If every one were not so indolent they would realise
that beauty is beauty even when it is irritating and
stimulating not only when it is accepted and classic.
Gertrude Stein in Composition as Explanation
Eros and Color Awareness
On Tamuna Sirbiladze’s Paintings and Objects
Labeling and historical classification mostly go hand in hand, and thus discussions of Tamuna Sirbiladze’s paintings are sometimes laced with tag words such as “Bad” Painting or Neo-expressionism. While a cursory summary review of recent currents in the history of painting may benefit from such terminology, when it comes to dealing directly with contemporary pictures, it hinders deeper understanding, i.e., accurate perception. What Gertrude Stein aimed to elucidate in Composition as Explanation as well as in her reminiscences of Picasso is that all works giving expression to a new view of things, as well as a personal gaze, also convey to contemporaries a certain ugliness and irritation. They do so until viewers understand that such pictures are not about representations of conventions or previously established agreements but about painting that only signifies itself, and that implies also the process of its emergence. As the process Stein touches upon, namely the transformation of ugliness to acceptance and on to the perception of compositional beauty, applies almost universally to the development of the reception of eminent works of visual art, a historically-oriented label such as Bad Painting, which aims to ascribe pictures to a specific stage of development, would be off the cards.
What is striking about Sirbiladze’s pictures are the reductions of her color palette, which not only set the boundary conditions for her compositions but, in part, also determine the possibilities of semantic and analytical interpretations. For instance when black, shades of brown, and a bright, grayish-blue are applied in jerky, dry brush strokes, which in Sirbiladze’s paintings are often reminiscent of graffiti, leaving blank a canvas-white oval where hints at facial features seem to either indicate a child’s face or a Japanese manga sign translated into painting. The exhibited objects and Ytong blocks, which are covered with tiles, not only encapsulate the possibilities of the color combination outside the realm of painting – the tiles as studies, as it were, for the palettes. With their ruinous touch, which makes palpable the DIY superstore they originated from, they appear to counteract the embellishment of living spaces with paintings and, as stelae, curbstones or memorial slabs, even to zero in on the oft-invoked ending point of painting.
Tamuna Sirbiladze’s painter’s palette can also comprise many colors and, accordingly, her image composition can acquire complexity. Uccelacci e Uccellini (Big Birds, Small Birds), a painting whose title is borrowed from a Pasolini film, shows virtuoso shading between dark green, yellow, blue, pink, shades of brown and white color, from which the scrawly brushstroke offers a distraction. In the digital age, however, this comes across as „beautiful“ when, due to poor image resolution and sufficient enlargement, pixels appear as color squares. With its directional, vertical brushwork, the rectangle at the upper right edge of the picture seems not only to cite the image space but also to magnetically attract the mental activity of the creative painterly process, the expressive gestures which, to a synthesizing contemplation, project a small and a large figure with hair eerily blowing in the wind into these wild color traces. But how can the attribute „expressive“ be raised to the status of universal applicability, which opens the view towards that which is to be expressed and protects a painting associated with it against the devaluation of historical relativization?
The fact that this is not about a specific kind of surface structure becomes apparent when we consider a judgment expressed by van Gogh in a letter to his brother Theo, one that could hardly be put in more abstract terms: „Ah, Manet has come very near, very near to it, and Courbet, the wedding of form to color.“ Attainment of this wedding is neither sought through a specific motivation nor something represented in the picture but in the act of painting. This is exemplified by Sirbiladze’s two small-size complementary images, which cite, among others, Manet’s bundle of asparagus. Perhaps more than his assessment of earlier painters, van Gogh’s doubts about the mode of representation points us to the motivation behind the expression and also to the popular misunderstanding that every expressive painterly approach was subsequently subjected to (in another sentence addressed to brother Theo): „I do not know if I can paint the postman as I feel him.“ What he feels, are not the diffuse states of a hypertrophied inner life but a new look at the possible colors of perceived phenomena.
In The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Jacques Lacan explores the relation between eye, gaze, and picture and proposes that, according to its manner of expression, seeing relinquishes demands made to the Other, and thus also expression, in favor of desire: „The painter gives something to the person who must stand in front of his painting which, in part, at least, of the painting, might be summed up thus — You want to see? Well, take a look at this! He gives something for the eye to feed on, but he invites the person to whom this picture is presented to lay down his gaze there as one lays down one's weapons. This is the pacifying, Apollonian effect of painting. Something is given not so much to the gaze as to the eye, something that involves the abandonment, the laying down, of the gaze.“ Accordingly, with Lacan, Expressionism occupies a special place opposite Apollonian beauty: „Expressionist painting, and this is its distinguishing feature, provides something by way of a certain satisfaction – in the sense in which Freud uses the term in relation to the drive – of a certain satisfaction of what is demanded by the gaze.“ Before satisfaction is achieved, a fight for acceptance is fought in the Dionysiacal realm, and not having laid down one’s arms means, in Gertrude Stein’s sense, to hold out, to also feel the ugly, i.e. to let it be felt.
