Kreeger Museum Presents 'Kentridge and Kudryashov: Against the Grain'

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 16, 2009

The two ingredients in the Kreeger Museum's "Kentridge and Kudryashov: Against the Grain" may share equal billing on the menu -- along with certain complementary flavors -- but the meal itself is a little like eating dinner in a steakhouse. You go for the sirloin, but you eat the broccoli because it's good for you.

So where's the beef?

William Kentridge, of course, is the show's main draw. At 55, the white South African is most famous for guilt-tinged video animations that pick at the scabs of his country's history of racial oppression. (His reputation was solidified with a 2001 retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.)

Oleg Kudryashov -- a 77-year-old Russian who came of age during an era of state-sanctioned socialist realism, then moved to London from 1974 to 1998 to escape it, only returning home after the fall of communism -- has a considerably lower profile.

There's a reason for that.

It can't entirely be blamed on the fact that Kudryashov is bad at self-promotion, as curator Chris With, who organized the Russian half of the show, claims. Nor does it have all that much to do with the fact that Kentridge's prints are more widely available, as Eric Denker, who put together the South African part, argues. The South African's art is, let's face it, a lot more tasty.

That, at least, is the unintended consequence of "Against the Grain." If, as Denker says, visitors to the Kreeger will "come to see William Kentridge, and then discover Oleg Kudryashov," what they'll discover is an artist whose work -- laid out for a taste test with Kentridge's, in two adjoining galleries -- lacks the zest of his cohort.

Not that Kentridge makes feel-good art. Far from it. Both artists bristle at the worlds they grew up missing. But each artist expresses his contrarian streak in a different way. In Kentridge's case, his art navigates a path between the highly personal and the universal. His pictures throb with anger over apartheid and hurt at his own race's complicity. In "Sleeper Red" -- one of a series of nude self-portraits -- you can feel the mourning and the blood-red rage.

Kudryashov's art possesses a wild, if abstract energy, too, yet it's never quite clear what he's so worked up about. Russian soldiers appear here and there in his pictures (the artist served in the army in the mid-1950s), and an amputee clutching a bottle shows up in the 1984 "Coronation." But most of his images, or at least what's on view at the Kreeger, are incoherent stews of geometric abstraction and violent scratch marks.

Kudryashov may offer viewers greater nutritional value than the more familiar Kentridge. After all, isn't it always good to learn about something new? At the same time, just because something's good for you doesn't mean you have to like it.

Kentridge and Kudryashov: Against the Grain Through Dec. 30 at the Kreeger Museum, 2401 Foxhall Rd. NW Contact: 202-337-3050. Hours: Exhibit open Tuesday-Friday at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. as part of the museum's regularly scheduled tours (reservations required), or Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., without reservations. On Saturdays, optional guided tours are at 10:30 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. Call 202-338-3552 for reservations. Admission: $10; $7 for students and seniors; free for age 12 and younger. Program: On Thursday at 6:30 p.m., Milena Kalinovska, director of public programs at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, will moderate a discussion of the artists' work with the exhibition curators and Robert Brown, a collector and art dealer known for championing the work of Kentridge and Kudryashov. $12. Call 202-338-3552 for reservations.

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