Russia's New Art Form

`Moscow Studio' introduces screen printing, offers forum for ideas

AT a time when the economy is contracting because of a severe economic crisis, Dennis O'Neil is bent on expanding the creative horizons of artists in the nations that once made up the Soviet Union.

Mr. O'Neil is the driving force behind the Moscow Studio, a project devoted to teaching artists fine-art screen printing. Due to the influence of such major American artists as Robert Rauschenberg, screen printing has become popular in the West. But the medium has yet to gain a large following among artists in Russia and other former Soviet republics.

"The primary interest is the exchange of ideas," O'Neil says of the workshop. "It's a high-risk thing; you don't know what can happen, but that's when you have the greatest opportunities for achievement."

O'Neil, who came up with the idea for the project during a visit to Moscow in 1989, was one of four American printmaking specialists to conduct the Moscow Studio's first workshop last summer.

A year-round program is scheduled to begin this winter. Right now hopes are high, based on the success of the summer session, that the year-round venture will attract interest, Sheila Berman says. Ms. Berman helped O'Neil organize the project.

"The artists who've come through here - you can't get them to leave. Once they get going, they get attached to the process," Berman says.

The biggest reason for screen printing's lack of popularity in Russia is the shortage of advanced technology, O'Neil says.

To generate interest in the summer program, he brought state-of-the-art materials and equipment from the United States. Such a logistical operation, however, almost caused the workshop to fail before it had even begun.

"It was unbelievable in terms of bureaucracy," he says. "It took a week to get the crates of equipment through customs. In the end, it took a favor from someone."

In addition to bureaucratic hassles, funding was and remains a concern. To conduct the summer workshop, O'Neil received a $30,000 grant from the Trust for Mutual Understanding, an American foundation. He also received help in obtaining downtown studio space from several Russian organizations, including the International Confederation of the Union of Artists, the commonwealth's successor to the former Soviet Union of Artists.

The summer session drew 15 artists from Russia, Ukraine, and the Transcaucasian republic of Georgia, who produced 21 prints. O'Neil hopes to use those prints as a fund-raising tool to obtain money from philanthropic foundations for the year-round workshop. If all goes well, O'Neil says he will stay in Moscow about two years to get the workshop started. "We'll have a major presence, but the idea is to turn the process over to Russians in a few years," he says.

In addition to introducing artists in the former Soviet republics to printmaking, the Moscow Studio hopes to arrange cultural exchanges and exhibitions in the US, Europe, and Russia.

Boris Belsky, a Russian artist who is a co-director of the Moscow Studio, says the project could facilitate an infusion of new influences into the Russian art world.

"We do not intend it to be a workshop for printmakers only. We hope to attract architects, sculptors, and others who can contribute new ideas," Mr. Belsky says. "It won't lead to a revolution in Russian art. But printmaking can expand the uses of art here."

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