Illustration by Anastasija Morozova.

A Glass Slipper, or a Toad? 6

Anna Iltnere
04/04/2012

From April 3 through May 21, a group exhibition of works by contemporary Latvian artists will travel to three US cities – New York, Washington DC and Chicago. Nine artists were selected to participate in the show:  Kaspars Brambergs, Harijs Brants, Andris Eglītis, Ieva Iltnere, Ernests Kļaviņš, Daiga Krūze, Leonards Laganovskis, Inga Meldere and Miervaldis Polis. The traveling exhibition was organized by Hamid Ladjevardi, manager of American-Baltic Investments, in cooperation with the Latvian Transatlantic Organization (LATO).

While sitting at the celebratory press conference for the exhibition “Important Contemporary Artists of Latvia”, I get the feeling that Cinderella's beautiful glass slipper is being put on the wrong foot. The crystalline shoe may sparkle, but the foot inside it is painfully cramped.

Looking from one point of view, it really is quite wonderful that art professionals and state administrators, not to mention considerable financial supporters (CEMEX, Latvia's Railways, Domuss Ltd., etc.), have come together to support Latvian art and, even more importantly, to promote it in the US's largest cities: New York, Washington DC and Chicago.

Taking an individual look at each of the nine featured artists, there also doesn't seem to be any problem – a mix of talented Latvian artists from various generations with distinct styles that make up an interesting combination, mainly due to the fact that these artists rarely exhibit with one another (Ieva Iltnere and Kaspars Brambergs, Daiga Krūze and Miervaldis Polis, etc.). In her speech at the press conference, Irēna Bužinska also focused upon the fact that the “diversity and variety” of the works presented are the exhibition's main strengths.

The international selection committee was comprised of not only Helēna Demakova and Irēna Bužinska from Latvia, but also had as members the director of Estonia's Museum of Art – Sirje Helme; Dr. Alla Rosenfeld – one-time curator of the Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection; and Eleanor Hartney – co-editor of “Art in America”, and a regular contributor to “The Washington Post” and “The New York Times”, among other publications. The committee's job was, by way of a vote, to select the exhibition's participants and their works – starting with a list of Latvia's 23 most successful artists (something that I'd be highly interested in seeing). Hamid Ladjevardi, organizer of the exhibition, explained at the press conference that he had decided on this type of selection system in order to avoid “Latvia's small-country syndrome”, in which everybody knows everybody else too well to be able to make an objective choice. This was the reasoning behind both the voting process  and the international team of judges. Even though using the country's relative size, and its resulting social situation, as an argument isn't what one would call exactly professional, determining selection by use of an evaluation gradient is not an unusual method. You just have to take into account that when everything is tallied up, surprises always seem to pop up. But when I started putting together all of these above-mentioned aspects of the exhibition, I found that the glass slipper was beginning to rub... and and a blister was forming.

First of all, the exhibition calls itself a selection of “Important Latvian Contemporary Artists”. A title like this is very ambitious, and full of responsibility. In an attempt to explain the narrowing-down of the selected group, the press release describes it as an exhibition of paintings done by the “pearls of Latvian painting”. But when Hamid Ladjevardi was asked at the press conference if the exhibition presents “the best of Latvian contemporary painting”, he answered that it “definitely does not”. As Ladjevardi quickly explained, several artists declined to submit the works requested, for various (unstated) reasons. Which makes one wonder why these artists (or galleries) didn't want to lend out works that would be labeled as created by the most “important artists in Latvia”. What made them so distrustful? Instead of addressing this issue, the selection process was obviously done with simply what was available. Which in turn, leads to the question of: how does this fact fit in with the ambitious title of the show and its surrounding PR packaging – my symbolic “glass slipper”? In addition, Ladjevardi's answer belittled the artists who were selected: in essence, he publicly told them – no, you weren't the best.

