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Seeing Red 

"Either you are with us, or you are against us ... ." Who said that? Was it John Lennon, V. I. Lenin or George W. Bush? If you said Bush, you're right. But if you said Lenin, you're also right. So is Bush a Leninist, or was Lenin a Bushist? Either way it's a bust. Although Lenin managed to parlay his black-or-white "moral clarity" political fundamentalism a little longer than Bush did, his reign ended a few years after it began. Even so, his legacy lingered until communism collapsed, leaving in its wake the most capitalistic of all consumer items: souvenirs and memorabilia. Objects with no useful value whatsoever.

There were probably lots of surplus busts of Lenin floating around the former USSR in recent years, and when one of them fell into the hands of alternative and anthropological art impresario Andy Antippas, he had plaster replicas made to see what artists might do with them. It was a conceptual challenge to turn an icon of collectivism into an object of individual expression, but local artists rose to the occasion and the result was Lenin: BUSTed, a collection of 50-something variations on a theme. Most are about as zany as their subject was severe.

Lenin, unlike the bloody tyrants and party apparatchiks who succeeded him, was brilliant and sincere, although he eventually was frustrated by the task of trying to modernize and Westernize a place as backward and superstitious as Russia. Like all zealots, he soon found that his zealotry collided with reality, which may have hastened his death by stroke (or poison) in 1924. Because he saw no room for individual expression, he fell out with Russia's artists, who fled in droves despite being initially supportive of his goals. European artists often identified with his ideals, however, and the surrealists in particular saw Lenin's emphasis on ordinary people as simpatico with their own emphasis on ordinary things, or "found objects," as raw materials for art. Antippas' Lenin busts fall into that category, or as he told the show participants: "You have the equivalent of a Surrealist Readymade in front of you ... ."

Poor Lenin. Russians still make pilgrimages to his tomb, but New Orleans artists are messing with his head. Typical of what happens when an icon of authoritarianism collides with capitalist opportunism and artistic irreverence is John Lawson's Inauguration of Lenin World, Moscow, a modified and modernized Lenin in Mickey Mouse ears. Gazing stoically from a kitschy red plastic bumper car flanked by Mickey and Minnie and Donald Duck waving American flags, Lenin sadly surveys the brave new world of globalization, perhaps counting the days before McDonald's opens a Lenin's Tomb franchise.

No less cruel is Mary Jane Parker's conversion of Lenin's head into a red, white and blue piggy bank, replete with red tie and coin slot atop his hairless cranium. Similarly, Patrick Lichty's Magic 8 Ball Bust O' Lenin turns the father of communism into a penny arcade game with flashing lights for eyes and flashing LED slogans at the push of a button. Patti D'Amico and Jacqueline Bishop both excerpted Lenin's sometimes paradoxical remarks about freedom and class struggle into script written on his face. Though Bishop's bust is meticulous and D'Amico's expressionistic, both convey the surreality of words from that time and place transposed to today.

Some pieces seem almost sympathetic. Dr. Bob's Simply Red is just that, a pedestal covered with old bottle caps and topped off with Lenin's bust, all painted red but for the red cloth fringe around the pedestal top. Imposing yet proletarian, it's like a tramp art homage to history's most idealistic dictator. But, by and large, the irreverent expressionism of works like Stan Rice's bust -- a ghoulishly leering Lenin head wearing a barbed-wire crown of thorns -- sets the tone. Lenin, of course, asked for it by being such a censor and control freak. He may have meant well, but history and especially artists will never forgive him for his rigidity, and most of all, for paving the way for Stalin, a mass murderer with few if any redeeming qualities. Art needs freedom the way all living things need oxygen, and the free flow of information and expression is vital to creativity and democracy alike. These works express an art community's judgement on censors, dictators and control freaks of all stripes.

click to enlarge John Lawson's Inauguration of Lenin World, Moscow is the late communist dictator's worst nightmare realized, a sad take on the creeping global economy.
  • John Lawson's Inauguration of Lenin World, Moscow is the late communist dictator's worst nightmare realized, a sad take on the creeping global economy.
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