did manage to get a few pieces published in the official press, but mostly the risk wasn't worth the effort: "Editors were yelling at me when I brought things in," he recalled during a recent telephone interview, "so I didn't try very hard."

In June, 1991, Genn and his mother emigrated to Los Angeles, with help from a synagogue there and from Pine. After a month in this country, Genn again began trying to sell his work and almost immediately The Times bought a piece, relating to the attempted coup in the U.S.S.R.

But after that, Genn said, "it took a long time to sell something else"--eight months, in fact. Still, he would visit The Times offices weekly. At one point Jeff Horn, an art instructor from Irvine Valley College who himself was visiting the newspaper, saw Genn's work there and asked about him.

"I was really taken with this caricature of Reagan," Horn remembers. "I didn't know the background at all. . . . My initial excitement was that the drawing was so good." When he met Genn and learned his story, he was even more impressed--first, that Genn was doing successful political caricatures after such a short time in the United States, and second, by Genn's age (he is 20).

Horn decided to mount a show of Genn's work at the college, in the hallway gallery of the school's arts building. He felt "it would be a great lesson in perseverance and stick-to-itiveness for my students. He's their age. It's especially interesting that this lesson should come from a Russian."

When asked if it took a long time to understand the American political system, Genn said, "I don't understand it, even now!" Actually, he is staying away from political cartoons as such, but in his caricatures, he has honed in quickly on personalities from U.S. public life.

Some prove more difficult than others. Vice President Al Gore is particularly tough for lack of any unusual physical features, Genn says. But he does have his favorites: "I like (failed senatorial candidate Bruce) Herschensohn, (former President Richard M.) Nixon. The scarier the person, the better for me."

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