And then there's the fog surrounding the issue of “painting” as a requisite for selection, since Harijs Brant's drawings and the works of the conceptual artist Leonard Laganovskis have been included. This, of course, could be simply waved away by expanding the concept of contemporary painting; even the art critic Mark Svede, in his introduction to the catalog, justifies the inclusion of Brant's works because of their uncharacteristic painterliness.

Bu then there's also the issue of the key word in the exhibition's title – “important”. Didn't the youngest (not in terms of age, but in terms of artistic legacy) members of the selected group perhaps feel, even if just for a second, the same way that Māris Štrombergs did when he received the Order of the Three Stars a few years ago? – “joy and honor, along with a strange sense of discomfort” – as the 21-year-old Olympic champion revealed afterward. As I mentioned before, I don't see any problem with the selected group of artists; however, it doesn't completely fit together with such a bold concept – the very essence of Latvian contemporary art. Distilling this essence may be akin to alchemy, of course, but it should be clear that it definitely can't be done with a hasty and premature approach.

Another unfortunate matter is that an immense amount of work and money has gone into promoting Latvia's name in places that are visited more frequently by Latvians themselves rather than Americans. Case in point: the Latvian Embassy in Washington DC is the second scheduled stop for the traveling exhibition. Although the embassy does have an art gallery that displays several exhibitions a year, we are far from assured that they are widely attended by the local American population. To top it all off, the rooms aren't even large enough to accommodate the whole of the Latvian exhibition. The location for the New York-stage of the exhibition (which will start very soon – April 3), at first glance, does seem very charming and prestigious – the National Arts Club. It was founded in 1898 by the art and literary critic Charles Dekay, who worked at “The New York Times” newspaper for 18 years. The private club represents various branches of art, with some members being quite famous, such as Martin Scorsese and Uma Thurman representing the Dramatic Arts; back in the day, Mark Twain was a member, representing the Literary Arts. Last summer, the National Art Club was appointed a new president – the painter and philanthropist Dianne Bernhard; as a result, membership has doubled. Unfortunately, the club is a very closed environment, and it is unlikely that very many art-lovers will get the chance to see the Latvian art exhibition there. To even just find out the opening times of the gallery, you must register on the club's homepage. One can only hope that this exclusive venue might provide the exhibition with viewers that are actually interested in collecting.

The third location that the exhibition will travel to is Chicago's Driehaus Museum. Much like the National Art Club, the Driehaus Museum is also a grand and refined place, with an interior designed at the tail-end of the 19th century. The museum was founded on April 1, 2003 by the Chicago philanthropist Richard H. Driehaus, with the goal of preserving and popularizing architectural and design samples from the past, as well as supporting the craft and tradition of antique preservation. Much has been made of the fact that, during the exhibit's showing in Chicago, the G8 and NATO summits will be taking place in Chicago, with Latvia's president being present as well. It would be great if these international leaders took the time to see some Latvian contemporary art during their stay in Chicago. I just hope that the exhibition doesn't become nothing more than a setting for a fancy reception, and that a wider audience gets a chance to see it. Hopefully, it will truly fulfill the function of a traveling exhibition, and won't end up being a fancy off-site meeting behind practically closed doors.

None of the three locations set to show the exhibition are places where fans of contemporary art regularly go, simply because shows like this are rarely held in these locations – they're just not traditional venues for the exhibition of contemporary art. One can only hope that the marketing of the exhibition will be successful in the US, and that people will hear about it as much as they have here, in Latvia.

Let's just cross our fingers and wish that the selected works look impressive when set up together (we'll be able to judge for ourselves when the exhibition's travels come to an end in June, at the Latvian National Museum of Art). Here's to hoping that the “glass slipper” doesn't turn into a toad.

www.importantlatvianartists.com

Read in the archives:
16/04/2012 - Exhibition Reviews :: Shedding light on Latvian Artists in N.Y.
14/04/2012 - Openings :: Exhibition of Latvian artists in New York 

