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East Meets East in Fullerton

Art review: Dual CSUF exhibit features Orthodox iconography and a far superior collection of selected Polish works. Both were curated by graduate students.

February 13, 1996|CATHY CURTIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FULLERTON — Eastern European art of two very different kinds is the subject of two fleeting exhibitions at Cal State Fullerton, both of which close Thursday.

Each is intriguing in a different way, although the quality of the work in "A Moment of Congruency: Selected Polish Art From the MOCA (Los Angeles) Collection," in the university's West Gallery, is by far superior.

Curator Ewa Kirsch, a Polish native enrolled in the CSUF graduate museum studies program, has resurrected a portion of a virtually forgotten MOCA exhibition from the early '80s that became part of MOCA's permanent collection.

The 15 artists in the show, born into an intensely intellectual culture that had become isolated from the West under Communist rule, pursued styles primarily related to geometric abstraction. Building on the legacy of Dutch nonobjective painter Piet Mondrian, most of them offered quiet meditations on variation within a given system, and the dual forces of choice and chance.

The most famous of these artists--in Europe, at least--was Henryk Stazewski. Born in 1894, he was part of the first wave of the Polish avant-garde in the 1920s. By the 1970s--the period of his work included in the show--Stazewski was exploring subtle color progressions or relief projections in modular series of painted squares of Masonite.

This work is at once "universal" in its stress on geometric form and "particular" in its sensitivity to delicate chromatic nuances or the way the eye distinguishes relatively flat or protruding shapes.

Zbigniew Gostomski, who came of age more than a generation after Stazewski, was similarly concerned with modular compositions in the 1970s. In "Tapisserie," a sequence of fringed pieces of burlap mounted on the wall in different ways, he used the crease marks in the fabric as built-in grids and the fringe as an anarchic variable.

Zdislaw Jurkiewicz's "Drawing in the Bathroom"--a photograph of a sharply right-angled black line that issues from a dirty bathtub and disappears down the drain--reeks of black humor. Executed in the most private room in the house, this scrap of abstraction scuttles into the murky depths before it can be condemned by officialdom.

One of the most subtly appealing projects is Tomasz Osinski's "Reconstruction," from 1982, the centerpiece of which is a fanciful large-scale ink drawing of a tree with branches growing into elegant curlicues and elongated spires.

Osinski labeled the hacked-off branches of a real, uprooted tree trunk to correspond with smaller pencil sketches showing how the tree actually might have assumed such fairy-tale dimensions.

The imagery may have had a special resonance for Poles bitterly accustomed to being force-fed with Communist diktats and distortions of history. In 1982, the country was at an ebb, with liberties severely curtailed under martial law, and the official yearlong suspension of the free trade union, Solidarity.

Uprooted from its traditional patterns and impeded from normal areas of growth, Polish culture itself took refuge in elaborate metaphysical fantasies as a hedge against utter despair.

It's a pity that this show, which was fitted cleverly into a small space, does not have more supporting materials discussing the situation in Poland in the 1970s and early '80s, and the backgrounds and viewpoints of the artists, who doubtless would have had a larger international audience had politics not intervened.

*

The exhibition in the university's East Gallery is "Theology in Color: Eastern Orthodox Iconography," curated by museum studies graduate student Rebecca Hernandez.

Its main virtue is to demonstrate how the stylized mannerisms of traditional icon painting from the Byzantine era are incorporated in contemporary devotional paintings made for Eastern Orthodox communities in Eastern Europe and the U.S.

Unintentionally, however, the exhibition also demonstrates that no matter how devout the intention or how zealously retained are certain age-old techniques, contemporary icons can be as lifeless as an illustration on an Easter greeting card.

The birth of an artistic style is shaped by prevailing needs and limitations; to continue to work in the same manner nearly a millennium later--after countless stylistic revolutions and cultural upheavals--almost certainly means consigning yourself to bland, inexpressive imitation or awkward eclecticism.

The small paintings in traditional tempera or acrylic, with gold leaf, are of standard subjects. Christ the Pantocrator (the almighty ruler of the universe) sternly foreshadows his appearance at the Last Judgment. The Archangel Michael, the captain of the angelic hosts who fought off Satan's troops to protect mankind, poses in the full flush of youth and beauty.

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