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Sharing a rare collection of Russian art

Sunday, March 12, 2000

By Dave Zuchowski

The exhibition of 51 pieces of Russian contemporary art on display this month at the Reed Arts Center at California University of Pennsylvania represents a rare collection.

"You might get to see a single work of contemporary Russian art in a gallery somewhere, but rarely will you see so many pieces at one time in a single setting," says Igor Roussanoff, facility manager and costumer for the theater department at Cal U.

The works of the nine Russian artists featured in the exhibition were collected over the past 20 years by Roussanoff, an internationally respected ballet and theater costume designer.

Much to his peril, Roussanoff staged private exhibitions in his homes in Kiev and Moscow at a time when many artists who didn't follow the Communist regime's rigid formula were often imprisoned, killed or exiled.

"This exhibit is important to me because it's art from the closet," he says of the works that deviated from the officially sanctioned formula.

Roussanoff puts his collection in context beginning with what he calls "the Golden Age of Russian Art," which extends from the end of the 19th century to the early 1920s when the Soviet government implemented its socialist arts program. Under the new policies, art was to deal with subject matter that glorified the proletariat, factory life, and collective agriculture. Everything else was banned.

"Under Stalin, art was the last element of society to come under governmental control," says Roussanoff. " Constructivism was initially approved by the regime as a way of breaking the modalities of the czarist era, but Western art was declared decadent."

Constructivism, a non-representational style of art developed in the early 20th century by a group of Russian artists, is characterized by a severely formal organization of mass, volume, and space and by the employment of modern industrial materials.

During the Stalin era, which Roussanoff calls "the Age of Darkness," artists had to change their style or risk imprisonment in jails or concentration camps or execution. It was a dangerous time when artists were forced to embrace social realism or suffer the consequences. Yet a small remnant of underground artists survived.

With the death of Stalin in 1953, Nikita Khruschev made a decision to loosen the state's repressive strictures and permit a "thaw" in intellectual ferment. By this time, however, many artists had been killed or had fled the country.

Even so, the 1960s heralded a movement of great art in the Soviet Union with the emergence of poets such as Yevgeny Yevtushenko, writers such as Boris Pasternak, composers such as Alfred Schnitke, and visual artists such as Ilya Kobakov.

Things took a turn for the worse with Leonid Brezhnev, a leader who Roussanoff says did not understand art. In 1973, he and his advisors once again banned "avant-garde art" and even went so far as to bulldoze a building where an exhibition of prohibited works was on display.

After that, the only exhibitions of art created outside the official sanctioned format were private affairs in salons, houses, and art studios. It was during this period that Roussanoff first began collecting and exhibiting contemporary Russian art.

Under Mikhail Gorbachev, a newer generation of artists emerged who began creating in a variety of styles. This broad spectrum is evident in Roussanoff's exhibition.

"Russian contemporary art differs from its American counterpart in that American art tends to be more abstract and information focused," says Laura DeFazio, professor of art at California University. "This particular exhibit is visually oriented with vivid colors and easily recognizable shapes and symbols. People walking in off the street with no education in contemporary art should find the art very stimulating."

Roussanoff, 43, left Russia in 1989 because of political difficulties. He arrived in New York with four boxes of sculpture, only a fraction of his art collection, and $10 in his pocket.

"I had to leave half my collection with friends in Russia," he says.

Even so, the remnant of his collection has been featured at exhibitions in a number of venues including the Ukrainian embassy in Washington, D.C., the Birmingham (Ala.) Art Association Gallery, and a gallery in the Soho district of Manhattan.

Since moving to Western Pennsylvania, Roussanoff has been involved with Associated Artists of California, a university arts organization. Not only has he shared his collection with the community at large, he's involved the students in the task of installing the art works in the exhibition. He's also sponsored a weekly screening of art films at California University or at his home in Charleroi.

"Artists need recognition," he says. "That's why I staged exhibitions in Russia and that's why I'm staging this one at Cal."

Russian Contemporary Art from the Private Collection of Igor Roussanoff will be at the Reed Arts Center, Room 114, at California University of Pennsylvania through March 28. Viewing hours are 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays. Call 724-938-4182.

Dave Zuchowski is a free-lance writer.

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