I'VE COME TO the conclusion that Clayton Williams is a man of discriminating tastes. It's not his impeccable clothing that provoked this opinion, nor the manner in which he stands, arms folded neatly across his chest, when discussing a watercolor, etching or oil painting. It's not his savoir faire when dealing with potential buyers. Williams loves art: all forms of art. When expounding on the sumptuous colors of a LeConte Stewart, J. Alden Weir or Vasiley Zaitchenko - one of the many Russian artists he represents - his voice quickens, filling with passion. It's almost embarrassing, like standing next to young lovers sharing verbal intimacies in a crowded elevator: You feel like an interloper, but you cannot turn away.

Williams Fine Art is a modest-sized gallery, boasting several giants of Utah art: Harwood, Stewart, Young, Weir and Richards. Williams also offers newer artists. Kent Wallis, a plein air impressionist whose life reads like a Horatio Alger story, paints landscapes. But what landscapes! He renders flowers with such luminosity they appear juicy. While examining his "Garden at Lakeside" (oil on canvas, 36 inches by 48 inches, 1994), I was reminded of an experience I had two years earlier at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. While studying a Van Gogh, I felt a sudden urge to reach out and touch the irises of the Dutchman's painting. As I inched closer, a voice - and it wasn't a gentle voice - said, "Step back from the painting." I didn't move quickly enough to satisfy the security guard and almost got kicked out of the museum.Wallis' struggle for artistic fulfillment has, unfortunately, helped forge strong opinions against art criticism. "The pseudo-intellectual community will have us analyzing art for analysis' sake," he says, "viewing art for viewing's sake and buying art for buying's sake. They tell us white is black, good is bad, ugly is beautiful. All this will be done in an effort to convince the ordinary person that he or she cannot understand nor appreciate art. Hence snobbery has told us what's good and what's bad in art." Ouch! Although Wallis' opinion borders on reverse-snobbery - and this is just as deadly to a healthy art scene as snobbery - I must confess I agree: No one has the right to tell another what he or she should see or experience in a work of art.

Apart from Utah artists, Williams offers an important selection of social realist Russian art from the 1930s to the 1960s. It is a common assumption that Soviet art from this period was little more than propagandistic fluff. The truth is most artists of the Soviet Union painted real people, conducting normal lives on the collective farms. By the 1950s, however, the dream began to die.

Vern Swanson, in his article "Engineers of the Soul: Russian and Soviet Realism," states that "once reality set in, exposed first in the denunciations of Stalin in 1956, the invasion of Hungary the same year and later with the drain of the Vietnam War, which sapped the strength of the country, despair and doubt began to lessen their creative spirits. By the end of the 1970s the best artists of the period began to gray, and the climate for producing bright-eyed socialist realism dimmed. No longer did they truly believe in communism. Being the most perceptive in society, they now found the socialist system intolerable and suffocating."

My favorite among Williams' Russian collection is "Couple in Bed" (oil on canvas, 35 inches by 45 inches, 1948) by Valentin Smirnov. Smirnov's painting is a tender scene of a man and his wife, neighbors to the artist, waking in the early light of morning. Still groggy with sleep, the man's eyes remain closed. His wife, comfortable and warm at her husband's side, stares pleasantly out at us. With typical acumen, Williams informed me that the painting was considered unacceptable at the time of its execution. Too influenced by Western thought, it languished in an attic until Williams rescued it from obscurity.

"Whale Boat in Port of Odessa" (oil on canvas, 1950-70) by Gregory Krizevsky is another example of the quality of realism painted during this period. The draftsmanship is flawless; the boat and horizon divide the canvas to provide a pleasing balance between sea and sky, and the colors are rich enough to make the viewer smell salt water.

I would encourage everyone, especially those interested in realism or impressionism, to stroll through Utah and Russian history at the Williams Fine Art Gallery. It will be a visit you won't soon forget.

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