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Poster art exhibit recalls end of Soviet era

'Deconstructing Perestroika' at the Craft and Folk Art Museum is a collection of images mostly made when Mikhail Gorbachev's policies brought a wave of free expression.

February 19, 2012|By Suzanne Muchnic, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • "The Great Appear Great to Us Because We Ourselves Are Standing on Our Knees" (1990).
"The Great Appear Great to Us Because We Ourselves Are Standing on… ( Wende Museum )

Remember perestroika? It's back — in an exhibition of political poster art.

"Deconstructing Perestroika: Soviet Ideology and its Discontents," at the Craft and Folk Art Museum through May 6, offers 24 original versions of posters neatly lined up on walls. But the hard-hitting images are unruly blasts from the Soviet past. Mostly made from 1987 to 1991, they reflect the period when Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) produced a storm of artistic free expression.

The hand-painted and collaged poster designs known in Russian as avtorskii plakat sprang from traditional Soviet agitprop, says exhibition curator Ljiljana Grubisic, who oversees collections and public programs at the Wende Museum and Archive of the Cold War, a nonprofit institution with headquarters in Culver City. But the featured artists expressed their own aesthetic preferences and moral agendas, she says.

In "Our Road to Communism," Aleksei A. Rezaev summarizes Soviet history as a Tower of Babel. Another of his posters depicts Joseph Stalin as a meat grinder, pulverizing his countrymen. And in "AIDS-No," the artist transforms a famous sculptural duo, "Worker and Collective Farm Woman" by Vera Mukhina, into a young couple valiantly fighting the AIDS epidemic. They brandish a hammer and sickle, Soviet-propaganda style, while distributing condoms with their free hands.

One of Aleksandr Amelin's works, "The Specter Is Haunting…," is a composite mug shot constructed from sliced images of Stalin, Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and Leonid Brezhnev. A.P. Utkin's portrayal of a broken commemorative plate ringed with the warning "He Who Doesn't Work, Doesn't Eat" recalls a grim reality of Communist communal life. In "Party Comrades," Aleksandr G. Vaganov pictures Stalin and Adolf Hitler handcuffed together as proud partners in crime.

All the works come from a collection amassed by the late Thomas J. Ferris, a longtime teacher of history and Russian studies at Beverly Hills High School, and his wife, writer Jeri Ferris. The Wende Museum acquired the 234 pieces in 2008.

Grubisic selected a sampling of the strongest images, most of which criticize Soviet founding fathers. But Gorbachev didn't escape unscathed. In "Inflated Reformer," a Rezaev work made in 1992, after the USSR collapsed, Gorbachev floats away from the nation he once led on balloons of failed reform.

The show also includes severed heads of monumental statues of Lenin, strewn around the floor. "The point," Grubisic says, "was to provide a gesture similar to those in actual parks of fallen heads of states that popped up in the former Soviet bloc."

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