ART / Burnt offerings: Robin Dutt discovers an Eastern attitude to life, mortality and tragedy as seen through the eyes of the Uzbek artist Igor Kufayev

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The Independent Culture
Contemporary art often seems to leave the majority of people out in the cold. Current values suggest that it is chic to be minimalist and intellectually superior to attempt shock tactics. The more this kind of art worries and perplexes, the better for its creators. Given this scenario, it seems folly to seek inspiration from the past - suicide, in fact. If so, Igor Kufayev has committed it cheerfully.

Kufayev is one of a rare breed of artists who believe in going back to go forward. He also feels that art is a strange and bizarre thing which involves paint and canvas rather than offal and formaldehyde. Born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in 1966, he studied at the Tashkent School of Art, where his early love of drawing was honed and refined, for four years. He had, in fact, been drawing professionally since the age of 12, and was recognised as something of a prodigy.

At first meeting, he projects a certain aloofness. He cuts a classically handsome figure, with a body honed to perfection by military service and heirloom cheekbones. He found the military experience, which lasted two years, useful. He has almost 20/20 vision and was a perfect shot, although he never had to put this skill into practice; his army title was 'sniper'. 'But I was too good just for the army,' he says, without a hint of pride. 'Because I could draw, I was set to make and design propaganda posters for the army - images of powerful Russian warriors, monumental works.'

Kufayev might owe the army a good deal: the discipline to which he was forced to knuckle under seems obvious in his work. The themes he chooses have nothing to do with propaganda now, but they are monumental - if not in size, then certainly in spirit. He is intoxicated by the simplicity and the grandeur of the human figure - stripped bare, both curiously vulnerable and powerful at the same time. In shades of Titian red and sepia, he paints figures that seem to float in mists or clouds, their lines occluded here, sharp there. Sometimes, humanity is partially abstracted, which should come as no surprise when one learns that he used to create purely non-figurative works.

His zeal to perfect drawing technique led him to move to St Petersburg and The Academy of Fine Art and, independently of his studies, he began making numerous copies of the great Western masterpieces hanging in The Hermitage. The artist Ingres, who once said that drawing was the true test of art, would surely have approved.

Kufayev's figures have an unapologetic, antique feel about them. They might be dancers from an Etruscan ewer or maidens from a Roman funerary slab. The whole of his show, Burnt Earth, is redolent of archaeological finds - the secrets masquerading as treasures only a few feet under the surface. Blood and earth are unified in Kufayev's vision, emphasising our origins and our certain end. 'I'm interested in the eternal process of things,' he says. 'In the West, one does not address such questions, generally, but in the East it is understood. We all go back to the earth. One can't escape death, but there is beauty, even in that.

There is also a sense of living tragedy in the work - figures appealing to unknown gods, begging for release. Kufayev lost his daughter at a painfully young age. This show is dedicated to her memory. 'I'm not trying to be tragic,' he says. 'People have asked me about the pain in the work, but it is not the driving force. I didn't have time to do anything for Laura when she was alive, so this exhibition is for her. I feel her spirit everywhere - all around me.' The strong portrait of a girl, bathed in cornelian light and carrying a lyre, needs no explanation.

Igor Kufayev's 'Burnt Earth' is at Base, Cork Street, London W1 (071-734 9179) until 20 July

(Photographs omitted)