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Russian roulette 

Group Show: New Paintings from the Collection of Gertsev Gallery

Gertsev Gallery, which specializes in Russian art, now sits on the same block as a Mama Fu's and a CVS drug store. In that context, Gertsev looks more and more like an exotic poppy in a sea of ordinary daisies. The current Group Show of various Russian artists ups the ante of culture shock with images whose peculiarities and iconography often get lost in translation.

The first painting that greets visitors is, at $10,000, an exceptionally pricey specimen of clown art by single-monikered artist Suro. Suro's "Clown in Love" depicts an ambiguously gendered denizen of the harlequin caste in a swoony moment, its bright blue cap tilted sideways on its head in some shorthand for romantic wooziness.

Though I know when kitsch-surfing artists like John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage are pulling my leg, much of the work in Gertsev's group show offers a challenging riddle. The question of the artists' intent -- Ironic? Earnest? -- becomes a plea for help ringing in your ears. By the time you get to the teddy bears that populate Alexander Zakharov's cutesy-overload acrylic paintings, your teeth ache and your head swims.

Is Zakharov serious? In the intensely hued landscape painting "Here Is One," a pair of fluorescent-pink teddy bears tote beach equipment and consider two wooden signs dotting the moss-covered beach, warning of crocodiles in the water. Perpetual optimists that they are, the teddies imagine sweetly smiling crocs, although Zakharov hints that the crocs have something more like disemboweling on their minds. The pictures contain even more surprises, but I don't want to give everything away and be the kind of killjoy who points out Waldo in the picture puzzle.

Maybe it's just the present company that makes Zorikto Dorjiev such a standout. His paintings of "Sleeping Monks," where only their brown heads peek out from a landscape of robes, or the fairy tale "Princess's Dream," of a woman sleeping on an enormous pile of mattresses a la "The Princess and the Pea," manage to be surreal and slightly childlike without a single big-eyed teddy bear.

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