Russian Art for Texas

From Russia, with love

By Patricia C. Johnson, Houston Chronicle
Posted on Sunday, June 2, 1996

A small window opened between Houston and the city of Ekaterinburg in Russia when a handful of visitors from the former Soviet Union visited earlier this month. Tamara Galeeva, Valentina Grigoryeva, Alex Karavayev, Viktor Maynov and Venjamin Stepanov were invited by the Art League of Houston, in conjunction with its exhibition Russian Art for Texas.

The current exhibit is the second half of an art exchange organized by Frank Williams, an artist from Houston who’s been living in Russia since 1993. The first show featured Houston artists in the Russian cities.

The five visitors described, through translations by Grigoryeva, the community of artists in their home base of 1.5 million since Perestroika. Located at the southern edge of Ural Mountains, the biggest change in Ekaterinburg has been from its status as a forbidden city – center of the Soviet defense industry and closed to everyone – to one that welcome tourists, including foreigners. The artists’ community has changed dramatically as well.

Maynov owns one of the few independent galleries that represents contemporary artists. He opened White Gallery four years ago in a space inside the city’s art academy, but though he cooperates with the academic program, hosting lectures and workshops, for instance, he is free to organize exhibitions and other activities of interest to himself and his artists.

Stepanov, president of the artists’ union, explained that under communism, the union represented the government-sanctioned artists who were the only ones permitted to exhibit and to have access to materials. In today’s society, though, without official censors, the union, which in Ekaterinburg has dropped from about 1,000 to some 200 members, appears to be more of a hangover from the past than an effective organization.

Galeeva is an art historian and critic affiliated with the University of Ekaterinburg. She explained that the work on view now at the Art League was limited to small works on paper because of the difficulty of transporting large works, and also the reluctance of other important artists to send work without adequate insurance. She offered a select group of slides, however, by some of the artists she called the "best in the country", to add dimensions of style and subject matter. In a range from abstract to realist, landscape to portraits, the highlight was images that dealt with Western mythology and religious subjects – both subjects taboo under the communist regime but now finding widespread appeal.

The last member of the group, Karavayev, represented Uniland Corporation, which is sponsoring a new exhibition of prints by three of the league’s Texas Artists of the year – Karin Broker, Lucas Johnson and George Krause – scheduled to open at the University of Ekaterinburg on July 4. Uniland, he explained, is a cooperative wholesaler/distributor based in Ekaterinburg which handles products ranging from cosmetics to household cleaners by companies in United States, Sweden, Germany and other European countries.

The exhibit Russian Art for Texas remains on view through June 7.


© Frank Williams. All Rights Reserved.