Axis Bold as Love

The new Schmidt Art Center in Belleville, Ill., presents an exhibition of contemporary art from Iran

Considering that it's taken years to get a decent fine-arts facility off the ground at billion-dollar-endowed Washington University, you wonder whether there's something in the water over in Belleville. Reuter plans to make the Schmidt a resource for area schoolchildren and instructors, as well as for the college. There's a screen above the reception desk on which students can watch educational videos on artists and art movements, a smart addition to an arts center looking to serve a generation clued into the moving image. Reuter plans to host small concerts, as well as lectures.

A Breeze From the Gardens of Persia wasn't planned as the inaugural exhibition -- delays in construction made it so -- but Reuter acknowledges it's proved timely, "a look at the humanity" of a country labeled evil. If visitors come in imagining brown desert landscapes, they indeed find references to that setting, as in Gholam Hossein Nami's "Desert," a square of clay and acrylic on board that presents at least five different surface textures, varied browns and red clay cracking like caked earth. Although localized by its reference to landscape, Nami's work is reminiscent of the abstract explorations of Western artists such as Antoni Tapies.

The integration of Western influences into the Persian traditions is central to this exhibition in that the artists weigh aesthetic, religious and political concerns. Habibollah Sadeghi paints a guitar player in a field of flowers as the impressionists might have painted him. Reza Bangiz, in an exceptional group of linocuts, "Design Series," depicts spiked-helmeted warriors on horseback, brandishing curved swords. The images reflect an ancient iconography but also hint at present-day passions and fears.

Nobody's talking about those fears or mentioning the "axis of evil" during the opening-day celebration at the Schmidt. A white-haired woman in a splendid gold jacket enters the space and sighs to a volunteer gallery attendant, gray-whiskered and hunched with age, "We need this."

"Well," he replies, "it's here."

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