The New York Times, June 22, 1997

By Lisa Rauschart
Special to The Washington Times

The question "Who am I?" has been a central concern of many artists in the 20th century. For artists who attempt to create under repressive regimes, such questions often go unanswered.

The state, rather than the artist, superimposes a response based on a sense of national rather than individual identity. Such was the case in the former Soviet Union, which dictated both style and content of contemporary art for decades.

A new exhibition, "Here and There, Then and Now: Contemporary Artists From the Former Soviet Union:' opening tonight at the B'nai B'rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum, explores the search for identity in the works of 12 major figures in the nonconformist movement that existed underground in the years before perestroika. Ten of the artists are Jewish. 1Wo are Russians who often use Jewish themes. Of the 12, all but two have immigrated to the United States or to other European countries.
For the exhibition, which was three years in the making, Alexandre Gertsman, director of the Society for the Advancement of Understanding Postmodernist Russian Art (SAUPRA) in New York City, amassed a collection of works that encompasses a wide range of artistic expression. ''Artists could accept new ideas but not show them officially:' says Mr. Gertsman. "Under the old regime, there is a loss of identity, both as an artist and as a Jew. It's the underlying theme of the exhibition."

''Artists from the former Soviet Union often speak of the 'two-world condition" adds Ori Z. Soltes, co-curator of the exhibition. "You could do what is officially acceptable, or you could do what is necessary to do for your soul. Only a few could keep a foot in both worlds."

For Jewish artists, the two-world condition was compounded by the reality of one's Judaism, considered unfavorable by the larger Soviet society. "You could call, that the third world condition:' continues Mr. Soltes. "How does your Judaism fit in."

Many of the pieces are not recognizably Jewish in theme. Others contain Jewish BenefitBenefit
references so clouded that they can only be recognized by those familiar with the language. The omnipresent pomegranates that replace people in the works of Vitally Dlugy at first seem perhaps symbols of fertility. But for those versed in Judaism, the pomegranates exist as clear references to the Thlmud, whose 613 precepts echo the number of seeds found in the fruit.

For non-Jewish artists, references to Jewish themes became a way to articulate their own struggle for a separate artistic identity. Works such as those of Russian artist Natalya Nesterova are "obviously and directly Jewish:' Mr. Soltes says. Herpieces often reveal the quiet, contemplative moments in the life of a Jew - a portrait of a Hasidic man reading in New York's Central Park, for example, or a similar scene at the Jewish Memorial in Paris. "It shows a respect for Jewish culture,” adds Mr. Gertsman.