Transatlantik features three cultural envoys in Moving Gallery show
by Michael J. Krainak
Many is the man or woman who wanted to take that voyage “across the pond” — seeking one’s fortune, a new beginning or maybe just to escape with no intention of returning.
Let the record show that most such movement has been east to west across the Atlantic. Yet, today, “The land of opportunity” is no longer an exclusive reference to America.
Just as many Americans are rediscovering roots in their mother countries, whether for profit, enlightenment or enjoyment, many come to the United States and actually book a return flight. Upward mobility has met its match in global outreach. Diversity and multi-culturalism are the new coin of the realm on the exchange market. Go West, or wherever, has taken on new meaning. And yes, you can go home again, richer for the experience.
When travel is not an option, one way to connect to another’s culture is through art; that is, opening one’s self to other ways of thinking and free expression, often about the same issues that matter to all.
In the past decade, no Omaha visual arts venue has done more to counter provincialism than the Moving Gallery of the Old Omaha Association. Artists and curators from Europe, Mexico and Latin America have come to Omaha repeatedly. Not only with their work, but with their friendship and an open invitation to return the favor in a cultural exchange that crosses borders of all kinds, mends fences rather than builds barriers, and brings art into the conversation outside the ivory tower.
The Moving Gallery’s latest cultural envoys are artists Fulvio de Pellegrin, Paolo Dolzan and Heidi Lichtenberger, on view in the Garden of the Zodiac Gallery in the Old Market Passageway. The exposition is aptly titled Transatlantik and features the photography of de Pellegrin and Lichtenberger and the acrylic and charcoal portraits of Dolzan.
Transatlantik is the first collaboration of these three Europeans, and it is based upon an additional journey, a “road trip” across the United States they took together in 2007. But if viewers are expecting an American photo-op from a foreign point of view with familiar landscapes and local color, they’re in for a surprise. And some consternation.
The exhibition is largely conceptual, based upon “a questioning attitude toward the elasticity of geographical boundaries, Western cultural conventions, and common aspects of human nature, according to the show’s press release which serves as an artist’s statement. Judging by their art, their impression of the U.S. is less flattering and more revealing of how much Americans have in common with all of Western society despite real and perceived differences.
Of the three, de Pellegrin, an Italian living in Freiburg, Germany, has the lighter touch. Though he exhibited a darker vision with his photographs of Sicilian catacombs seen earlier in 2010 in the Moving Gallery’s stunning show Time, Death and Beauty, de Pellegrin returns with humorous images of staged animals in humorous scenarios that mimic or mock human emotions and behaviors.
A note of whimsy and the surreal persists in his photos here, as with “The Common Dove,” who sits meekly wearing a dunce cap; and “The Fear Comes From Above,” a very sheepish mouse staring up the large ass-end of an elephant. In these two images as well as “Hello Friends,” depicting two giant astronauts who appear to have landed among a herd of lambs, the animals center stage are submissive and ignorant, and it is tempting to place blame on certain political parties, policies and institutions seen symbolically in these tableaux.
On a more optimistic note are “The Jump” and “The Dream of the Penguin,” both of which illustrate animals breaking free of what holds them back. In the former, the worm has turned as a lion leaps from its perch at its clownish, would-be lion tamer. In the latter, our helmeted penguin is frozen in mid-flight. The lion reacts according to its nature and the penguin succeeds in transcending its own. Such is the sublime nature of being human refusing to be tamed or discouraged.
Lichtenberger, also from Freiburg, illustrates a fundamental human quality in her Transmission Window video and four subsequent video stills, “I-IV,” the need to achieve balance and harmony in one’s life. In video and stills, daring young men in suits and athletic shoes are slacklining, a popular aerialist sport, on flexible nylon webbing rather than high wire. Nevertheless, the sensation of attempting control amidst high risk and adventure is just as dizzyingly dramatic. This is especially true of her sensational video rear-projected on a large window above M’s Pub in the Old Market. This is the sort of alternative, public visual experience seldom seen in this community, and it is dearly welcomed.
Unlike de Pellegrin’s pristine fine prints that make use of theatrical staging and lighting, Lichtenberger’s video stills are characterized by red, grainy backgrounds and pixilated imagery, all the better to suit the frenetic, animated atmosphere and the uncertain, tenuous outcome of her protagonist’s pursuits. One can assume, especially as the video is on a loop, that one never really steps down from the “wire” except perhaps by accident or defeat, and that achieving balance is a lifelong pursuit.
Clearly, Dolzan, an artist and instructor in Trento, Italy, exhibits the darkest vision of the human condition in Transatlantik. Most of his portraits are recognizably human despite certain caricature and grotesquery, but his most expressionistic piece is the formidable “Crocodile.” In this large acrylic painting of translucent blues, reds and grays, the transformation is complete, as our sly and voracious, grinning croc oozing from the swamp, is a symbol of cunning hypocrisy, the devil incarnate, at least according to Slavic myth.
His other acrylic and charcoal portraiture also reflects a Northern European tradition, but they are more contemporary as the artist filters his facial distortions via the influence of television, radio, Internet and social media. Especially effective at this are his three acrylics on cardboard made for the Moving Gallery, “The Child,” “Minotaur” and “Countess.” The child is old and depraved before his time, the minotaur, a Wall Street investor bullish on his greedy success while still green with envy, and the countess resembles an Orange County housewife gone wild, and crazy enough to believe her bling and makeup build character.
Though Transatlantik’s satire varies in tone from merely poking fun to the truly Swiftian, it is clearly not meant to be didactic or finger-pointing. These three artists went on a global road trip to America and came, individually, to a similar conclusion: people make the greatest, albeit the most flattering, show on earth, all the world over.
Transatlantik continues through Feb. 16 in the Garden of the Zodiac Gallery, 1042 Howard St. in the Old Market Passageway. For information contact 517.8719 or firstname.lastname@example.org.