Art review: Contemporary Ukrainian Artists, Saatchi Gallery, London

  • @ZoePilger

What does Ukrainian art bring to mind? Walking around this exhibition of miscellaneous contemporary artists, two themes are noticeable: first, the image of people watching disaster unfold, impassive. Second, the image of muscular bodies falling gracefully through space.

Is this a sign of the country’s artistic talent responding to a political system in which they have no voice? A use of the national sport of rhythmic gymnastics as a metaphor of existential free-fall, at once dreamy and doomed?

Of course it is fatuous to try to construct an idea of a nation through one exhibition. This is clear at the RA’s Australia exhibition, where that continent is reduced to its holiday brochure elements. These paintings and sculptures hint at fascinating social currents in contemporary Ukraine, but sadly few are well realised. They seem to be in the process of finding their own style; much appears derivative of hackneyed Western European and American motifs. There are digital starbursts, a portrait of a man who might be Karl Lagerfeld or Andy Warhol, a palm tree, pastoral landscapes; it’s all very confused.

However, some paintings stand out because they possess an authentic strangeness. Most notably, Aurora (2012) is a large oil painting by Arsen Savadov. On first glance, it looks like a soft-porn wall mural from a seedily opulent hotel dining room. On closer inspection, it is unclear whether the painting is in fact an ironic meta-comment on such seediness or seediness itself. It is an unnerving dreamscape wherein the world is being turned upside down and no one seems to care.

The painting shows a buxom, bare-breasted blonde woman staring mournfully down at a vast banquet table as its cloth is dragged away and dishes, glasses, and plants crash everywhere. A middle-aged man wearing a party-hat clings onto her; he looks similarly mournful. Why are they contemplating destruction with such wistful fatalism? Where is their shock? The palette is dominated by a shabbily glamorous salmon-pink, the brushstrokes are raw and quick, as though the artist were sketching out a fantasy before he forgot it.

The second painting which stands out is Experience I (2010-2011) by Artem Volokitin. Elegant male gymnasts spiral and fall in uniformity, mirrors of one another. The painting points to socialist realist art and the grim beauty of industrialisation. Above, a pylon towers. Man reflects machine. The message seems trite but the work is more eloquent than most here. 

19th Oct – 24th Oct