What makes a story compelling without being told? This question lingered with me after seeing Sanya Kantarovsky’s exhibition On Them. His paintings, drawings, and prints have long shared an eerie likeness to novel illustration, and give the impression of Russian novels—though only vaguely. Kantarovsky was born and raised, in part, in a Jewish household in Moscow and read the works of Mikhail Bulgakov, Franz Kafka, and other Eastern European authors at a very early age, which left a significant impression on him.1 Each of his paintings could represent a complex scene from any of Dostoevsky’s stories of moral degeneration, desire, comedy, idiocy, and loss, while also being reminiscent of Soviet-era Yiddish stories of horror and strangeness by Peretz Markish or Isaac Bashevis Singer.
On ViewLuhring Augustine
April 26 – June 15, 2019
But Kantarovsky’s work is striking and eclectic in style. He makes such frequent and simultaneous reference to disparate periods in the history of European painting that one hardly needs to think beyond the sense of déjà vu with regard to literature. Additionally, he finds subtle (and not so subtle) ways to interject the present into his work. We find this in Baba (all works 2019) and High and Low, with references to contemporary fashion, a dirty cigarette-ridden snowman, and a bong. The impression one comes away with, in all his work, is that many forms and tropes are timeless and therefore able to withstand sharp aesthetic shifts in context and representation.
In On Them we find a repetition of scene that betrays conventional illustration and storytelling. Meta-narratives about narrative are—along with many other contemporary painters—essential to Kantarovsky’s approach. Three paintings stand out as a group in this regard: Fracture, Beach, and Needles. Each scene depicts a figure carrying or supporting another—one that is respectively frail, helpless, or dead. Deep, somber blues and twilight grays give each the immediate impression of the sadness of Picasso’s Blue Period. The eyes of the crouching figure in Fracture, staring woefully, longingly, up to heaven, resemble the characteristically glossy eyes of El Greco’s figures, and the limp corpse in her arms the impression of Egon Schiele’s gaunt, gray bodies. Another corpse-like figure in Needles lies in profile, covered in fabric patterned with syringes, wiry IVs stick out from her arms. She is supported by another figure from behind. In Beach a ghostly woman draped in white is carried to the ocean. She gestures with her hand toward the water and a dog follows them. Represented here is less a specific narrative than a story told through repetition. A vaguely Christ-like figure, supported by a loved one: old, oddly familiar tragedies of senseless loss are abstracted, told without names, and from different angles.
At the back of the gallery, Life of the Party, On Them, and 12 inch Pianist bring a different set of possible stories to the mixture. Thief, at the front of the gallery, introduces a severed limb carried away by a tiny cartoon child, which is then referred back to in Life of the Party with a headless toddler playing the accordion for a curious audience, all with glossy El Greco eyes. The paintings’ continuity is narrative but rather is created through visual repetition and poetic parataxis. It is not important whose limb is stolen, but that in both pictures a limb was lost or stolen, and that the dismembered live on despite their dismemberment. The titular painting, On Them, and 12 inch Pianist bring further reference both to an otherworld of tiny people and the dead haunting the living. In On Them a figure is either dragged down screaming by a washy ghostlike figure or trying desperately to pull them up. In 12 inch Pianist, a sad, little bald man, bruised and beaten, plays the piano alone, with eyes gently shut. A world between stories is pointed at, but never fully coheres.
Platelets and Nobody Knew So Well, How to Frighten Miss Clavel present funny, frayed edges to the weave of the exhibition. Nobody Knew So Well, How to Frighten Miss Clavel is titled in reference to Madeline, the illustrated children’s book series by Ludwig Bemelmans, from whose style of illustration Kantarovsky clearly draws. Miss Clavel is painted as a gray specter framed by bones; she appears frightened and wall-eyed. Platelets, a small, beautiful painting in the corner of the gallery, seems to represent flowers or blood-spots, hazy and faded. Kantarovsky’s method of adding and subtracting paint and blending mediums is well represented here. Both paintings make allusions to ghosts, reinforcing interpretations of Baba and High and Low that veer from the literal into the symbolic. The snowman and the bodies surrounding the bong bring the drama of the other pictures into the mundane. Through all this zigzagging, the elements in On Them that stand out, repeat, and frame each other, taken together, make for an exciting story but one that is not in fact being told. Few of the characters have names. All feel original yet borrowed from elsewhere.
- Dodie Kazanjian, “The Darkly Comic Art of Sanya Kantarovsky,” Vogue Magazine, May 15, 2019.