Liga Krikis - 24.04.2012 20:15
I concede -- "leading" sounds just as condescending as "important" -- to the artists not participating in the exhibition. Just imagine, for a moment -- if there was an exhibition titled "Important Artists of the 20th Century", and it featured, for the sake of argument, just Picasso, Monet and Pollock, wouldn't the art world be up in arms and screaming "What about O'keefe, Rothko, Matisse, etc.!" When it comes to something as subjective and unquantifiable as art (as opposed to, say, motor racing), it seems best to leave out any modifiers that could slight those not included. Should have just left it as "Contemporary Artists of Latvia".
hamid ladjevardi - 24.04.2012 17:46
It seems that Miss Liga Krikis who according to her article is a "native speaker of English" did not bother to look in the dictionary for the meaning of the words "important" and "leading". According to the Oxford dictionary of English "important" is defined as:
"of great significance and value" or "significantly original and influential"
How does this definition belittle those artists who are not included? Are her statements about belittling implied in the meaning of the word important as defined in the Oxford dictionary or is this miss Krikis's conjecture? Furthermore, where was it stated, in all our literature, that artists selected are the only important ones? Clearly not the case!
As to her suggestion that the qualifier, "leading" , is better than "important", Oxford dictionary of English defines "leading" as " most important".
Liga Krikis - 23.04.2012 17:04
I completely agree with the article and beg to differ with Hadjevardi's letter. In English (and I'm a native speaker of English), "Important Contemporary Artists of Latvia" sounds exclusionary and belittling to those artists not included in the exhibition. Simply "Contemporary Artists of Latvia" would have been a more democratic title; if you must have a qualifier, even "Leading Contemporary Artists" would have been better than the aloof-sounding "important".

And as for the venues -- this was an obviously lazy, half-assed attempt by the organizers. I've been to the Washington DC embassy of Latvia – the “exhibition space” there is a joke. With some effort, much better (i.e., larger and easily accessible) spaces could have been found. And big museums are NOT the only places where good exhibitions can be seen. Public universities and private colleges will sometimes gladly offer-up exhibition space – FOR FREE. You just need someone to put in a little research and write some e-mails to get in touch with the departments of art and foreign studies at these institutions. In these days of electronic communication, this is not a hard thing to do. In addition, there are, for a fact, well-known Latvian-American instructors working in universities and colleges in New York, Washington DC and Chicago, who could have been contacted for help or advice in this regard. In the last few years, up-scale shopping and business centers have also become common places for art exhibitions. They may not be as “posh” as a full-fledged art museum, but they are certainly more accessible than a members-only club (closed on weekends) and a tiny embassy (closed on Sundays).
david holahan - 16.04.2012 11:27
Is this Article serious? The entire argument about the words "the important latvian artists"' is based on the WRONG name of the exhibit. I also don't think it is professional to point out the organizer's mis-statements. Apparently he is no politician, just someone who, as you said "spent enormous effort and money" to help show Latvian artists overseas. However, I find it interesting that you yourself decided that some of the artists selected must be feel bad to be called "important" because their artistic legacy is too "young". Interesting judgement by you. I wonder if Vestards Shimkus would agree with such logic? It was also polite of you to say that the artists were only exhibited because the the selection committee "simply had to use what was available" since other artists were so "distrustful" Too bad we got the second team eh?

The ironic point is that your focus on the word important, your desire to see the list of 23 successful artists and your insults about the exhibiting artists all prove that the organizer was right with his offensive "small country syndrome". If the exhibit was organized by people who think like you, we would be waiting a long, long time; to get the exhibit in the biggest museums in the world, to" properly distill the essence of Latvian art", and for those young artistic legacies to get a bit older-

Lets remember, all artists are important- lets not diminish our artists' achievements and talents by arguing over whether they deserve to be called that.
david holahan - 16.04.2012 10:58
Juste Kostikovaite - 15.04.2012 15:35
It would be interesting to see the reviews of the show, are there any in ArtFlash, Nytimes, or, at Art in America? maybe you can post it? It would be interesting to read, how the exhibition succeded or failed to accomplish what it wanted, did it create a rupture, or goes smoothly as planned.