at the Chicago Cultural Center

It would be a shame if the exhibit hall on the fourth floor of the Chicago Cultural Center, with its high coffered ceiling and tall windows overlooking Grant Park, were ever to close permanently. Here Chicagoans have been introduced to the work of local painters and sculptors and of artists from other parts of the country and the world. One of this space’s most memorable and extensive shows was the 1982 retrospective of drawings, weavings, and sculptures by the Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz, organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art and presented both there and at the Cultural Center.

Abakanowicz’s work can again be seen at the Cultural Center, in an exhibit running through November 16 titled “Sowers of Myth.” Recent paintings, sculptures, and installations by five Central and Eastern European artists are on display: Abakanowicz, Attila Kovacs (from Hungary), Ursula von Rydingsvard (born in Germany of Polish parents), Magdalena Jetelova (from Czechoslovakia), and IRWIN (a collective of five Yugoslavians). The artists range in age from 31 to 60, and with the exception of von Rydingsvard, who emigrated to the United States in 1952, they’ve all lived and worked under communism.

Of course the Communist Party has had a strong influence on artists’ careers in each of these countries. In Poland, for example, until 1989 graduation from a party-approved school was required in order to work as an artist. Abakanowicz has written that though she hated the school’s professors and teaching methods, she nevertheless remained at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw because the diploma was necessary for membership in the Polish Artists’ Union, without which an artist could have no career. In Czechoslovakia, restrictions on style and content have been severe; only “official” party-approved artists were allowed to teach or exhibit. Not surprisingly, ideas about conformity and the oppression of the individual inform the work of several of these artists.

The works shown here are also linked by their strong sense of history and juxtapositions of the present with the past. The installation created by IRWIN, for example, contrasts landscapes representing a mythic past with views of modern industrial towns. Past, present, and future are also joined in the installation by Jetelova titled Demystification of a Monument.

In the northeast corner of the room Jetelova has created a triangular space one enters by walking through a row of seven thick columns made of charred wood; these columns support a heavy beam, also of charred wood. The entire structure looks like the remnant of an ancient monument or temple. After passing the columns, the viewer is confronted by two walls. One, nine or ten feet tall, is formed by eight identical Cibachrome transparencies under Plexiglas. These present a mysterious image–a fragment of a stone post-and-lintel structure, blurry and nearly unidentifiable, rising up against a dark brown ground. The means of producing the image is modern, but its subject appears to have come from the distant past. The other wall is filled with repeated inscriptions of the phrase “time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future and time future contained in time past.” The lower portion of this wall is covered with sooty flamelike shapes that obscure the inscription; like the blackened columns, it appears to have been damaged by fire.

These elements speak of the alternation of creation and destruction throughout time. Unfortunately, however, the corner’s transformation into a space for the contemplation of time is not complete or wholly effective: a dropped ceiling would have helped to define and alter the space, removing the distractions of windows, pilasters, and decorative reliefs visible above the constructed walls.

Abakanowicz is represented by a group of standing figures titled Crowd no. 2. The figures, in burlap and resin, have all been cast from a tall, thin man standing stiffly with arms at his sides, shoulders back and chest extended as though at attention. Lacking heads and hands, these 20 figures (shells of figures, actually) are lined up in rows, all facing the same direction. Abakanowicz’s earlier burlap figure groups, such as Backs (1976-1982), utilized seated poses that implied great weariness; this pose has a certain resolute quality that suggests survival rather than defeat.

Whether viewed as prisoners or soldiers or both, this maimed group confronts us with a powerful image of war’s violence and its erasure of individuality. As a girl during World War II, Abakanowicz saw drunken soldiers fire their weapons at her mother, severing her arm. Her mother survived but lost a hand. One can’t help but admire how Abakanowicz transforms her own painful experiences into an art that speaks eloquently for all who have suffered and survived.

Two sculptures by Ursula von Rydingsvard, like Abakanowicz’s Crowd no. 2, group similar elements. One of these, Nine Cones, consists of a row of six-foot conical forms built with stacked pieces of cedar. Narrow at the base and wide at the top, they’re placed one next to the other so that they seem to hold one another up. The chunks of cedar have been heavily gouged, sawed, and scratched, then rubbed with graphite–a process that has given the forms a look of great age. The cones seem to have survived the effects of time and destructive forces, functioning as a metaphor for perseverance.