One of Tamuna Sirbiladze’s pictures is titled „Meinst Ernst?“ (a pun meaning both “You Mean This in Earnest?” and “Do You Mean Earnest?). It is not only the title that plays on the name of Surrealist Max Ernst, the quickly painted picture itself also seems to spring from a poetics similar to that of the Surrealists, which attempted, among others, by way of techniques such as quick, spontaneous action without prior reflection or drafts, to try to sidestep rational censorship, uncover and bring to the fore psychological motives. The palette for this picture only contained „fundamental colors“ such as red, black, shades of grey and brown. Following a delay of recognition on the right side that is typical of Sirbiladze’s paintings, the broad, brush strokes, which are often sparsely colored and leave large areas of white canvas visible, declare open to interpretation the slipshod abstractions of the profile of a female head, diagonally opposite to which, i.e., on the above left we see a smaller red semicircle that has the appearance of a dangling head on the red bar seen on the left side of the picture where a body seems to be sketched out. From the downward-flowing body something like an outsize male member protrudes in the direction of the female profile, flanked by a smaller penis also jutting out from the red area at the lower edge of the picture and a black penis above and to the right of the red semicircle, springing up from a strangely jagged line-drawn torso, which could be representing both teeth-lined jaws as well as atrophied limbs. Ego, id, the great Other, whatever, be it that the image is seen as a triadic attack of Lacanian privation on the desiring gaze or as the finding of form for the brutal dominance of an opponent, this duality of the applied shades of color, the correspondence, opposition, exchange, and reduction of lines, forms and colors in Tamuna Sirbiladze’s works generates a language of color awareness, which can be set in motion by any kind of phenomenon, even if it was related to the innermost structure of the human drive, for the sole reason to mean itself.
translated by Matthias Goldmann
Tamuna Sirbiladze—kill all your darlings
In one form or another every painter’s output is autobiographical. A necessary combination of physical stamina and mental acuity marks the progression of change. Embedded within the material results are the emotive rhythms of one’s daily cycle. Expressed with cool analytic detachment or evidenced by sorrow and rage, these actions are a progression of weeks, months, and years accrued into an oeuvre. We get to know someone through his or her art, or rather, that articulate otherness that’s unique to individual temperament.
Tamuna Sirbiladze kept up a rigorous studio schedule; the paintings accumulated. She usually had several large, medium, and small formats going at once without missing a beat. Everything came in bunches; her color combos found their own logic, patterns developed. You couldn’t categorize Tamuna as singularly abstract, though. Her interlocking shapes often embedded anthropomorphic forms (surreal eyes, bodies, heads) or incorporated still life objects (such as pomegranates ), all totally her own quirks. The 2015 exhibition “good enough” is never good enough was her coming out show at James Fuentes, New York. Some of the oil stick and pastel paintings were large-scale banners flat on the wall, others on the requisite stretcher. This choice selection of pictures was well edited and announced a seasoned artist.
How to overcome the limitations of the stretcher while working within its parameters is a considerable task facing the contemporary painter. Undaunted, Tamuna tackled it with an insouciant attitude towards rigid formalism. She leaned groups of paintings on the wall that you could parse through like posters on a rack. Her site-specific interventions dispensed with conventional painting installations, whether directly on walls overlaid with standard raw-canvas works or in cube structures adorned with staccato mark-making. In a 2012 solo show, she took command of the space in “this is not a gallery” by installing floor-to-ceiling canvases among the rooms. A couple of canvases totally covered the big windows while still allowing natural light to seep through.
For Tamuna, painting was a continually morphing, sometimes aggressive agitprop, unpolished for the mere sake of aesthetic pleasure. Her method of installation emphasized a site-specific (if idiosyncratic) approach to exhibition-making. Painting was its center, expanding and contracting when presented flat on a wall, or as a three-dimensional shelter/refuge utilized as scaffolding to incorporate other artists’ works on and around it. This was her way to defy the bourgeois conventions of painting display. Hence the “cube” paintings hint at a dilemma about the consumerist white cube by offering us a box within the standard rectilinear gallery; truthfully, she wasn’t against the market so much as she was against catering to its trends and easy sell.
