Monday, March 24, 2014

A Trip to the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art

The exterior of the UIMA

Walking to the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art in Chicago, all you can see are Ukrainian flags--waving in the wind off the porches of homes, hanging in the windows of businesses, even oddly positioned out of apartment buildings just so that they can be seen.  As the UIMA is located in the heart of the city's Ukrainian Village, this would normally not be such an unusual thing (in the city of neighborhoods that is so prone to local pride)... Except that there are so many of them, everywhere.  Along with the flags in many of these windows, there are signs (also in the shape and design of the Ukrainian flag) that read 'United We Stand for Ukraine.'  Clearly going beyond simple neighborhood pride, these flags and signs present a powerful political message.  In wake of the political turmoil overseas, this local neighborhood is quietly and strongly offering support of the Ukrainian peoples.

It is odd, then, to arrive at the UIMA museum and find no such mention or display of the Revolution.  An institution for Ukrainian culture, modern art, and experience in Chicago since 1971, the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art Chicago is one place you might expect to see something, anything regarding the current political events.  Even though there were no flags hanging boldly, no "United We Stand" signs displayed, no message to the public, the museum quietly spoke volumes on the subject nevertheless.  

There are two galleries here--one side gallery housing the museum's Permanent Collection, and the main gallery housing the special Exhibits--the current one being "Survival, Spirits, Dreams, Nightmares" (at least until the end of the month).  The Permanent Collection is comprised of contemporary works made in Chicago or by artists with both ties to Chicago and the Ukraine.  Though small, this gallery had a strong lineup of items from the Permanent Collection (numbering over 900 objects in total), including "Luke 1:35" by Lialia Kuchma.  Referencing the Annunciation of the birth of Jesus to Mary, Kuchma's beautiful blue and yellow tapestry can be seen (kinda) pictured below, toward the left of the photo of the gallery.  Here's a better look at the work here:  Given the color scheme, this work is the closest object in the museum resembling the Ukrainian flag, but was just one of many items representing the Ukrainian heritage.

The side gallery featuring works from the museum's Permanent Collection

In the main gallery, the special exhibit "Survival, Spirit, Dreams, Nightmares" seemed not to have any ties to that heritage--at first.  While all four artists Rene Hugo Arceo, Mark Nelson, Yohanon Petrovsky-Shtern and Peter Dallos have Chicago ties (or, had, as UIMA bills Dallos as an "ex-Chicagoan), this link was not made obvious in the museum (and was completely unbeknownst to the writer).  Each artist clearly speaks from a unique cultural background. Arceo's linocut prints of elements of traditional Mexican culture are vastly different from Dallos' struggle-themed sculptures.  Petrovsky-Shtern's "Nightmare"-ish acrylics on canvas depict worlds and places disparate from those in Nelson's acrylics.  But in a second trip around the gallery, looking at each work again with a "big picture" lens, the ties to Ukrainian heritage and current conflict became apparent.

"Family."  Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern. 2012.
The label posits: "Human beings secure their own freedom and independence by using the wreckage of the previous slavery as building blocks.  In doing so, are they protecting or enslaving themselves?"

The purpose of this exhibit, as per the UIMA, is to ultimately feature the "power of the human spirit in overcoming adversity" in these works.  Though from geographically and culturally different perspectives unrelated to Ukraine, these works offer glimpses of the Ukrainian experience of the current struggle in the face of unrest. While this is most likely a matter of the timing of the exhibit coinciding with the unrest overseas, "Survival, Spirit, Dreams, Nightmares" nevertheless feels extremely relevant to the Revolution, prompting questions into the influences and the emotions involved in the Ukrainian revolution.  Can Dallos' "Struggle" sculptures be used to depict the conflict between the Soviets and the Ukrainian people now?  Do the questions Petrovsky-Shtern raise in his "Family" painting apply to the Ukrainian Revolution?  

Sticking to its mission statement in presenting "contemporary art as a shared expression of the Ukrainian and American experience," the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art wisely uses these varied works to offer a quiet, powerful reflection on what the Ukrainian experience might currently feel like in the distress it now faces.  

1 comment:

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