The Ruska Roma, however, are thought to be the most educated Romani groups in Russia. The Russian Gypsies are well-represented in the arts, making their livings as actors, dancers, singers and musicians, and also dabbling in more creative pursuits like horse-trading and fortune-telling.
Austin's Zhenya Rock mines this rich history in a new exhibition at Russian Cultural Center Our Texas. Many are familiar with this multi-hyphenated import from Vologda, Russia, lending his voice to the Flying Balalaika Brothers and Red Elvises. Rock has also been dabbling in the visual arts since he was 17, when he began working as a poster artist and later a prop designer and stage decorator.
In "Gypsy Circus," Rock interjects Russian symbolism into vignettes that celebrate the lives of performers, though they're not always human, through 16 colorful oil and acrylic paintings.
The Russian bear Misha, often found in legends and fairy tales, dances precariously with his foot on a red ball as he tries to catch elusive butterflies in Dancing Bear. In the largest piece in the exhibit, titled Band Leader Bear, the blinged-out Misha (he's wearing a gold hoop earring and embroidered costume) plays the accordion along with his bandmates: the messenger-of-death/agent-of-change crow on guitar and a female balalaika player with bifurcated face.
Other paintings play up Russia's split personality more obviously (schoolbooks can't decide whether Stalin was hero or monster), though instead of incorporating the national emblem of the double-headed eagle, Rock has created two-faced actors.
These dissociated characters appear in the gear-laden Unicycle (with disembodied hand), and again in Balalaika Man, with his face split between checkerboard and star patterns as his blue hands play the popular stringed musical instrument.
Inanimate objects like tables, apparently, also can sport two faces, as in Tricky Gypsy (with its one wheeled leg) and Medusa (with two legs on wheels and wild, flaming snake hair).
There's a lot of attitude in Mechanical Gypsy. In this, a glamorous woman wearing gloves and an off-the-shoulder dress looks away, as if bored with her masked musician partner on keyboard.
Gears and wheels appear in both backgrounds and as central themes. In Gypsy World, a woman wearing a harlequin hat plays with a monkey while a three-piece band performs under the dimmed recesses of her floor-length ball gown. Three unicyclists cavort in Jugglers while a woman tosses playing cards (all aces) as floating harlequin diamonds morph into leaves.
Historically, the samovar served as a way for the Russian family to get together and share tea. The traditional metal vessel still holds sentimental value and appears in Gypsy Muse, along with a seductive Medusa in translucent, polka-dotted garb standing by an abundance of fruit and familiar balalaika.
Our only lament in reviewing this show was in not being able to read Cyrillic, and in the mixing of both reflective oil and matte acrylic on the same canvas. Rock's Why Tango looks intriguing, with the ubiquitous crow swooping down from above to poke out the eye of the musician as he stands on white protuberances (icebergs?) adorned with a scripted message. It looks great, and leaves the viewer wanting to know more.
"Gypsy Circus" continues through January 31, at Russian Cultural Center Our Texas, 2337 Bissonnet, open Mondays through Thursdays, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (closed Thanksgiving) and Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. (closed Christmas Eve), 713-395-3301, ourtx.org. Free.