Organizational problems impair effect of 'Photo Manifesto' exhibit


Look for the city's new Museum for Contemporary Arts and you'll always find it in a different place. Until plans for a permanent home of its own coalesce, this museum will stage exhibits at unlikely sites around town.

There was an AIDS-themed exhibit mounted in the empty, vandalized Famous Ballroom last winter, and now there is an exhibit of Soviet photography in the former Greyhound Service Terminal downtown. Unlike the usual white-walled, antiseptic museum-going experience, these looming venues make you reconsider your notions of where art should be displayed.

"Photo Manifesto: Contemporary Photography in the U.S.S.R.," an exhibit tied into a new book on the subject, takes over that former bus barn much as many exhibits in the gallery-poor Soviet Union take over whatever large and often industrial spaces they can. The bus barn is a 1941 art moderne structure with few architectural frills, but its spaciousness and its skylight-topped ceiling make it suitable for all the rows of wire mesh screens that have been brought in as the industrial aesthetic-evocative backdrops for the photographs.

Although this show is an admirable opportunity to see the work of today's Soviet photographers and to see it in such an unusual setting, there are some basic organizational problems that really impair its effectiveness. Tighter editing would have cut down on the intimidating number of photos on display, and on their uneven quality. Also, the show's organization by geographical region of the U.S.S.R. doesn't illuminate. It would have been more effective to group the photos according to criteria of style or subject matter.

What does come through in the show is that Soviet photographers are open to experimentation, although much of their work is firmly in the spirit of what their revolutionary elders did in the 1920s. The exhibit opens with photographs by one of those figures from the '20s, Alexander Rodchenko, by way of setting the historical framework. At the end of the show one can see how current members of the Rodchenko family are still experimenting in the same studio, as in Varvara Rodchenko's "Portrait of the Granddaughter."

Directly alluding to the concerns of Soviet revolutionary era art is Yury Matreev's sequence of black-and-white photographs, "Black Square," which spins variations on the idealized geometry of Constructivist art from the early 20th century.

If some of the photographers carry on that formalist artistic heritage, others carry on in a black-and-white documentary tradition recording life in this communist nation, and yet others come up with mergers of those parallel traditions. Igor V. Savchenko has a black-and-white photo featuring two seated women, for instance, that seems like a straightforward documentary-style shot. However, the women's faces have been covered over with bright yellow blurs as if Savchenko were echoing the work of the contemporary American photographer John Baldessari, who gives us human subjects while denying us knowledge of their faces.

Overall, it's the documentary more than the experimental photographs that really register in this exhibit. This may not be a matter of relative merit so much as that we're all curious to see what life is like in that suddenly tumultuous country.

Some photographs give the impression that for all the governmental changes and sense of impending chaos, the essential Russian character is as implacable as in any 19th century Russian novel. Valery Stigneev's "Three Generations" and "Old Women of Suzdal," Valery Krupsky's "Women Sitting" and Ludmila Ivanova's series about orthodox rites, "The Cathedral," convince us that the old Russian ways -- and the old Russian women -- endure.

Other photos let us know that if anything it is the communist order that will prove transitory. Just consider how many photographers slyly use Lenin as a subject who is now questioned more than venerated. Andrey Chegin's untitled sequence of three photos feature a giant portrait of Lenin near a housing project; by the third photo the portrait is gone. Valery Potapov's "Architecture with a Portrait" depicts a partly demolished building that still has a poster of Lenin on a wall. And Igor Stomachin's "GUM Department Store" presents an array of Lenin busts that one suspects will go unsold.

"Photo Manifesto: Contemporary Photography in the U.S.S.R" remains in the former Greyhound Service Terminal, at Centre Street and Park Avenue, through June 21. Hours are noon-6 p.m. daily. For more information, call 462-3515.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad