CMA showcases the renowned collection of Columbus' Neil Rector as current events increase its relevance.

When the Columbus Museum of Art approached German Village resident Neil Rector more than a year ago about exhibiting pieces from his extensive Russian and Soviet art collection, it was to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Like many institutions throughout the U.S. and Europe, CMA simply wanted to mark the occasion. “We couldn't have guessed then that these other events, the current events of the last year, would make it relevant,” says Drew Sawyer, the museum's head of exhibitions.

Whether your interest is historic, political or artistic, Red Horizon: Contemporary Art and Photography in the U.S.S.R. and Russia, 1960–2010, offers a rare and incisive glimpse into “dissident” art—work not approved, sponsored or controlled by the government—during and after the fall of the U.S.S.R. The exhibition is on view until Sept. 24 in a range of media, including photography, painting, sculpture and more. (A public event on Sept. 14 will feature art historians and two featured artists, who will address how this exhibit's themes relate to recent events in Russia.) “In the U.S.S.R., all forms of culture were under state control. … But many artists found ways to make work that was their own, from both within and outside that system,” says Tyler Cann, CMA's curator of contemporary art.

Rector says state-sponsored art was required to glorify government leaders or portray happy workers. “Even if you created something ambiguous in meaning, that was also threatening to a state that says there is only one meaning,” Rector says.

For example, a painting on display by Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid depicts the classic Venus de Milo statue, with the addition of crudely scribbled arms holding a hammer and sickle. Rector explains that this work is designed to comment on the Soviet belief that its culture was a continuation of a classical tradition, as opposed to more “decadent” Western art. The artists intentionally made the Soviet symbols crude and out of place to suggest that official Russian art isn't cleanly grafted onto this historical/classical culture, despite the government's efforts.

Sawyer adds that many such artists were imprisoned or even killed for their perceived rebellion. “Certainly, creating unofficial art in Soviet Russia was a threat to people's safety and liberty. So it is really key for visitors to imagine the political context in which this work was made. … I think the exhibition as a whole is a kind of testament to creativity under difficult social-political circumstances.”

Rector, the founder of the insurance regulatory consulting firm Rector & Associates, explains that his interest as a collector is less about political dissidence than it is about finding voices with something new and important to say to the broader world. “Really interesting art is always made at the time of political change; those artists were the ones who were creating new and innovative things … as opposed to just mimicking government policy. It's fascinating to see how artists as creative people deal with oppression or totalitarianism. Even now, both sides politically seem to [be] becoming less and less nuanced in their positions. How do artists navigate that space?”