Joseph Stalin would have instantly understood the images in “Contemporary North Korean Art: The Evolution of Socialist Realism.” But so would have Norman Rockwell. Although the American University Museum show is the first exhibition of such artwork in the United States, much of it is as recognizable as old-fashioned magazine-illustration realism, albeit on an epic scale.
Paired with one of recent South Korean art, the exhibition features ink-on-rice-paper painting produced by a government-run art studio, reportedly the world’s largest such venture. The level of skill is as high as the stylistic variation is low.
Included are some nature pictures in a mode that’s more traditionally Korean, which is to say, Chinese. But more of the paintings depict the heroism and resolve of grouped soldiers, workers or peasants. There are lone protagonists, such as a man on horseback jumping a missing section of a bridge. (It looks like a storyboard from “Fast and Furious: Pyongyang Drift.”) There’s also an impressive tiger headed straight at the viewer, revealing the influence of cinema on this supercharged version of traditional Korean “chosonhwa.”
A documentary screened last month at AFI Docs, “Under the Sun,” observes a North Korean girl’s training in the art of propaganda. She and fellow students ritually honor medal-bedecked war veterans, and live in the shadows of giant renderings of dictator Kim Jong Un and his father and grandfather. Although the Kims don’t appear in this selection, their regime’s veneration of the military is clearly evident.
The two largest pictures are panoramas of collective action, executed collectively. So vast and detailed that they required multiple artists, they depict dramatic scenes such as the rescue of sailors whose boat is about to be swamped by a violent ocean. The vignette might not be intentionally metaphorical, but it could represent isolated North Korea in a sea of hostility. No wonder there’s no allowance for artistic individuality. In such an ideological tempest, anyone who goes it alone is sure to drown.
The art in “South Korea: Examining Life Through Social Realities” is also sort of familiar, but in a different way. The 10-person show includes portraits of Abraham Lincoln and Audrey Hepburn, as well as sleek black-fiberglass nudes who would be at home anywhere people watch anime and shop at fast-fashion chains. Rather than battle the West, this Korea has bought in.
The contributors forgo abstraction but only a few are realists in the usual sense. There’s a surreal vibe to such highlights as Lee Jin-ju’s large tableaux, which simultaneously depict indoor and outdoor, above and below ground, animals, humans and machines. Equally complex and strange is Lee Eun-sil’s “Confrontation,” with its two naked and sexually ambiguous figures.
Kang Hyung-koo’s photorealist Hepburn and Lincoln are conventional save for their weirdly shiny, reflective eyes. Byun Dae-yong’s fiberglass 3-D pinups include touches that are odd yet hardly ominous. One of them strides through a pool of water, but not to worry. Being swept under in a small blob of baby-blue fiberglass is about as likely as drowning inside a Warhol soup can.
There’s also a pop-art flourish in the museum’s “The Looking Glass: Artist Immigrants of Washington,” which showcases 10 local artists with roots in Latin America. Ric Garcia updates Warhol by crisply and colorfully portraying edible products for the Latin market, with labels far funkier than any designed for Brillo or Campbell’s.
Among the other works are sculpture and installation, with political content that includes F. Lennox Campello’s anti-Castro drawings and Carolina Mayorga’s video of a gagged waitress. The most traditional are the handsome wood blocks and linocuts on immigration themes of Uruguay-bred Naul Ojeda, who lived in Washington from the late 1970s to his 2002 death.
There are large, striking pieces by Irene Clouthier, whose paper airplanes hang above the entrance, and by Joan Belmar, whose circular plastic-cup assemblage bends around a corner. Frida Larios’s boldly stylized “picto-glyphs” are derived from Central American folklore, and yet sometimes rendered in vinyl. They’re simultaneously mythic and as modern as a can of Goya black bean soup.
Contemporary North Korean Art: The Evolution of Socialist Realism; South Korea: Examining Life Through Social Realities; and The Looking Glass: Artist Immigrants of Washington On view through Aug. 14 at American University Museum, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 202-885-1300. american.edu/museum.
Prince and David Bowie are the most represented figures in Civilian Art Projects’ current show, which pays tribute to the musicians and a few others. “Prince and Other Departed Legends” also makes room for Kurt Cobain (in Chinedu Felix Osuchukwu’s massive expressionist oil), as well as John Lennon and Bruce Lee (both in painted prints by Sargent-Thamm, a collaborative duo).
Most of the 21 contributors are current or former Washingtonians, and so are two of the subjects: Chuck Brown (photographed by Antonia Tricario) and Marvin Gaye (also by Sargent-Thamm).
If a lot of the contributions look like commercial art, that’s because they want to be, or are based on it. Photos from posters and album covers are reworked and transplanted, mostly to drawings and prints, but also to video and apparel, including Joseph Orzal’s “Purple Raincoat.” The show resulted mostly from an open call, but the gallery also solicited a few pieces, notably one of Dan Tague’s trademark prints of a dollar bill that has been folded to yield a new populist slogan. This one reads, of course, “we can be heroes.”
Prince and Other Departed Legends On view through Aug. 6 at Civilian Art Projects, 4718 14th St. NW. 202-607-3804. civilianartprojects.com.
Black, red, green and white — the hues of the Palestinian flag — are the “Forbidden Colors” that inspired the current show at the Jerusalem Fund Gallery Al Quds. The reference, a gallery note explains, is to an Israeli law that once prohibited political art that flew the standard’s colors. (The ban was lifted after the 1993 signing of the Oslo Accords.)
The work is by 33 artists, and varies as widely in quality and sophistication as Civilian’s rock-legend show. A few puckish entries render the flag, or its colors, in found objects: Rajie Cook uses painted cat-food cans, while Andrew Courtney’s photograph arranges eggplant, tomatoes, peppers and cauliflower. Helen Zughaib partly conceals the hues behind a decorative screen, a motif in her work that also represents the seclusion of women in traditional societies. It’s a reminder that oppression can come from within as well as without.
Forbidden Colors On view through Aug. 12 at the Jerusalem Fund Gallery Al Quds, 2425 Virginia Ave. NW. 202-338-1958. thejerusalemfund/gallery.