For Michael Melik and the artists on display in his new group show at Contemporary Design & Art Gallery, the exhibit is about more than just art. The 19 artists from various Eastern European countries represented in Fresh Breath of Air are using the show to celebrate the freedom to express themselves artistically, which was heavily censored if not stifled outright in their native countries.
The story starts with the trek of Melik, a native of Azerbaijan, to America 20 years ago. In the former USSR, no one was allowed to practice art without formal education. He found a space in an old World War II-era bomb shelter to provide woodworking lessons to youths, but when the authorities found out he was also using it as his own art studio, he was shut down. “What’s normal business here was illegal there. That’s why so many people from Eastern Europe come here,” he says. “If you have ideas and talent here, people recognize you.” He adds that roughly half of his artists have no formal art training.
The show’s featured artist, Alex Taymer, has lived in Utah for 13 years. He has sold work internationally, and his most recent project was to decorate the late Larry H. Miller’s Megaplex Theater in Ogden. Melik says Taymer keeps trying new styles, bringing him two or three new paintings a month, and his colorful abstractions in this show seem to reflect the glittering lights of his hometown of Moscow. He also writes poetry. Taymer jokes that he had a gesture of recognition for the work of a “struggling artist” provided by his dentist: “I chipped a tooth, and he asked me to pay with a painting instead of cash.”
Orest Nakonechny found living to be cheaper here than in New York City, where he had been residing. “New York eats your space and time,” he explains of his struggles in a studio there, not even knowing how to speak English at first. In addition to playing violin, he also plays gypsy jazz guitar. Karina Jangulian, from Melik’s home town Bakul, used to live here before moving to Kentucky. Melik says all the artists in the show have lived in Utah at some point. All of these artists work other jobs to support themselves, remaining unable to survive on the income generated by their art alone. Melik does woodworking for F. Weixler, referees amateur soccer, plays music and wrote a guidebook on Utah mushrooms. Nakonechny is a violin maker. Taymer works at a machine shop and a moving company. Romanian collagist Liliana Matasa teaches art. “Most of these artists are multi-talented, Renaissance people,” Melik proclaims. These artists take the freedom of opportunity to heart and seem to utilize as many art forms as they can.
The art from all these countries carries a deeper message, Matasa explains. “People in the former Yugoslavia are fighting, yet artists from Croatia and Bosnia have art here in the same space in peace.” Nakonechny’s native Ukraine was the most separatist Soviet Republic against Russia, but in America the old conflicts can be left behind.
It’s also a geography lesson to Westerners who have tended to lump the old Eastern Bloc together. Matasa’s native Romania was Communist but Latin in language and culture; more similar in that way to Venezuela, where she later lived.
The styles of these artists tells much about their cultural experience as well. Melik says Lithuanian Darius Kuzmickas’ pinhole-camera pictures and large bluetinted beach scenes reflect the cool demeanor of the Baltic people. Armenian wood carver Gevork Paronyan uses motifs from the Armenian alphabet and also crosslike symbols referencing his country as the first nation to officially adopt Christianity. Matasa’s collages in a combination of styles reflect her experience in several countries. “I’m connecting patterns from different cultures; it’s part of who I am,” she explains. Similarly, Nakonechny says he discovered surrealism in the work of filmmaker Luis Buñuel. “It’s an international creed, a way of playing with ideas,” he explains.
The gallery has inhabited its new site, on Main Street near 100 South, since last January, and before that was housed on 300 South near the Judge Café. The new space is more airy and elegant, with display cases to showcase jewelry and other small pieces. “The biggest goal of the new gallery is to bring new people to the art market, to create new names,” explains Melik, who now represents over 50 artists.
He doesn’t show strictly Eastern Europeans either—next month’s exhibit showcases Utah surrealists. Nakonechny says, “We are lucky to have Michael. For him, it’s always a matter of personal interest; he only puts art on the walls that he actually likes.”
FRESH BREATH OF AIR
Eastern European Artists in the USA
Contemporary Design & Art Gallery
127 S. Main
Through June 2