Rapoport's paintings evoke emotion, thought

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Unconstrained brushstrokes. Intense color. Turbulent emotions. Portents of things amiss. Gods angry at the corrupt ways of mortals. These are some impressions evoked by the paintings of Soviet expatriate Alek Rapoport (1933-97), which are on display in the Upper Foyer Gallery of Duke University Museum of Art until Dec. 28.

Rapoport was born in the Soviet Union, where as a child he saw his father executed and his mother imprisoned for political opposition. As an adult, he broke with tradition and became part of the avant-garde art movement. Rapoport participated in non-official exhibitions in Leningrad until he and his work were deemed subversive, and he was forced to leave the Soviet Union in the late 1970s.

Upon relocating in San Francisco, he found himself overwhelmed by the spiritual vacuum and commercial hysteria that characterize Western society. "Art in the service of commercialism is no less dangerous than art in the service of totalitarianism," Rapoport explained.

The small exhibit of three paintings and accompanying sketches representative of his post-Soviet work portrays Rapoport's disillusionment and anger toward contemporary Western culture. His works have the feel of a Biblical allusion, a Russian Orthodox icon, a classical Greek tragedy and a modern expressionist work synthesized by writhing dynamic emotion. Rapoport said, "I am a representative of an extinct but re-emerging existence of Judeo-Christian values," in which he sought to re-establish a meaningful role for art by linking it to the wellspring of culture.

Invariably, the first thing that catches your eye as you climb the stairs to the gallery is a mammoth disembodied head entitled "Self Portrait as Mask of Mordechai" (shown to the right) which has been donated to the museum by Rapoport's widow and son. Mordechai was an Old Testament prophet who warned his people of danger to their spiritual selves and refused to bow to the enemy. The mask, electrified with both intense, gnashing color and livid anger, screams in defense of the integrity of art and artist and as a public warning against spiritual depravity and materialism, yet at the same time Mordechai holds his hand to his ear to listen for a response. The screaming mask's wrath is symbolic of Rapoport's refusal to sell out to the crass commercialized art industry.

A second work, "The Three Deeds of Moses," depicts three tornado-like figures of Moses churning in wrath as they throw down the golden calf, smash the tablets of the Ten Commandments and order the death of the apostates. The contorted, almost unrecognizable gray figures and wild brushstrokes of blue and red convey the harsh measures that Moses, and hence Rapoport, use to reform the people they care for.

In "Lamentation & Mourning & Woe," the beseeching, angular figure of a prophet cowers below a sword-yielding angel who brings a stern message from the Lord. Thus, Rapoport brings a strong message to the spectator to embrace the genuine and spiritual aspects of life and of the world. The brilliance of the azure blue background contrasted against the gilded white marble figures conjures images of white-washed Greek villages framed by the Aegean Sea, and ultimately conveys a sense of hope.

This exhibit leaves viewers changed from when they enter. Rapoport's art does everything great art should: It makes you look inquisitively, experience emotion and most importantly think.

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