Detail from the painting by Sergey Chebotar | Photo: Pavel Plekhanov
The Huddled Audience
by Stian Gabrielsen
There was a small painting in Sergey Chebotar’s exhibition, The Other Side, at Gallery Ч9 in Murmansk, where a man and a woman sit naked in bed together, embracing, facing the onlooker. The couple’s forward directed stare indicates the presence of a third person. Perhaps someone has barged in on them. Or maybe they are taking their own portrait with a camera and self-timer set up at the foot of the bed. Either way, there is the indication of a reciprocal gaze. Someone is intruding on their private moment, whether the mechanical eye of a camera or an actual person. But more conspicuous than the implication of a third person observer, a fairly worn painterly trope, is how the man and woman appear to be sharing an eye, their faces melding together. This subtle coupling of flesh might metaphorically gesture towards the kind of heightened intimacy that sex notoriously strives to bring about, two bodies becoming one. However, what is shared between them is an outward gaze, not some ecstatic physical communion (their embrace seems more post-coital).
The act of looking at something distances the observer from the object under observation. Visual cognition others the world, you could say; lets us perceive ourselves as organisms differentiated from our environment and each other. Vision is the sense with which we are most accustomed to exercising a nuanced, critical evaluation of the physical bodies and phenomena that surround us. Shut your eyes and everything occurs closer, more nebulous, infringing, unstable, harder to pin down. Distinguishing between appearances, collecting information, cataloguing the world and drawing up boundaries are activities integral to our sense of self. Vision’s crucial role in collecting actionable data about the world, as well as its volitional nature (it comes with its own mechanism for shutting out unwanted input—the eyelid), makes it an important accomplice to the notion of subjective agency. Chebotar’s suggestion of two people sharing an eye not only undermines the privacy and insularity of ocular experience it also nudges at our understanding of the relation between the subject and the world.
The Other Side broached an ambition to bring into the gallery a side of artist Sergey Chebotar previously been withheld from public scrutiny. What was shown was a part of Chebotar’s oeuvre deemed—by the artist himself—unfit for display in the type of museum exhibition where he usually presents his work, either on account of the works’ intimate or jocular subject or, for failing to meet some other internalised, hard-to-pin-down, standard. Not surprisingly, the familial marked the subject matter of a substantial host of the works in the exhibition. Grouped tightly together across two large wall-mounted, white-coated, aluminium sheets were tender studies of his wife and daughters, self-portraits, interiors, caricatures and jotted jokes (a man whose head is a fat, naked woman) in water colour, ink and pencil. A glass case held an array of small, idiosyncratic three-dimensional works and additional drawings. A suite of simple paper appliqués hung in a close formation on the wall with their frames touching. These works were unremarkable on their own—save for the obvious observational and technical skill they evinced—a parade of delicate renditions of passing moments and creative whims. Only “whim” seems a somewhat misapplied term here; beyond their unassuming motifs, what the works evidenced, particularly the studies, was an obsessive schooling of hand and eye, the cultivation of a dedicated observational mode—an ethos. Perhaps it was precisely by modestly drawing to the background, and congealing into a form of wallpaper, that these papers held their ground in the exhibition. The proximity between the various slips of paper encouraged browsing rather than prolonged focus, teasing out the subject of vision again.
Additionally, the exhibition housed a series of paintings—including the one of the bedded, eye-sharing couple already mentioned—in modest dimensions, scattered throughout the space with generous intervals. These paintings formed a series of individuated or distinguished presences that enacted the very claim to autonomy and artistic intent that the aggregated paper works jettisoned. The feeling was one of a show where the visual material was distributed on two discrete frequencies, where the paintings—with their subtle surrealist bent and more evolved pictorial subject—played the part of works proper standing out against an ambience of more informal materials. As with that of the eye-sharers, several of these paintings revolved around themes of vision and spectatorship, and an undermining or thwarting of visual perception. One featured a haunting rendition, in dark brown tones, of a face viewed from the inside, the eyes bead-like and piercing. Another depicted what appeared to be a head, where successive stages of the head’s side to side movement were frozen in a manner reminiscent of early 19th century futurist painting. A head shaking side to side is, most commonly, a gesture of denial . Shaking one’s head is also an activity that disentangles the gaze from any one specific object and renders the visual field a blur. As such, the gesture of refusal or denial that the shaking head performs—provided it communicates a refusal to see—both signify this refusal and enacts it, by making it impossible for the eyes to fixate properly, a conflation that echoes painting’s conflicted status as both sign and event.
The shut down of the sign-function of the painting is allegorized in another of Chebotar’s paintings. The painting depicts an easel turned away from us so that only the back of the canvas it supports is visible to us. Flames are licking up the canvas’ sides, and the halo of warm orange that they emit lights up a small cluster of people gathered in front. Again vision is subjected to a symbolic thwarting; the image content is negated (the canvas turned away from us and burning), but the violence implied is transformative rather than destructive. As it is consumed by flames, the painting mutates from a clearly delimited and chiefly ocular aesthetic phenomenon, into a more complex, multisensory one—its edges are suggestively in the process of dissolving. The bodies instinctively draw close, breathe fumes, feel heat. Paintings’ suggested conversion into a dissipated, warmth-inducing form, dismantles the divide between work and spectator that the subjective gaze instigates. Arguably, the critic’s function is to tell work from life, bestowing on it a questionable aura of autonomy. Critical appraisals of art are typically associated with an uninterrupted, cool and attentive gaze, set to carefully map the appearance of singular works against a neutral background. The critic’s eyes belong to one. Sergey Chebotar’s The Other Side attempts to bridge this distance, and the secluded state it offers, attuning us to art’s dormant social potential.
About the author
Stian Gabrielsen (b.1981) is a writer, art critic and artist with an MFA from the Art Academy in Oslo. He is a contributing editor of the Nordic art journal Kunstkritikk. Additionally, he helps run the exhibition space Diorama in Oslo. He has also written several shorter works of fiction, among them the novellas Sstrangling Ffrozen Fflamingo (Frenetic Happiness, 2014) and Passasjerene (Novus forlag, 2014).
The text was commissioned by Gallery Ч9 for The Guestbook project, which Ivan Galuzin and Glafira Severianova have been developing in the frame of AiR Barents programme.