Thursday, May 31, 2007

Russel Kraus

This article is several years old but gives some background on this great video. Take the time to watch it.

clipped from www.stltoday.comBy David Bonetti

Russell Kraus: Midwestern Modernist
Post-Dispatch Visual Arts Critic

What can you say when the hottest debut in town is an 87-year-old artist? Young has nothing to do with age, everything with attitude.

Debut might not be a totally accurate word here: Much of the commercial work of Russell Kraus has been seen before, if anonymously, and his stained-glass windows and mosaics continue to embellish many churches in the Midwest and the South. But his paintings, his private work, have not been shown in decades, if ever. Indeed, the most exciting works on view - 18 of the 30 paintings of children he made for his despondent wife in the 1980s - have never been shown publicly.
The retrospective is an education in itself, reprising through the career of one artist much of the history of 20th-century American art.

Kraus' early paintings are social realist. His "Farm Boy" and "Joe," images of a barefoot, freckle-faced farm boy in a straw head and a nattily dressed African-American boy, respectively, are highly competent examples of a painting steeped in representation of the lives of common people.

Later, Kraus made excursions through a hard-edged representational abstraction that owes much to Stuart Davis and a Magrittean surrealism into a kind of hokey magic realism, a movement that needs to be looked at critically by contemporary art historians.

At the same time, Kraus was making his living as a commercial artist, and the work from that part of his career shows that he operated at a high level. His posters for the war effort made under the auspices of the WPA possess the stripped-to-the-bone aesthetic of a nation engaged in life-or-death struggle. No St. Louis war-industry worker who saw his "The Enemy Is Listening" poster would easily let any secret pass his or her lips in the local tavern.

Most impressive among Kraus' commercial illustrations are the two advertisements he made in 1959 for Warren's Lithographic Papers. Both display his skill at precisionist rendering, and, in one, the composition of tools arranged at 90-degree angles betrays a modernist sensibility.

Kraus' stained-glass work is represented by a slide show, and appropriately so, since both projected imagery and stained glass are brought to life by light. And his jewelry designs, represented by examples of the actual works, primarily in elegant ebony and silver, exhibit a sophisticated understanding of art deco simplicity.

The highlight of the show is the 18 paintings of children. It might be easy to dismiss these representations of large-eyed waifs as kitsch, the memory of Margaret Keane too powerful to expunge, but that would be missing the point. The paintings seem to come from a deep place that easily transcends kitsch's superficial appeal. The suppressed feeling expressed is almost frightening. The banal images seem to function as attempted exorcisms of an intolerable situation.

Each of the portraits features a head-and-shoulders, nearly life-size image of a child. Each of the slightly too-perfect faces looks forward toward the viewer inexpressively, a handful tentatively attempting a smile. Many come with props. One girl holds two large stuffed rabbits, their heads the same size as hers, the interiors of their large ears Pepto-Bismol pink. An unsmiling girl with braids holds a large Raggedy Ann doll similarly braided. One of the few boys appears with rows of toy soldiers. An older girl with hair piled on her head in tight coils holds a hysterically smiling clown doll with wild red-yarn hair.

Most of these fastidiously rendered faces appear against brightly colored patterned grounds, op, pop and hard-edged in style. The paintings are vibrantly colored, and, although painted in the '80s, they capture '60s and '70s styles with cast-to-the-wind freedom.
Also striking are the nine small self-portraits Kraus painted between 1942 and 1960. Most are done in the same precisionist style that finds a renewed resonance today. It is fascinating to see the same stolid Midwest face, broad and full, with blond hair, progress through time, the face slipping with the call of gravity, the hair thinning and fading.

Although they are little known, Kraus' paintings of children and his self-portraits strike me as works that belong in major museum collections, especially locally. This show, admirably mounted by Des Lee Gallery director Philip Slein, might be the first step to the fuller appreciation as an artist that Kraus deserves. Washington University's School of Art, which administers the gallery, should be admonished, however, for failing to produce a catalog or at the least a brochure of the exhibition.
This is the Frank Lloyd Wright house that Russell and his wife Ruth lived in in St. Louis. It is now owned by the St. Louis County Parks Department, which maintains the 10.5 acre grounds as Ebsworth Park. House and Park are open to the public.

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