Sanya Kantarovsky’s Truth-bearing Fantasy

by Han Mengyun

“There is some wisdom to be had in taking the gloomy view and looking upon the world as a kind of hell. ”(Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena, 1851)

Sanya Kantarovsky, “Exfiltration” (2020), oil and watercolor on linen, 74 3/4 x 55 1/8 inches 

(all images courtesy the artist and Modern Art, London)

It was a surprise to have Schopenhauer’s pessimism in mind while seeing Sanya Kantarovsky’s current exhibition “The House of the Spider” at Modern Art in London, given his work always has an element of humor despite a general dark ambiance. The title of the exhibition is derived from a passage in the Qur'an that alludes to the precariousness of the human habitat, be it environmental, socio-political, cultural or spiritual, a perfect metaphor for what we have experienced globally since last year and what might have entered the painter’s mentality while making this suite of paintings. Apart from the gloom that occupies the show, one also notices Kantarovsky’s development as a painter in that the paintings seem to have become more realistic and painterly than illustrative and cartoony. The human figures, though submitted to the formal distortion reminiscent of soviet poster art such as Agitplakat, they have become more fleshed out with paint, as can be seen in Examination (2020), the handling of the hands reminds us of how Lucian Freud handles the paint as the flesh. What replaces humor is an intensified level of sarcasm and a solemn attitude to the eternal questions of life and death, suffering and injustice, power and powerlessness. 

Installation view, Sanya Kantarovsky: The House of the Spider, 2021, Modern Art, London

As Kantarovsky has previously stated his conceiving of a series of paintings in an exhibition as a whole, “The House of The Spider” renders a narrative that has been cohesively and holistically arranged, reflected foremost in the placement of paintings in space. If one pays attention to the pairing of Next Right Action (2020) and Examination (2020) in a corner, one is tempted to read them as two adjacent pages in a book that implies the order of sequence. Yet what is more curiously deliberate is that Next Right Action is hung at a much lower position than standardized viewing height in galleries, which compellingly invites the viewer’s body to descend just as the person depicted. Something about the lowness of the picture offers a hint to the heavy toll on the painter’s mind during the process of painting while manipulating the body that beholds it. This active device of psychology can also be found in how the photographer Paul Graham hangs his large scale pictures of urban streets at the bottom of walls, providing the illusion of seeing the pictures as if passing real streets. The placement of painting can not only interrupt but also enhance and diversify how the image can be read. Such a decision shows to me that Kantarovsky has veered further away from his early practice of combining multimedia installation with painting by honing his skills in spatial orchestration with sophisticated consideration and the courage for economy.

Installation view, Sanya Kantarovsky: The House of the Spider, 2021, Modern Art, London

Without creating a literal mise en scène, the exhibition still unfolds like a theater play, one chapter followed by another, each of them distinct yet interconnected, choreographed in the sequence of a certain spatial and temporal narrative composed by the painter himself, who designates the order of performance, welcoming characters to emerge from the stage and play out their roles. Exfiltration (2020) serves to set the tone of the play as it confronts us by the entrance. The scene of the crow eating from the nostril of a mummified skull afloat on a lotus pond with an idyllic landscape on its back inspires contemplation on the meaning of life and death. Here, they are married in nature, the symbol of rejuvenation, and perhaps the crow can be seen as the organic medium that travels in between two realms. The eerie contrast between the disgust-evoking feasting crow and the pleasant background is representative of the kind of dark humor that permeates Kantarovsky’s oeuvre, the paradoxical nature of which makes the image tastefully literary.

Installation view, Sanya Kantarovsky: The House of the Spider, 2021, Modern Art, London

One shall not only read these paintings as mere images without acknowledging their literariness. Examination immediately recalls Kafka’s The Trial, which tells the story of Josef K., who is persecuted and executed by an amorphous justice system without knowing the crime that he is accused of committing. The painting equally renders an unclarity of situation with its cropped-out composition yet the power relationship is made very clear by the black leather boots, the faceless figure whose hands in the back gesticulate a stink of power and bureaucracy, as well as the blue-skinned topless man curling up on the ground. It is an unbearably demeaning image that evokes a deep and familiar sense of guilt and fear for violence experienced or witnessed in reality. To borrow Hannah Arendt’s words, Examination, like The Trial, “wants to destroy this world by exposing its hideous and hidden structure, by contrasting reality and pretense.”(Hannah Arendt, Franz Kafka: Appreciated Anew).

The perusal of Kantarovsky’s paintings also requires an understanding of the Russian avant-garde idea of ostranenie [making strange], first coined by the Russian formalist and literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky in his essay “Art as Device” published in 1917. “What we call art exists in order to give back the sensation of life, in order to make us feel things, in order to make a stone stony. The goal of art is to create the sensation of seeing, and not merely recognizing things” proclaims Shklovsky, calling for a revolution to the making of art in order to see the world anew. Under the influence of this literary device, Kantarovsky reconfigures tropes, symbols, and metaphors, aided by the disfiguration of the human bodies in the manner of caricature, in order to delineate his lived and immediate experiences that are the furtherest from conventional perception and the closest to one’s felt sensations. In this way, he disrupts the habitual and automatic perception of the viewer and forces us to question what at the same time seems too familiar. 

Sanya Kantarovsky, “Birth” (2020), Oil and watercolor on linen, 78 3/4 x 110 1/4 ins

Birth (2020), another painting that repeats the subject of Death, depicts the image of an infant being delivered to a skeleton mother on her hospital bed tainted with a splash of blood. Although one can easily recall Vanitas paintings or the Danse Macabre in fathoming the universality of death, the symbols of life and death and their relationships are defamiliarized by the sight of the umbilical cord that connects them. The idea of Death-as-Mother-of-Life bitterly adds a tinge of optimism to the gory scene, much like Martin Heidegger’s Sein-zum-Tode (being-towards-death), the conception of living in the knowledge of death, which could be the actualization of possibility and condition for free action in the world. To paraphrase Plato’s Phaedo, which posits philosophy as the practice of death (meletē thanatou), painting is an exercise in dying, and a tool to reflect on our own mortality.

Sanya Kantarovsky, “The House of the Spider” (2020),oil and watercolor on linen, 94 1/2 x 65 inches

The most exciting and mysterious painting in the exhibition is the “The House of the Spider” (2020) with a mesmerizing psychedelic outlook. The combination of oil, watercolor, and spray paint intensifies the sense of unreality, and the red jewel hovering above the protagonist’s forehead subverts gravity and incites imagination. The title is rich in implication yet lacking specification: one can hardly pinpoint if the ambiguous purple form in the top right corner is the spider of the title, or simply an 8-petal flower. This invites prolonged viewing to follow the hints in the artwork. Maybe the confusion here is intentional — when one actively seeks the spider on the canvas, one only finds a flower as the spider’s illusion or shadow, and that flower assuming the shape of a spider continues to bewilder and challenge our perception. This fantastical scene of mental frenzy may allude to what the spider house allegory in the Qu’ran suggests: the world as a stable habitat is but a fantasy and the quest for stability will only result in disillusionment. 

Kantarosvky’s paintings make one aware of reality as a form of fabrication just as fiction, and by way of creating fictional scenes, one becomes aware of reality’s true form, its instability, transience, as well as human being’s gullible nature. His fantastical images bearing fruits of reality also remind us that painting itself is not only a means of deception but also the answer to its own riddle. The pleasure of looking at these paintings is not a matter of beauty. Rather, it is an experience of confronting truth, which “destroys illusion, the main condition of beauty” (Leo Tolstoy, What is Art?). 

This article was originally published on Hyperallergic.