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Fair play?
The real world invades chess in the latest from Samuel Bak
" . . . Your Move: Chess in the Art of Samuel Bak"
At the Pucker Gallery, 171 Newbury Street, August 2 through September 1.

"Chess is like life" is a maxim about the Royal Game, which emerged out of India some 1500 years ago and is now played all over the world. Itís true that though the 64-square board is finite, the number of possible different games approaches the infinite. And though the pieces, from king to pawn, seem to mirror the class structure of society, the pawn can become a queen, and the queen has all the power. But chess is also an orderly game with strict rules. Both sides start with the same forces. You canít move twice in a row, or castle after youíve moved your king, or return a piece to the board after itís been taken. Captured pieces are not tortured and executed; instead they stand alongside the board and cheer their side on. Youíre not allowed to distract or intimidate your opponent. There are no tanks, or stormtroopers, or yellow stars, or crematoria. At the end, the loser shakes the winnerís hand. Itís really not like life at all.

Artist Samuel Bak, who used to play chess with his stepfather, Nathan Markovsky, is a Vilna Ghetto and Holocaust survivor, so he understands this better than most. He has been exploring the relationship between chess and life since the early í70s, and most recently at the Pucker Gallery in February 2000 in "The Game Continues." The title of the show that will open at the Pucker next Saturday might look innocuous were it not for the War on Iraq and the talks between Israel and her Arab neighbors. Or is Bak depicting postlapsarian humanity and putting the question to God?

Whatís new about " . . .Your Move" is the extent to which Holocaust imagery impinges upon the artistís traditional chess metaphors, and the virtuosity with which he mixes the two. The title of Various Openings refers to the many textbook approaches one can take to the beginning section of the game, from the straightforward Kingís Gambit to the hypermodern Réti, but Bak has much more in mind. A small pawn is fastened by a leather strap to a platform that rests on rollers; it might be facing a firing squad, or the movable platform might be a death-camp conveyance. Just above it, two pieces of tin frame an opening thatís like the pawnís giant shadow, but it also suggests a keyhole, and in fact the cannon-like object pointed at the pawn is a giant key with a pawn/keyhole silhouette cut into its flange. To the left of the tin structure rises a stone arch with another pawnhole/keyhole cut into it, as if that were the only way out of this warped chess world. In the background you can see parts of Bak landscape paintings, a facsimile of reality in the same way that a chessboard is. In the foreground at the far right, only partly in the frame, a larger pawn watches. Is it a Nazi collaborator? God? Is there a difference?

Everywhere you look, the rules of chess (life?) are being broken. The squares of the board are cracked and crumbled into the bombed-out rubble of World War II or any other war. Large stone cubes incised like dice suggest that what should be a test of skill has become a game of chance. Both motifs are salient in Intruder, where from behind what might be a shield a black king and a white queen survey the wreckage of their board. The pawn in The Designated is strapped to an oversized key; a huge keyhole looms behind it (the doorway to a better world?), but thereís also a small one in nearby board, a Lewis CarrollĖlike touch. In Signals, masts with makeshift white sails emerging from cracks in the board could represent rescue ships, but one mast is topped with what looks like the crown of a chess king, and the sail has a faint pink X through it; two pawns (children?) stand underneath. From underneath the board, crematorium smoke rises.

The title Uplifting sounds encouraging, but what we see is a large pawn with tree roots and the section of the board it was standing on being airlifted by a pulley and ropes. Every Bak forest conjures Ponar, outside Vilna, where his father and grandparents were murdered; at one edge of this one a king watches surreptitiously while behind the central tree a bishop hides. Huge pawns strew the landscape like fallen ancestors; to the right, a large knight looks on. The same motifs pervade Where the Wind Blows: with leaves blowing everywhere and the pieces rocking in the wind, two pawns are jacked from the game while a huge queen, her lower half torn away, watches. Flight finds one pawn escaping in a gigantic pink-and-white-striped balloon while in the foreground a crippled fellow watches, its tin wings of no apparent use. The angel pawn of Messenger has been snared by the pulley ropes and hangs upside down, one of its tin wings torn off. The board of Stronghold has been flooded with water, one presumes from the hose that snakes through the barren landscape (or is it releasing gas?). Some pieces struggle in the murky fluid; others, corralled in a makeshift pen, watch helplessly (thereís a lot of that in these works).

A trio of 36-by-24-inch pieces form a kind of centerpiece, though they wonít be hanging side by side. Royal Couple depicts a king and queen ó the one with cloaked cannon phallus and pawn-head testicles, the other with twin-headed-pawn breasts ó under a rickety hoopah and amid the usual rubble. Triumvirate shows a trio of kings under the jury-rigged arc/arch thatís Bakís symbol of Godís broken rainbow covenant. Two are wearing cloaks; one has a faint-pink bullís-eye sign hung around it. In Royal Flight, the balloons are back; one in the far distance carries a pawn, but a closer one is partly hidden by a building remnant, so we canít see what itís carrying ó a refugee, or a rescue party, or another sort of Party? In the alcove of the building, among variously broken and skewered attendants, a king huddles in a cloak thatís starting to look like a body bag. The theme is still more explicit in Boards Meeting, where a bundled and tied king addresses boxed pawns regarding pieces of board hung like sales charts while a queen and pawn look on from the Xíd-out outside.

In Knowledgeable, the board is set on stacks of volumes representative of the Jewish (and other) learning destroyed by the book-burning Nazis plus more large stone dice; the real import of the title, however, is the way, among the chesspiece parts, one knight nuzzles another. Such tender gestures are rare in the 23 oils here but not in the 20 watercolors and drawings. Bathed in blue moonlight, the two knights in Across have emerged from the bowels of their earthquake board for a nocturnal meeting. The determined-looking knight in Transcribed is a horseís head atop more books; itís flanked by a king and two pawns that have armed themselves with learning. Bishop, Knight, Rook has a prelate armed with a tin spear, a knight on wheels ready to roll, and an impregnable-looking castle; they seem ready to take on not the other side but the creator of the game. Ditto for the crew of Ready, whoíve come up with chessboard shields and a cannon. Hero gets support from the battle-weary other pawns as it rises fresh from the box. And the knights of Cease Fire huddle ambivalently ó what cease fire can there ever be in chess, or in life? They seem to be saying, . . . your move.

Issue Date: July 25 - 31, 2003
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