Photo: Linda Ruciņa
Longing to experience a contemporary Latvian art exhibit in New York, I was more than excited to learn about “Important Contemporary Artists of Latvia”. The exhibition will also travel to Washington, DC (The Latvian Embassy, April 26th – May 12th), Chicago (Driehaus Museum, during the NATO Summit, May 18th – 21st) and conclude in Riga, Latvia (The Latvian National Museum of Art, June 8th – 22nd). The first stop of “Important Contemporary Artists of Latvia” in the United States is in New York, at the National Arts Club, from April 2nd through April 21st. It showcases nine contemporary artists from Latvia – Kaspars Brambers, Harijs Brants, Andris Eglītis, Ieva Iltnere, Ernests Kļaviņš, Daiga Krūze, Leonards Laganovsis, Inga Meldere, and Miervaldis Polis. I greatly respect all of the artists represented in this exhibit. Their work has a strong visual impact, and the artists have exceptional technique and talent. However, after visiting this exhibition, I was left feeling confused and “lost in translation” about some of the decisions made regarding the precision of “Important Contemporary Artists of Latvia”.
Therefore, I turned to Hamid Ladjevardi (Organizer of ICAL), Eleanor Heartney (Art Selection Committee (ICAL), international art critic and contributing editor to Art in America and Artpress), and Dr. Alla Rosenfeld (Art Selection Committee (ICAL), currently a research associate at European Evaluators in New York and the former curator of “The Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union”, at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University – which has the largest collection of Baltic art in the West) .
The National Arts Club in New York, from outside
No doubt, it is very complex to introduce the contemporary art of other cultures, especially to the Western art scene, and it is very ambitious to take up such a project. Hamid Ladjevardi is the originator of “Important Contemporary Artists of Latvia” and of the “Baltics Art Exhibit” in 2000. His interest for contemporary art developed when he was an undergraduate student at the University of California in Berkeley. “Over the years, having lived and experienced different cultures, I had a better sense of art reflecting the local environment, yet confronting and dealing with certain universal principles and values. My first interest in Latvian art developed when I first visited Latvia in January 1992, and it always remained a part of my education and appreciation of Latvian culture, particularly its visual arts.”
Paintings by Daiga Krūze
Right from my first interaction with the exhibit, I immediately felt the need to clarify the meaning of the title – “Important Contemporary Artists of Latvia”. Using the word important seems so ambitious. I wondered if Ms. Heartney and Dr. Rosenfeld personally felt the exhibition reflects, informs, and leaves the viewer educated about contemporary Latvian art?In response to my question, E. Heartney answered: “IMPORTANT is always a subjective judgment, but certainly these are works of high quality,” whereas A. Rosenfeld replied: “Indeed, the title seems ambitious. All of the featured artists are important, but of course there are many more IMPORTANT artists in Latvia. As far as I know, it was never intended by the exhibition’s organizers to show a coherent survey of the development of contemporary Latvian art; it is just a small “sample,” an introduction to contemporary Latvian art. The exhibition was organized with a particular exhibition space in mind—the National Arts Club, which has a rather modest exhibition area and could accommodate only a specific number of works. Nevertheless, this exhibition represents the many facets of artistic production in Latvia during the recent years.”
Paintings by Ieva Iltnere
After raising the question of the intention of this exhibit, I received an undivided answer: this exhibition was conceived as an introduction of Latvian contemporary art to the United States. As for the artists, they will gain greater recognition and opportunities. Dr. Alla Rosenfeld explained in more detail: “In 1998, The International Partnership Among Museums (IPAM) program, funded by the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs of the US Information Agency, underwrote my research and extensive travels to the Baltics, including Latvia. This research resulted in a major book, “Art of The Baltics” (co-edited with Dr. Norton T. Dodge and published by Rutgers University Press in 2002). This book documented the great variety of artistic alternatives that evolved in the Baltics during the last thirty years of soviet hegemony. When I mentioned my trip to Riga in 1998 to some American friends, they often responded, “What? Where?”, which made me realize how little people in the United States know about the Baltic region. Unfortunately, not much has changed since then. Therefore, I feel strongly that it is important to continue informing people in America about Latvian art and culture. Despite all the talk of a global art history, the history of contemporary art is inevitably presented as something that is transmitted to the “provinces” from the “centers”-- the United States and Western Europe. I view the present exhibition as a demonstration of important local manifestations of global contemporary art. As for the Latvian participating artists, I believe that this exhibition might be beneficial for their future careers. The exhibition opening at the National Arts Club was very well attended, and many American art collectors, curators, and gallery owners viewed their art. I hope it will result in some useful contacts and, hopefully, some future solo shows in the United States.”
I still question how successful this introduction of contemporary Latvian art to the United States really is, merely because of the difficulty of access to the chosen venues. Visiting the exhibition at the National Arts Club in New York was quite disappointing. First off, on the National Arts Club website it was impossible to access detailed information about the exhibition unless you are a member of the National Arts Club. However, you are able to view the supposed hours for the galleries; unfortunately, the hours and the title of the exhibit were listed incorrectly (on the website it was listed as Latvian art: Hamid Ladjevardi). It would have been extremely helpful and informative if they had included a link to the website of “Important Contemporary Artists of Latvia” (www.importantlatvianartists.lv). Prior to my visit, I made a phone call to the venue, as suggested on the National Arts Club website. After a short conversation with the receptionist, it was noted that the hours on their website are incorrect; a week later, they still had not corrected their website! Sadly, the National Arts Club galleries are not open on Saturdays and Sundays, which makes it impossible for most viewers to visit.
