More than a dozen twentieth-century Ukrainian artists have been selected by curator Stanislav Grezdo from the 200 pieces that were donated to the UIMA by Bohdan Kowalsky (1923-2008) who, like most of these artists, fled his homeland. The results are a tribute to what can be done without the funding, professional scholarship and contemporary agenda that accompanies major museums of modern art.
This exhibition especially serves as an introduction to sculptor Gregor Kruk (1911-1988) and painter Jerzy Nowosielski (1923-2011), both of whom Kowalsky kept in contact with and collected in depth.
Kruk worked at that intersection of folk art and formalism that early modernists discovered in African sculpture. At its best, like Kruk’s work, it expresses a vibrancy of folk culture that makes life bearable in a problematic modern world. And one might note that Kruk moved from Ukraine to Germany in 1940, living through the worst the last century had to offer.
Jerzy Nowosielski worked in the even less-traversed intersection of piety and sexuality. Born in Krakow, Nowosielski had a fascination with Eastern Orthodox icons, and spent some time in a seminary. His icons are displayed in many Orthodox as well as Roman Catholic churches in Poland and France, and he also loved to paint the female nude, which though often frankly erotic, have the same wooden angularity of icons and buzz with the tension of a pious soul in a secular world full of temptations.
Also known as a theologian, Nowosielski wrote: “There is no such thing as ‘pure Christianity,’ there is only rich experience of the human spirit in search for the truth and individual salvation, and the salvation of the world.” But also: “A full synthesis of matters spiritual with the empirical reality occurs precisely in the figure of the woman.”
Other highlights of the show include a flamboyant wire construction by Konstantin Milonadis from the 1960s, a figure (1902) by Oleksa Novakivsky, and a landscape (1927) by Petro Kholodny.
This is a branch of modernism where irony, Dada, left-wing politics and pop culture never caught on—and doesn’t seem to be missed. (Chris Miller)
Through April 10 at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, 2320 West Chicago.