Masks From a World of Dreams

SOME people insist that they dream in color. I'm not too sure if I do or not. But I'm fairly certain the Moscow-born artist Oleg Tselkov does - even if it is a conscious kind of day-dreaming as he paints. His color - achieved by means of a glazed oil paint that is not entirely pleasant in its slippery, unreal surface - has the weird, illusory intensity of dreams, or of things seen when eyes are shut in a brilliantly lit room. The same luminous, shadowy intensity is there whether Tselkov is painting a pe a r, a chair, a monumentally bulbous man whose head is replaced by a trilby hat, or mask faces.

These mask faces hauntingly recur. Sometimes they multiply. Sometimes they hold a large spoon or fork in their mouths. Or out of their mouths emerges a small man hoping not to be swallowed like Jonah. Sometimes the masks are pinned to a wall surface. They are just there: in virtually monochromatic blue, or green, or purple, or red-pink. The cool light shed over them casts vibrant, hallucinatory shadows. They have the potential insubstantiality of the Cheshire cat's smile. But Tselkov's masks, for all th e

ir uncomfortable humor, do not smile. They are enigmatic.

Tselkov lives in Paris. He is an escapee from the oppressiveness of a Soviet Union that expelled him from art academies in both Minsk and Leningrad, and forced the closure of his one-man show in Moscow, in 1965, after two days. And in 1970 this oppression was exceeded when his exhibition at the Central Club of Soviet Architects was shut down by the KGB after 15 minutes. It was in 1977 that he left his native country.

The potency of Tselkov's work seems to reside in its ability to stir feelings of protest without obviousness. These are not programmatic paintings with articulate or narrative messages. The masks are dense and brainless, as masks are wont to be. They are in lieu of real faces. But it is by no means clear whether they symbolize the facelessness of repressed masses - of victims - or of those who do the repressing and dictating.

And then there are the eyes. Do they belong to the masks, or are they the eyes of the person trapped behind this bland pudding face? Like black marbles they peer or stare out. They could be plaintive, crying for help, or they could be the heartless eyes of oppression.

A monograph on Tselkov was published in Italy by Fabbri Editori in 1988. In it, Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko writes enthusiastically about the artist: "Tselkov has proved that great art is created not by schools and trends, but by faces and individuals. Only a face can vanquish faceless uniformity." Exactly.

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