In the studio, Tamuna was often full of surprises, some of which I couldn’t quite reconcile as she experimented with numerous forms. Many were delightful oddities that seemed to be one-offs she couldn’t help but produce, perhaps alleviating the intensity of finishing a new series with deadlines for shows fast approaching. Among my personal favorites is the enigmatic White Columns (2011), a sizable (two by three meter) horizontal picture. The two vertical columns of said title appear like stacked, asymmetrical vessels about to topple. Set amidst neutral gray, off-white, and pastel shades of pink and yellow, the background’s rough patchwork of tonal variation emits the stillness found in a Giorgio Morandi still life. Here she captured the silence of a room-space set in an undated time-vacuum.
The artist who hits their stride in the studio is by will creating a potent symbol of their existence. It’s evident when the work gets exhibited posthumously, and gives credence to the hypothesis about the aura of the art object. Abstract gestures enhanced Tamuna’s improvisatory expression while elements of representation and the figure gave her grounding. From her early formative days in Tbilisi, classical underpinnings, and the Byzantine, remain “hidden” in her work. A figurative series she titled V Collection (2012) are details of iconic paintings she loved and appropriated from the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien. A salon hang of several small to mid-size canvases adorned the walls. Caravaggio, Giotto, Raphael, Velázquez: the titans of the canon were her muses and accomplices in cropped paintings that each retain a corresponding resonance with the original. Raphael’s Portrait of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese (1509–1511) has an especially compelling presence, with its bold and shadowy red garment, skullcap, and ground. This is a man who ascended to the papal throne after the fall of Rome in 1527—during tumultuous times. He looks askance, as if he’s about to reprimand a subordinate. The eyes project the intrigue of the persona in this distillation, which destroys Raphael’s portrait of the cardinal whilst remaining true to its essence of power and intrigue.
“In writing, you must kill all your darlings,” said the American author and Nobel Laureate William Faulkner. This quote most certainly applies to the painter’s trade that encompasses Tamuna’s very productive last few years. A close-up of Caravaggio’s cardsharp picture makes for a good example in assessing the creator-destroyer myth of all painters. The chiaroscuro of the baroque master is employed but conjured out of more rudimentary details. The moral of the enduring story is altered from one of urban deception to a metaphor on the fate of the cardholder. The naïveté of the sitter becomes her own pure folktale as told through the jagged lines, traditional color, and ungainly (akin to outsider art) anatomical composition.
In the breadth of life and art, Tamuna Sirbiladze played her personal cards well. She “killed” all her darlings in direct pursuit of that cognitive life force between chance and penultimate fate. Those who encountered her understood she was a force of personality, and heroically stoic to the end. With these thoughts in mind, I’ll conclude with the wise words of Cacamatzin:
Who in the end is spared from leaving, despite his gold and all his jade
Is everyone not bound to go there
Am I a shield of turquoise, a stone set in mosaic
Will I ever walk this earth again
Will they shroud me in fine mantels
Here on earth I think of those who ruled before me
As the place of sounding drums draws near.
Tamuna Sirbiladze - Traces of Life
GALERIE EVA PRESENHUBER, April 8 to May 27, 2017
Opening on Friday, February 7, 6 – 8 pm
Löwenbräu Areal, Limmatstr. 270, 8005 Zurich, 1st floor
For her first solo exhibition in her hometown Tbilisi, in Georgia, Tamuna Sirbiladze chose the title „The Sun Will Rise“. At the time she had just graduated from the State Academy of Arts in Tbilisi and was about to move to Vienna, where she wanted to continue her studies. There she studied at the Academy of Fine Arts under Franz Graf and Heimo Zobernig. When I was in Tbilisi last fall, photographing the artist’s early works for a digital archive, I came upon a poster design for this first exhibition on which the title still read: The Sun Will Rise Again. In this wording the phrase’s possible reassuring, comforting intention is even clearer, for it is chosen as a response to existential distress or deep sorrow. Having had to experience warfare during her childhood, there were surely enough reasons to make provisions against pessimism; in any case, that childhood has made Tamuna Sirbiladze a strong woman, and an artist whose classical training enabled her to execute even monumental outdoor frescoes in the Soviet tradition. For this reason, she later never shied away from large formats, attacking them with gestural force, and for that reason she had a sure feeling for the architectural context in which she exhibited her work. Sirbiladze demonstrated this as well with the walls she designed and sometimes installed in the space: there was one in the London group show „Der Ficker“; the work, now in the Saatchi Collection, was titled „The Husband Is No Wall“ (2007). She worked on her largest surface that same year, in a collaboration with her husband Franz West in Venice’s Palazzo Grassi. It exhibited her typical style in shades of green and with traces of sgraffito originally inspired by wall paintings in the Villa Medici in Rome. Another collaboration, „Moonlight“ (2001), with walls painted silver and panel paintings of hers with two of her husband’s silver seating pieces is currently on view in Vienna’s 21er Haus, a pairing that outshines Franz West’s collaborations with other artists.
