Surreal descendants of grand-Dada Stalin

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The Independent Online

It's the red which hits you first, a typically Soviet poster-paint scarlet which unifies the work of 16 different artists across a single room. Its pillar-box presence flusters the idle spectator from knowing exactly where to begin his inspection: the cluster of paintings near the door by child-prodigy Beso Kazaishvili, the large canvas in the corner by Stalin's great-grandson Jacob Dzhugashvili, or the Bellany-bright circus painting across the room by Igor Tcholaria?

It's the red which hits you first, a typically Soviet poster-paint scarlet which unifies the work of 16 different artists across a single room. Its pillar-box presence flusters the idle spectator from knowing exactly where to begin his inspection: the cluster of paintings near the door by child-prodigy Beso Kazaishvili, the large canvas in the corner by Stalin's great-grandson Jacob Dzhugashvili, or the Bellany-bright circus painting across the room by Igor Tcholaria?

There is a strong sense of tradition in this exhibition of contemporary Georgian painting and drawing - one that is cultural and explicitly political, as well as stylistic. The strong roots in folk art are evident in the bright colours and bold shapes, while the Slavic fondness for icon and symbol is never distant. Kazaishvili's work is inspired by the '93-'95 civil war; distorted bodies lie tangled among detailed surrealist studies of the human physiognomy, and eyes are watching everywhere as unspeakable couplings take place. Yet his drawings and paintings are also decorative, holding the viewer at arm's length from the war between good and evil pictured.

This distance is a defining and unifying aspect of the show. Java Cheisvili rolls out an elaborate red carpet to lead the spectator into Recollection, but then a barren expanse bedded with nails sends him back. In Port of Poti, three crudely painted boats almost impale the spectator as they map out the perspective, Uccello-style, but they are buffered by a fourth, resting against the bottom frame of the painting.

Part of this reluctance to make contact might derive from the iconic heritage of Georgian art, which invites the viewer to admire but not to touch. Hence the preponderance of paintings that seem to be safely observational or which hint at seduction, but do not deliver, such as Dhugashvili's Love Game. The stockinged leg sends a clear message but still, no matter how far the Mannerist elongated arm reaches, it cannot attain its desire.

The sense of distance is augmented by the Surrealist aspect of the work of Kazaishvili, Tcholaria and Dzhugashvili: Tcholaria's mask-like faces and the manipulation of line and feature in the paintings of Kazaishvili and Dzhugashvili deny a human interest, and Kazaishvili flattens out the human form like an insect under the microscope. More explicitly, Kazaishvili's work seems often evocative of Surrealism's parent, Dada, in its exploration and exploitation of deformity. It is perhaps no coincidence that Dada was also born out of war and that beneath the absurdity lay deep political and cultural issues.

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