What do you know about Latvia? Something about a mystical power called the kavorka that you learned about on Seinfeld? Then it’s time for a crash course, because the place is blowing up. Latvia is a country of 2 million people located on the Baltic Sea, sandwiched between Estonia and Lithuania. It produces radios, rail cars, and timber, and consumes beer, cheese, and grey peas served with bacon. It’s lukewarm on organized religion, but people happily embrace their pagan roots, celebrating cosmic events like the summer solstice with bonfires and dancing. The capital, Riga, has a gorgeous old town and a stylish population, leading it to be named European Capital of Culture 2014. Latvians drink an ancient, dark liquor called Black Balsam that cured Catherine the Great after she fell ill during a visit. As an emerging democracy, Latvia’s bursting with creative energy, and a new generation of artists is creating work that reflects its place in the world. This is what led me to the National Arts Club on Monday night, as a well-dressed slice of Latvian and New York society gathered to celebrate the launch of Important Contemporary Artists of Latvia, an exhibit featuring 38 paintings from some of the recently-reborn country’s most innovative thinkers. Two cultures were never more suited to each other.
I can’t blame people for not being familiar with Latvia. Not a lot of Americans are, since it was part of the USSR until the fall of Communism in 1991. Were I not of Latvian ancestry myself, I may have missed the exhibition entirely. But it looks like the Latvians, Latvian-Americans, Latvian-Canadians, and other Latvian hyphenates are finally working their way into the global consciousness. There have been breakout Latvian players in the NHL, like goalie Artūrs Irbe. There’s mountaineer Ed Viesturs, who summited Everest seven times without supplemental oxygen. There’s conductor Mariss Jansons, writer David Bezmozgis, restaurateur Sarma Melngailis, Indie-pop singer Katie Stelmanis of Austra, fashion model Ginta Lapiņa, and even dance legend Mikhail Baryshnikov. (Fine, he’s Russian, but he was born and began his ballet training in Riga, so we’ll claim him.)
Some noted Latvians even share my name, which isn’t surprising, as Ozols is one of the most common surnames in Latvia (it means "oak tree," which happens to be the national symbol). There’s Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and occasional New Yorker writer Amy Ozols, to whom I am not related – but we’ve kicked around the idea of a drinking contest that pits her and Fallon against me and Wyatt Cenac (let’s do it, Amy!). There’s the talented, New York-based wedding photographer Sarma Ozols, to whom I am related (she’s my cousin). There’s even a rapper called Ozols, kind of a Latvian Eminem. Ozols isn’t even his real name, it’s Ģirts Rozentāls. He adopted Ozols as a stage name because of what it stands for.
So Latvian culture is busting loose, and the show at the National Arts Club—which celebrates 21 years of Latvia’s re-independence—proved that Latvian artists have moved beyond soft-focus paintings of farmhouses, haystacks, and lazy streams. The spacious gallery features work by nine Latvian artists, and while the art ranges from brutal to joyful, there’s a unity of perspective. This is an outward-looking country now, yet with a deep internal life that peeks through in unexpected places. If you have any Latvian friends, you know that they can be austere, dry-witted, and prone to ironic understatement. There’s a certain expectation of suffering and bad luck inherent in the Latvian psyche that’s the source of endless sarcastic quips along the lines of "don’t worry, things will get worse." In other words, it’s a pretty good fit with brooding downtown Manhattan art circles. Let’s look at some pictures.
The paintings of Kaspars Brambergs reflect this darkness. "Order" (above) begins as a deep look into the abyss, with brown and beige textures—comprised of sand from the Latvian seaside—intersected by dark, straight lines and a coffee-colored corner stained with Tahitian soil. After a few moments, what seems despairing becomes airy and hopeful, like a box-kite taking flight on a blustery day. This painting has lift.
The haunting charcoal-on-paper portraits of Harijs Brants ("Flea," above) reflect a similar dichotomy. What at first seems moody and introspective softens over time, revealing in his subjects hints of curiosity and whimsy. What are they thinking, and why does it feel like they’re judging me? I shiver and sip my chardonnay.
Design enthusiasts will appreciate the funky paintings of Ieva Iltnere. Her "Fragility of the Fireball" (main story image) sets a modern yet eerie scene in a hip urban apartment as a man relaxes on a sofa while two women consider a lightning bolt through panoramic windows. "Plasma," meanwhile, shows a bald-headed young man—at least I think he’s a man—in repose on a leather couch, gazing with empty eyes at a lighted screen. And the striking "Tenderness and Danger" (above) might tickle New Yorkers the most, with its impossibly thin, elegant woman in an evening gown holding a patterned orb, while an infant in a Baby Björn dangles, seemingly unnoticed, from her chest. Is this what happens when you want it all, and get it?
And then there’s the verdant, naturalistic paintings of Andris Eglitis, whose "Living Conditions a 22.09.2010" series features works like the above, a deep, forbidding forest from which several figures emerge. It’s almost refreshingly dark after the upbeat themes from his contemporaries. That’s the Latvian art I know. Bring on the cold!
The exhibit at the National Arts Club is open to the public now through April 21 on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from 10 am to noon, and on Tuesdays from noon to 5pm. After that it moves on to the Latvian Embassy in Washington, D.C. April 26 – May 12, followed by a stint May 18-21 at the Driehaus Museum in Chicago to coincide with the NATO Summit. It ends, fittingly, with a two-week run at the Latvian National Museum of Art in Riga in June. So check out the art and get familiar with Latvia, because you’ll be hearing more about it. Now would someone please open a Latvian pub in New York already?