Exhibition view with a grand piano
In addition, the National Arts Club gives an impression of a “members only” gathering venue or event space, rather than a serious art gallery, mostly due to their treatment of the artwork in this particular exhibit.For example, a grand piano, accompanied by a few chairs, was placed in the main gallery, making it difficult to fully observe Andris Eglītis' paintings. As I recall, it was placed there at the end of the opening reception night, as the guests were leaving; I'm sad to say that it had not been removed on my second visit. Overall, the placement of the paintings was well thought-out (they were mostly organized by the artists themselves). Unfortunately, the push-pins used to pin up the titles of the refined and pristine art works gave a sense of an amateurish attitude towards the showcased art.
Paintings by Inga Meldere
One can only speculate if maybe “Important Painters of Latvia” would had been a more fitting title. Eight of the artists are painters, with the exception of Harijs Brants.“The charcoal drawings of Harijs Brants are not illustrations, nor are they paintings, though they feel quite at home in an otherwise all-painting show,” (Mark Svede, in the Introduction of the catalog to”Important Contemporary Artists of Latvia”). If this exhibition is intended to highlight contemporary Latvian art, then why not showcase artwork that has been done in other mediums? (For instance, in the Introduction, Mark Svede mentions that Miervaldis Polis is also a performance artist – it would had been very interesting to see documentation of his performances showcased in this exhibit). In answer to this question of mine, E. Heartney said: “Given the nature of the space, I think it made sense to limit the show to paintings and drawings. Hopefully, this is not the only show of Latvian art to come, and there will be other opportunities to present other kinds of art.” A. Rosenfeld explained: “As I have already said, the exhibition was intended for the National Arts Club exhibition space, it was not organized as a comprehensive survey of contemporary Latvian art, which would have to take place in a major art museum rather than in a relatively small exhibition space. This exhibition only aims to introduce the American public to some aspects of contemporary Latvian art.”
Paintings by Miervaldis Polis
It is common that exhibitions dealing with contemporary art from other cultures are meant to be educational, and are thereby coordinated by a curator (who works with a specific concept to represented a strong statement). Therefore, I confronted Mr. Ladjevardi with the question of whether or not he had taken upon himself the curatorial influence on this exhibit; his reply: “Absolutely not! The process of choosing artists and their available artwork was very transparent and done through a very high degree of integrity. Many people were involved and all records of the curatorial work and voting was recorded and kept. In a couple of instances, when an available work of a particular artist suddenly became unavailable, we went and sought the advice of our art selection committee members in replacing those works with similar, available paintings. In fact, I can say that there were a couple of artists that I personally liked but who did not end up in the final list, as approved by our art selection committee.”
Exhibition view, painting by Ieva Iltnere in the foreground
I was very curious to hear the selection committee members answer the following question: Since participating artists were selected by committee, what was the criteria for deciding which art works will be showcased? Their answers: E.Heartney – “I can only speak for myself, but I chose work that was well executed and struck me as original in some way.” A. Rosenfeld – “I think that it is very important that the International Jury, who selected the works for the exhibition, comprised both Latvian and international experts. It included Eleanor Heartney, a major American contemporary art critic and contributing editor to Art in America. Some Latvian artists are greatly praised in their own country by their national art critics, but in order to become a part of the international art world, it is also necessary to be appreciated by the “outside” world, not only by your local art community. Another member of the jury, Sirje Helme, director general of the Art Museum of Estonia, definitely knows Latvian art very well, but because she is not from Latvia, but from Estonia, she also has a more objective view. The jury included Irēna Buzinska, curator of the Latvian National Museum of Art, who is a prominent scholar of Latvian art and Helena Demakova, former Latvian Minister of Culture and a curator and scholar of Latvian art. Therefore, I believe that such a combination of scholars – those from the Baltics, along with the ones who are internationally-known contemporary art critics – makes this selection an objective process. Some of the major criteria for deciding which art works will be showcased included originality of the work, mastery of execution, artistic (professional) background of the artist, and how successfully a particular work addresses both local and international artistic concerns. The jury tried to select the works which would demonstrate a great variety of topics, media, and approach in contemporary Latvian art. But as I said, it is only the “tip of the iceberg”; there are many more talented artists in Latvia.”
Even after my second visit, I failed to convince myself that this exhibit was fully formed without the guidance of a curator. I want to enforce that I tremendously respect all of the Art Selection Committee members and their accomplishments in this industry. However, even though each separate aspect of this exhibition was handled by experienced professionals, when all of the forces were brought together to form the final product, it was evident that some components were overlooked. One of the missing elements was a successful reaching-out to the American audience. The majority of advertising was done in American-Latvian forums and newspapers, which an average resident of the United States is unlikely to come across. There is always room for improvement, and it is nice to hear that all three, Hamid Ladjevardi, Eleanor Heartney, and Dr. Alla Rosenfeld, would be interested to see other, similar projects related to contemporary Latvian art take place.“Frustrating as the situation seems, Latvian painting—visual art in general—is in a very good place, and it's most definitely not a fortress. The learned behaviors of private patronage and corporate sponsorship are taking hold, even in these uncertain economic times, and accordingly, 29 arts administrators' myopic sense of entitlement is being unlearned. Organizations with competing visions are gaining an equal footing, and Rīga now has a plurality of curatorial and critical voices.” (Mark Svede, Introduction, Important Contemporary Artists of Latvia”) I sincerely hope that there will be further projects that receive the same amount of sponsorship from businesses and individuals as the current project has, and that they will welcome contemporary art curators in Latvia to delegate the process. Also, I hope that next time they will keep in mind the accessibility of the selected venues for their intended audience.