The works now presented at Galerie Eva Presenhuber attest in various ways to Tamuna Sirbiladze’s charged immediacy and loose employment of symbols. In the works with oil sticks on raw canvas that she called Banners, sometimes based on drawings by her daughter Emily, the firm attacks clearly reflect the artist’s inner rhythm and the lines the sweep of her body. But the oil stick, like an expanded sense organ, can also follow features like the folds of the loosely hanging canvas. Because of this reduction, which, like every reduction transforms vital energy into concentration, viewers have the chance to truly read the markings and perceive the associations that follow the outlines as the form-giving element. The lines and the things they suggest bring to mind similarities in the paintings in acrylic. In their directness these are more frenzied, and in that the pigment frequently bleeds, the unconscious finds its way onto the surface with fewer restraints. The idea of traces of life seems easier to grasp here. But instead of them we begin to read ourselves, our antagonisms, disorientation, love of chaos, hunger for meaning, for order, or whatever we feel. The artist’s repeated representation of masks in her paintings, indicative of her subversive interest in social rituals—she had read Claude Lévi-Strauss—can be seen as counterpoint to these raw traces of experience: “In this respect one can observe that the social or religious functions of the various types of masks one juxtaposes in order to compare them relate to each other in the same transformational relationship as the sculptural form, the drawing, and the coloring of the masks as material objects.” (Lévi-Strauss, The Way of the Masks) If one abstracts from the masks, it almost seems to be a universal manual on seeing and reading, for there are always vital, hidden connections at the source of art. As for social relationships and their workings, women’s roles naturally attracted Tamuna Sirbiladze’s critical attention. In addition to the Russian classics, her favorite writers included Simone de Beauvoir, Julia Kristeva, and Susan Sontag.
Her pictures, often swiftly painted, call the viewer’s comprehension into question, and in their personal, biographical nature at times served as a kind of diary. I was able to accompany the artist in her last years and witness the making of many of her pictures, and at times this places me in an awkward position as an interpreter, for I am subject to flashbacks and strings of associations. For that reason I am perhaps not the ideal critic. Essentially, what is dealt with in these works is something universal, a point of view, an unloading, a burst of abstraction into figuration (the direction is crucial!). The titles, not uncommonly hit upon using Surrealist methods, can play a helpful role. Charles Bally, a first-class Geneva linguist and structuralist, provides (in Le langage et la vie) a lovely image for the relationship between colloquial and written language, one that I like to relate to Sirbiladze’s fundamental painting style: he compares written language to a layer of ice, beneath which everyday language bubbles as living water. Suddenly the ice breaks, and the water brings life and movement to the surface. For the artist’s book titles, produced by Paris’s Onestarpress, Tamuna Sirbiladze wrote the titles by hand on black-and-white reproductions of her pictures. Above the reproduction of one canvas that includes the word “Spiegel” twice—in different typography and coloring—she wrote Mirror : Error. Even though the phonetic echo manages to suggest the visual reflection partially evoked in the picture by the repeated word, what she is perhaps saying is that faithful, mirrorlike representation is itself always false, erroneous. On the reproduction of a picture that hangs in the present exhibition the name of a season appears in Tamuna’s handwriting: Autumn. The picture is limited to red tones, the lines seem to be simply flung down, the forms coincidental: two shadowy seated figures in the foreground—facing each other?—the one on the left thanks to a fortuitous blank space a delicate, if very small face in profile. And do its upper projections not resemble the ears of a lynx? In the background on the right is a standing figure—pissing?—and the tangle of lines behind or beside it could be interpreted as the suggestion of a tree. A small, perforated heart floats at the top. Are the two figures sitting next to water? Red waves? Everything read wrong, the white-blue strokes overlooked, you should have let the traces of color be traces, and simply looked.