YOU COULD go to prison for this in Russia," said emigre' artists Rimma and Valery Gerlovin, who now reside in the relative safety of New York's SoHo.
The organizers of "Russian Samizdat," the show of self-published books and other works by contemporary Russian artists now at the WPA's bookshop, were pointing to the patriotic Soviet posters taped to the floor, part of an installation that underscores a recurrent theme in the works themselves: the throwing off and trampling of constraints.
Despite a persistent political undertow, however, this is a show about art, not politics, though politics have surely given it form.
Looking like a library after a cyclone hit, "The First Russian Vagabond Reading Room in USA," as the show is subtitled, includes 100 highly imaginative handmade books, broadsides, photo-narratives and other "Samizdat" (self-published works) by 30 contemporary Russian artists, most of them emigre's, but a few still working inside the Soviet Union.
Most of the works are small, conceptual in form and often elusive to American eyes, though persistence reveals not only wit but extraordinary daring on the part of those artists who remain inside the USSR. One Moscow artist has actually taken a copy of the official government newspaper, Pravda, and transformed it, via collage, into a work titled "Prav-Dada," suggesting the dadaistic aspect to the "news" therein.
Could it be that such radical forms are tolerated in present-day Russia? They are not, say the Gerlovins, explaining that "Samizdat" art is small, portable and often letter-size for good reason: Though some works were brought out of Russia by the Gerlovins, others have come by mail.
"Russian artists have learned to be very subtle," says Rimma Gerlovin.
Thus, circumstances have given birth to these odd and intimate formats, as well as helped shape their content. Copies of one mysterious handbill, for example, strewn all over the floor, read: "Compressed Russian spirit concentrated in a black square . . . suitable for transplantation," carrying a message about the triumph of spirit. A yearning to communicate pervades all these works, from the small, roughly made books to the photo-documents of performances that took place in the Moscow woods.
From the Gerlovins, there are several works involving the viewer's participation, from characteristic, stick-figure-shaped sculpture made out of movable blocks with words written upon them, to snapshot pieces with interchangeable images. Such works make it possible for viewers to express their thoughts by communicating with the art itself, moving parts around to make their own comments. One could fairly surmise that such a form might have evolved in a place where intimate thoughts could not be expressed aloud.
Though the Gerlovins are busy making their own art, curating "Samizdat" exhibitions and supporting themselves as painting conservators, they have also undertaken to publish a handmade, quarterly magazine titled "Collective Farm," the first three issues of which have made it into the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, and are on view (and on sale at $50 each) at the WPA bookshop. Each "issue" (in editions of 100) is meant to be a self-contained work of art (some are, some aren't), and each consists of a few dozen envelopes that act as exhibition "spaces" for collaborating artists from all over the world. Given the worldwide vitality in the field of artists' books these days, the publication is one to watch.
This traveling show, which attracted considerable attention when it opened at Franklin Furnace in New York last fall, will continue at WPA, corner of Seventh and D streets NW, through Jan. 15, after which it will travel to Richmond. Bookshop hours are 11 to 5 Saturdays, 11 to 6 Tuesdays through Fridays. Mythic Menagerie
On the subject of books and art of a more traditional sort, Quill & Brush, a wonderful, old-style Bethesda bookshop specializing in first and rare editions, has opened a gallery over its own new digs in Bethesda Square, 7649 Old Georgetown Rd. Currently on view are the wood engravings and etchings of well-known illustrator Alan James Robinson, who specializes in animals, real and imagined, though he has occasionally made the mistake of overextending himself in stiff and lifeless portraits of famous composers.
The show, which consists of drawings and prints relating to several deluxe editions, was assembled to mark the publication of Robinson's "Odd Bestiary," a "compendium of instructive and entertaining descriptions of animals culled from five centuries," among them enchanting unicorns, griffins and dodo birds. An inexpensive poster depicting several of them has been published, along with separate prints, all available in small, signed editions at modest prices (mostly under $100.) From the point of view of art, however, Robinson's most powerful images are those relating to his series "The Great Whales." The show continues through Jan. 31. Hours are 10 to 8 Mondays through Fridays, noon to 5 on Sundays.