Hello, I'm Igor. Can we be friends?
VERY few of today's paintings say in effect, ''Hello! My name is Sam, and I'd like very much to talk with you.'' And even fewer state, ''I've had a particularly beautiful or meaningful experience, and I'd like to share it with you.''
I wonder why that's so. It intrigues me that art, which has a positive genius for creating empathy and for transmitting emotion, should have been so involved this past century with matters of form and theory. And why has it only occasionally permitted a message of concern, joy, sharing, hope, or love to wing its way from artist to viewer?
Perhaps it has to do with the nature of our age, with its deep and powerful passions, anxieties, and fears. And with the fact that most of art's energies have been directed toward redefining its realities and priorities in an age dominated by science and technology and contaminated by world wars, atrocities, dictatorships, and numerous attempts at self-induced oblivion.
Whatever the reason, relationships, especially those of a gentle or loving kind - have only rarely been given form in today's art. Modernism, by and large, has concerned itself with other matters, and nonmodernist art has tended to sentimentalize such themes or to focus its attention on tradition or skill. As a result, intimacy and expressions of love are much more typical of 19th rather than 20th-century art.
Picasso, of course, produced a few lovely studies of young women with children, but they occupy a very minor position in his art. And the same must be said of the occasional touches of human warmth and tenderness that occurred in the work of Bonnard, Rouault, Soutine, Klee, Chagall, and a few others. Even Kollwitz, that magnificent portrayer of human truth, was far from her best when dealing with the love of a mother for her child.
Only Modersohn-Becker, of all the major or pivotal figures of 20th-century modernism, seemed perfectly at home with the direct expression of the gentler human emotions. One wonders, however, to what extent her art would have become tougher and more overtly Expressionistic had she lived past 1907.
The deeper we get into our century, the harsher, more bombastic, or purely formal does our art become. Only here and there do we find someone like Calder, Miro, Cornell, or Simonds to lighten the mood - or like Wyeth or Ahearn to remind us of our everyday humanity. An alienating abrasiveness rather than a reconciling tenderness stamps much of the art of the post-World War II period.
A great deal of that, I suspect, results from the fact that our art has become increasingly urban and tough-minded, and that the ''rural'' or less confrontational art we produce has been largely ignored. The gentleness and openness we feel in the recent paintings of Morris Graves, Stamos, Philip McCracken, Peter Poskas, and John Wilde, for instance, are generally not taken as seriously by those who decide what is ''important'' as are the toughness and ambiguity intrinsic to the work of such artists as John Walker and Julian Schnabel. And when we take into account the large numbers of superb straightforward or lyrical landscapes being painted today that await recognition , it becomes even clearer that our ''experts'' tend to equate the highest forms of artistic truth at this time with the values and attitudes of an urban society or culture.
Empathy in art is out - or at least is in rather short supply. It can still be found, but generally not in work that consistently finds its way into our major museums.
When whimsy enters the picture, there is even less likelihood that either the artist or the work will be taken seriously. The art world is particularly hard on pictures that are fanciful - especially if they also focus on the emotions, and don't concern themselves with the important formal issues of the day.
Igor Galanin is an artist who doesn't let that bother him. His paintings are frankly whimsical - as well as tender and nostalgic. They are also quite magical and mysterious, with delightfully exotic people and animals occupying landscapes and cities that bear only the slightest resemblance to any on earth, and that remind us vaguely of Old World fairy tales and traditions.
That should not surprise us, however, for Galanin was born in Moscow in 1937 and didn't immigrate to the United States until 1972. His paintings - possibly as a result - project a sense of spiritual and geographic dislocation, as well as a subtle yearning for a better and more loving time and place.
His 1984 ''Self Portrait'' perfectly expresses this mood. In it the artist looks out at us in a totally open manner, saying in effect, ''Hello, I'm Igor. I know I'm not quite the same as you, but maybe if we sit down together for a while we can get to know each other - and possibly even become friends.''