At first glance, it’s hard to understand why Joan Belmar hid his “America” series for 13 years. The collaged paintings are mostly abstract, and the childlike images etched into or drawn atop the paint don’t seem especially controversial. The simple outlines of feet and airplanes testify to travel, exile and rootlessness, and even the more ominous shapes — a gun, a jackboot — aren’t necessarily political. But the Chilean artist wasn’t a U.S. citizen when he made these works, and he decided it was better not to show them until he became one. (That happened in 2010.) After all, one of the paintings is titled as a tribute to Victor Jara, the singer-songwriter executed during Chile’s U.S.-backed 1973 coup.
The “America” paintings and a more recent series, “Tierra del Fuego,” are making their debut at Charles Krause/Reporting Fine Art. The newer work can be seen as more pointed, since it’s about the destruction of an indigenous people, the Selk’nam, who lived on the southern island divided between Chile and Argentina. Working from photographs taken in the 1920s, Belmar takes the dots and lines of the tribe’s body paint as visual motifs in paintings that (like the earlier ones) are mainly nonrepresentational. The artist boldly contrasts strong, clean black forms with areas of mottled, dripped tan and brown, evoking both the Selk’nam and the land where they once lived. Such pieces as “Reforma #1” are evocative but also powerful as sheer design.
The earlier paintings, made between 1999 and 2006, are messier and more thickly textured. Their many circular shapes foretell the tubular sculpture Belmar was to make before returning to painting for the “Tierra del Fuego” sequence. Although the “America” works draw on New York’s abstract expressionism, they also evoke Spanish painting, notably Joan Miro, for whom the artist is named. The references to Belmar’s new homeland can be skeptical — a dollar bill is collaged into “They Want Money?” — but also upbeat. “Trip to the Moon” expresses Belmar’s hopes for a new life with vivid blues and cloudlike swirls of white paper collaged into the paint. This vision of a new day seems too assured to be the work of a man who was looking anxiously over his shoulder.
Another secret painter, Nikolai Getman spent decades privately documenting the eight years he was imprisoned in one of Stalin’s Siberian gulags. The Ukrainian artist was released in 1953 but didn’t exhibit the 50 canvases in “The Gulag Collection” until after the Soviet Union dissolved. Even then, Getman worried about the paintings’ longtime survival. So they were moved to the United States in 1997, seven years before Getman’s death. Fifteen of the pictures, all of which now belong to the Heritage Foundation, are currently on display at George Mason University’s Atrium Gallery.
Getman’s paintings depict emaciated corpses, piles of bones and above-ground burials in the permafrost. The artist’s style is expressionist, with bold brush strokes and simplified color schemes, but sufficiently representational to be classified as a dissident subset of Socialist Realism. The various ethnicities of the inmates, who include Japanese prisoners of war, are evident. The layouts of fences, roads and buildings are depicted precisely, and the release papers in a former prisoner’s hands in a painting titled “Rehabilitated” are genuine. They’re the artist’s own.