In the galleries: The selling of the Cold War and the Red Menace

Genna Gurvich Courtesy of Mark Kelner and Galerie Blue Square Mark Kelner’s “Pravdada” (2012), inkjet print, on view in “Red!! Russian-American XXI c. Visions,” at George Mason University’s Atriu...

“A lie told often enough becomes the truth” is the tagline for a mock department-store advertisement with a familiar emblem. Inspired by Macy’s red star, Russian American D.C. artist Mark Kelner remade the retailer’s logo as “Lenin’s” and placed it below the dictator’s endorsement of the Big Lie. At a time when the words “Russia” and “lie” are central to U.S. political discourse, the joke is so apt that it’s not funny.

Kelner and Yevgeniy Fiks explore all sorts of international relations in “Red!! Russian-American XXI c. Visions,” at George Mason University’s Atrium Gallery. The show overlaps, in spirit if not specific artists, with “Age of Aquire’us,” at Charles Krause/Reporting Fine Art, which draws on the former foreign correspondent’s collection (not for sale) of pro- and anti-Soviet art.

At a Feb. 15 artists’ talk, Kelner and the New York-based Fiks were joined by Vitaly Komar, a Russian “nonconformist” artist who took refuge in the United States in 1978, 16 years before Fiks. Upon arrival here, Komar recalled, he noticed “a similar structure” to communist propaganda and capitalist advertising. Kelner plays on that affinity by remaking McDonald’s, Marlboro and “got milk?” logos in the style of Soviet-era avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich. Kelner also designs fake fashion ads that meld Dada (the absurdist art movement), Prada (the Italian design company) and Pravda (the official newspaper whose Russian name means “truth,” although that was not its specialty). These cleverly simulated pieces illustrate how ideas are sold as products, and products as ideas.

Fiks also employs text and found images, but his “Red!!” work focuses on a specific chapter of Cold War history. In the early 1950s, fear of the Soviet bomb somehow fused with homophobia, yielding articles with such titles as “Homosexuality Is Stalin’s Atom Bomb to Destroy America.” Fiks presents nine photos of the first public Soviet A-bomb test, overlaid with anti-gay comments by U.S. politicians of the era. He also photographed a six-foot-high mushroom-cloud cutout that he posed around the District in places known as gay pickup spots during Stalin’s reign. Suspicion and secrecy poison the personal as well as the political.

The Krause show is divided among Soviet propaganda, nonconformist art and recent American work. The first group mostly extols victory in war and athletics but also includes attacks on religion. (“Protect our children from the claws of priests,” instructs one poster.)

The second section features work by several creators who, like Kelner and Komar, were influenced by American pop art. A print by Estonia’s Leonhard Lapin depicts communism as a machine for turning people into machine parts. Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe’s portrait of himself as Andy Warhol is from a series in which he appropriated, and sometimes cross-pollinated, the identities of Western celebrities and Soviet autocrats. The artist (whose surname was then just Mamyshev) was inspired to wed Hollywood and the Kremlin when he was introduced to his muse, Marilyn Monroe, in a class about “victims of capitalism.”

The starkest piece is Maxim Kantor’s large etching “The Lonely Crowd,” made just as the Soviet Union collapsed. The depiction of maimed and tortured citizens has a Goya-like intensity.

The last section revisits items from the pre-election “Artists United” show Krause organized at Busboys and Poets. The work refers to contemporary and mostly American issues, but the gallerist sees a continuity between Soviet nonconformists and these naysayers: The latter make the sort of art that, Krause writes, “would almost certainly be banned if President Trump were to act on some of the threats he made during the campaign.”

Red!! Russian-American XXI c. Visions: Yevgeniy Fiks and Mark Kelner On view through March 10 at Atrium Gallery, Mason Hall, George Mason University, 4400 University Dr., Fairfax. 202-213-6272. soa.gmu.edu/event/red-russian-american-xxi-c-visions.

Age of Aquire’us On view through March 13 at Charles Krause/Reporting Fine Art at Dacha Loft, 1602 Seventh St. NW, Second floor. 202-638-3612. charleskrausefineart.com .

Creatively We Unite

A sense of tradition animates much of the art in “Creatively We Unite,” Zenith Salon’s Black History Month show. Yet the work is seldom traditional in form. Among the 14 mostly local contributors is Mali-born sculptor Ibou N’Diaye, who uses the same sort of tools his ancestors did to craft exquisitely detailed figures in hardwoods such as ebony. But Chris Malone’s mixed-media dolls draw on diverse African and Asian customs, blended with a playful vigor that yields a style all his own. Equally singular is Anne Bouie’s six-foot-high “Ancestral Totem,” which invokes a rustic past with elements including dried seed pods.

Community is another theme, rendered most immediate in Robert Freeman’s expressionist paintings of black couples and groups. Other participants represent historical fellowship. Gloria Kirk’s collages incorporate old postcards, family photos and small pieces of jewelry; many of these objects were inherited from her mother. Curtis Woody uses a similar technique in what he calls “mixed media quilt paintings,” but more pointedly. One piece here includes slavery artifacts, notably a bill of sale for a “wench.” The family story he tells is one of destruction and exploitation.

Creatively We Unite On view through March 11 at Zenith Salon, 1429 Iris St. NW. 202-783-2963. zenithgallery.com.

Post Memory

Heirloom photos also feature in “Post Memory,” a four-woman show at Betty Mae Kramer Gallery. Miriam Morsel Nathan made multiple gum-transfer prints of a vintage shot of a Prague wedding, swathing one in mesh to suggest the haze of history. Muriel Hasbun’s close-ups of her late mother and her belongings represent the loss of a lifelong relationship with a few details: loops of gray hair, fingers holding a faded photographic portrait. The casualties are as much cultural as human in Bonnie B. Collier’s photo-collages, which place antique people in front of recent images of tumbledown small-town buildings.

The show’s subtitle describes the pictures as of “a certain place and time,” but Kaitlin Jencso’s are intriguingly uncertain. The cryptic scenes appear contemporary and generally have a human presence. Yet the people are silhouetted, in shadow or turned away from the camera. The stories hidden in these photos are not forgotten. They’re simply unknowable.

Post Memory: Photographs of a Certain Place & Time On view through March 4 at Betty Mae Kramer Gallery, One Veterans Place, Silver Spring. 301-565-3805. creativemoco.com/kramer-gallery.

Recent entertainment