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Romanian, Russian expatriates conjure up mysteries of home

Saturday, October 03, 1998

By Mary Thomas, Post-Gazette Arts Writer

Two very different but equally engaging solo exhibitions of paintings by artists expatriated from Romania and Russia shed light on a part of Europe that for all of its touted recent openness remains mysterious.

The viewer doesn't have to be a fan of cloak-and-dagger politics to be seduced by the narrative quality of these gorgeously painted, lavishly detailed, representational works. One searches visual clues for messages encoded in scapes that are fantastical or all-too-real, and for insight about the mindset of the artists who are products of these cultural systems.

"The Paintings of Valentin Lustig" is at Carnegie Mellon University's Hewlett Gallery, in the College of Fine Arts, through Oct. 25. "Cruel Russia: Recent Paintings by Vadim Bjasso" is at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, 6300 Fifth Ave., Shadyside, through Nov. 1.

Lustig was born in Romania in 1955, emigrated with his family to Israel where he completed high school, and now lives in Switzerland. The 11 paintings shown are on loan from private collections, including that of Edith Balas, CMU professor of art history and curator of the exhibition.

Balas contextualizes Lustig's fanciful, dreamy compositions stylistically within magic realism, a juxtapositioning of the empirical and the improbable often seen in Latin film and literature.

They have the quality of scenes from fairy tales and are heavily infused with folkloric, religious and art historical references.

For example, in "The Parable of the Overcrowded Pool," figures, including a nude with cane and a slippered camel, gather around a depression populated by Hieronymus Boschean creatures in a romantic landscape seemingly informed by Lewis Carroll. Overhead a plain child on a rope swing makes mocking reference to Jean Honore Fragonard's salacious "The Swing."

Lustig's people are for the most part observers who express enigmatic contentment. Human and animal groupings call to mind Eden; it is change and transition, the co-opting of tradition, that upsets the harmony.

A recurring motif is a figure, statue gray in color and overburdened with suitcases, who solemnly strides through or towers over colorful, placid scenes. Could this be a reference to the alienation produced by a global embrace of modernity, a redefined central Europe, or a young Lustig pulled from his homeland?

The subjects in Bjasso's 10 paintings, in contrast, are almost all inanimate goods, appropriate because his text is the corruption that accompanied the shift in Soviet society from Communism to capitalism. Born in Kazan, Russia, he lives in Barcelona. This is his first exhibition in the United States.

His scathing, painstakingly ultra-realistic depictions of a fast-paced, winner-takes-all world of money and power - leather, liquor, drugs and guns - are convincing and chilling. A woman's black lace undergarments hang on a sauna peg next to a male uniform and suitcoat. An assassin's rifle lies disassembled for cleaning on a table between tropical fish and religious icons. U.S. currency arrives at a general's home in plain brown wrapping and floats in a tide of blood that submerges cultural institutions.

Almost impossible to look at - especially knowing that these are all based in actuality - is a still life on an elegant marble table that includes a picture of a young girl and a ghoulish delivery in a gift-wrapped box.

Neither is history spared. "Coming of the Antichrist to Russia" has Lenin and Stalin atop gigantic rats leading a rodent army out of "Star Wars" across a dark, wintry landscape with burning church in the background.

These 21 paintings, as a body or separately, disturb, gratify and give much to ponder.

Lustig will give a free lecture Oct. 23, 6 p.m., McConomy Auditorium in CMU's University Center.

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