In his first U.S. solo exhibition, titled “Yesterday’s Heroes, Tomorrow’s Fools,” Zsolt Bodoni, who is Romanian-born but Hungarian by descent, presented what initially seemed a modest exploration of painting’s formal issues. Soon, however, visual excavation of the images’ gray, washy layers revealed figures immersed in hazy, romantic narratives of post-Soviet-bloc Eastern Europe. Often, they are workers striving to bury their past by dismantling, or putting into storage, the monumental sculptures that symbolize it.

Bodoni firmly resists the seduction of poetic embellishment, conceptual or painterly, a restraint that pays off in a dynamic tension between seemingly tentative passages of blurry abstraction and human forms and cityscapes described with shimmering clarity. The official stone and bronze monuments themselves are marginalized. Bodoni’s focus is on the workers who must continue to care for, or dispose of, the cultural detritus of a failed utopian society. Sometimes, their work includes recycling the bronze for statues honoring the new favored leaders.

Back to Storage (2008) evokes a popular subject of 19th-century Western painting: the artist’s studio. But the dramatically isolated white figure at this painting’s center, economically rendered in a few adept strokes, is closely examining a clipboard rather than standing at an easel, disappointing the viewer’s expectations of lofty pursuit. Behind him, a shadowy fellow worker hoists a large, cumbersome statue onto a hand truck, readying it for storage.

In Stalin’s Boots (2009), Bodoni asks, “Who is the hero now?” A jet-black background frames a silhouette of the bottom half of a mammoth sculpture of Stalin, capturing his signature boots and overcoat. The elusive light in this painting comes partly from the bright streaks of bare canvas visible through the fast, though carefully considered, strokes of thin paint. A second source of illumination, a mysterious, unseen spotlight, links the setting to a stage, though ambiguous indications of scale also suggest that it might be a large city square.

Bodoni glorifies the living, breathing working men who patiently care for outdated statues amid strained conditions in the once-Communist countries of Eastern Europe. Even when slated for removal, these statues continue to demand attention, much like spoiled, needy children. The past cannot be dismantled in a single stroke; ironically, it consumes the attention of the very people committed to dismantling it in the interests of forging a better future.   

Photo: Zsolt Bodoni: Stalin’s Boots, 2009, oil and acrylic on canvas, 133⁄4 by 213⁄4 inches; at Mihai Nicodim.