Von Rydingsvard’s second sculpture, Ursie A’s Dream, is also made of cedar and graphite. Blocks of carved cedar have been stacked to form a row of seven tall and narrow thronelike seats; long planks of cedar placed on the floor before them prevent the viewer’s approach. This row of uncomfortable-looking seats has disquieting associations–the burnt appearance of the cedar suggests death by fire; the hollowed upper halves resemble primitive coffins. The unsettling effect is of a vague memory of violence surfacing momentarily, made more horrible because the violence is unidentifiable.

Kovacs has contributed both paintings and sculpture to the exhibit. The eight- to ten-foot-tall sculptures, made of sheets of iron shaped into geometric forms and covered with shiny black tar, bring to mind industrial architecture. Necropolis, Block VI, Necropolis, Block VII, and Dark Fountain have a stark, severe simplicity, but I found them neither imposing nor ugly enough to truly condemn industrialization. In his monochrome paintings Kovacs also attempts to convey the empty promise of the industrial age–large geometric shapes similar to those of the sculpture are painted against a flat ground. But the flaccid forms are thinly painted with rote, almost slapdash strokes; they lack the weight and therefore the implied threat that the sculptures begin to achieve. According to the exhibit catalog, Kovacs has also worked in architecture, film, theater, and furniture design–one suspects he may be spreading himself too thin, thereby weakening the impact of his ideas.

IRWIN, the five-member collective from Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, is part of a larger group known as NSK (Neue Slovenische Kunst) that includes musicians, theater groups, architects, designers, writers, and filmmakers. IRWIN’s contribution–an installation of paintings, relief sculpture, and found objects titled Slovenian Athens/Frog Village, Chicken Village–is the most colorful in the exhibit and contains the widest range of visual references.

Slovenian Athens is a pastiche of images and objects mounted on both sides of a 12-foot-tall orange and gray freestanding wall. One side features five arched panels, each including a painting showing the silhouette of a sower superimposed on a vibrant landscape; above the sower, in the upper part of each arch, is a Madonna and Child. Each landscape is different–an ocean, a forest interior, a snowy mountain pass, a cave, and a rural village–as are the religious images, which look as though they might be copies of sculptures or frescoes in Yugoslavian churches. Each panel is surrounded by a dark wood frame decorated with cast pewter reliefs of grapes, leaves, and sheaves of grain; below each is a gray marble slab on which the words “Slovenske Atene, IRWIN, 1983-1987” have been carved. This side of the installation takes up the theme of preindustrial history, juxtaposing references to the dawn of time (the sunrise painted over the ocean) with scenes of domestication, agriculture, and organized religion.

On the other side of the wall are five much smaller paintings, encased under glass, in old frames made of heavy, rough wood. These paintings feature mostly aerial views of factory-lined streets and anonymous, boxy buildings painted with a limited palette of grays, browns, and blacks. Some of them have painted over their surfaces patterns imitating mold, cracks, or other damage; no painting includes a human figure. Strangely, the modern subjects on this side look decayed, much older than the ancient subjects on the other side. A misshapen, three-dimensional black cross is attached to the painted surfaces of the industrial scenes; in each it seems to try to fit into the design but succeeds only awkwardly, if at all. Placed atop the frame of each painting are found objects, such as broken pieces of white plumbing porcelain, stacks of burnt books, and a plastic statue of a kneeling angel.

Like Kovacs, IRWIN shows the industrial age to be bleak and barren. In Slovenian Athens (which relates to Athens only in the sense that it is a repository of fragments from the past), the present is diminished–the small and dark modern scenes are literally dwarfed by the large, lush sower/landscape paintings.

“Sowers of Myth” is a thought-provoking introduction to some of the concerns of contemporary Central and Eastern European artists. A show that presents a broader range of work by any one of these artists, or by a number of artists from just one of these countries, would be a welcome follow-up. This is the kind of show we have come to expect from the Cultural Center–one that brings to our attention styles, subjects, and points of view not often seen here–and as such it represents a strong argument for the building’s continued use as a public, noncommercial center for the arts.