The earlier paintings, made between 1999 and 2006, are messier and more thickly textured. Their many circular shapes foretell the tubular sculpture Belmar was to make before returning to painting for the “Tierra del Fuego” sequence. Although the “America” works draw on New York’s abstract expressionism, they also evoke Spanish painting, notably Joan Miro, for whom the artist is named. The references to Belmar’s new homeland can be skeptical — a dollar bill is collaged into “They Want Money?” — but also upbeat. “Trip to the Moon” expresses Belmar’s hopes for a new life with vivid blues and cloudlike swirls of white paper collaged into the paint. This vision of a new day seems too assured to be the work of a man who was looking anxiously over his shoulder.
Another secret painter, Nikolai Getman spent decades privately documenting the eight years he was imprisoned in one of Stalin’s Siberian gulags. The Ukrainian artist was released in 1953 but didn’t exhibit the 50 canvases in “The Gulag Collection” until after the Soviet Union dissolved. Even then, Getman worried about the paintings’ longtime survival. So they were moved to the United States in 1997, seven years before Getman’s death. Fifteen of the pictures, all of which now belong to the Heritage Foundation, are currently on display at George Mason University’s Atrium Gallery.
Getman’s paintings depict emaciated corpses, piles of bones and above-ground burials in the permafrost. The artist’s style is expressionist, with bold brush strokes and simplified color schemes, but sufficiently representational to be classified as a dissident subset of Socialist Realism. The various ethnicities of the inmates, who include Japanese prisoners of war, are evident. The layouts of fences, roads and buildings are depicted precisely, and the release papers in a former prisoner’s hands in a painting titled “Rehabilitated” are genuine. They’re the artist’s own.
Many of Getman’s fellow prisoners experienced a different sort of release. The painter employs Christian imagery to depict death as transformation: “Magadan Hills (Golgotha)” places a cross amid a heap of skulls at a site where many perished in their captors’ quest for gold. Dedicated to Getman’s brother, who was executed in 1934, “In the NKVD’s Dungeon” shows a man in a narrow, stone-walled passage, flanked by two members of Stalin’s secret police; the doomed prisoner’s head is illuminated from behind, as though by a halo. Few of the pictures are spiritual, however. Most of them testify to everyday gulag existence — lice, cold, meager rations — with naked intensity.
Encaustic, a mixture of pigment and beeswax, is an ancient medium that’s in vogue with a surprisingly large number of Washington painters. “Wax Works,” at Alexandria’s Athenaeum, groups the art of six local women who use the substance, although the show includes little encaustic painting. The small, starkly beautiful pieces in Jeanne Garant’s series “Second Chance” fix scraps of rusted metal in fields of wax. Mary Early applies beeswax to balsa wood forms, endowing simple shapes with complex textures. Julie Dzikiewicz uses encaustic as the background for collages of fabric, photographs, buttons and miniature dresses, designed to evoke the history of the women’s suffrage movement.