Critics’ Picks

Sanya Kantarovsky, Strange Eyes, 2014, oil, watercolor, pastel, oilstick on linen, 55 x 40".

Sanya Kantarovsky, Strange Eyes, 2014, oil, watercolor, pastel, oilstick on linen, 55 x 40".

New York

Sanya Kantarovsky

Casey Kaplan
121 West 27th Street
May 9–June 21, 2014

You can leave your antihistamines at the door. “Allergies,” the title of Sanya Kantarovsky’s first solo exhibition in New York, might best be taken like the old pharmakon: an irritant in the largely bloodless body of contemporary painting that acts, marvelously, as a philter. The eighteen works here are huge in ambition and gratification. Kantarovsky’s work was formerly mood driven, vignettes centered around a dandy in states of creative duress. In these recent paintings, the artist has plunged headfirst into the headiest relations: power struggles between genders and classes, and art-historical confrontations between French modernism and Agitplakat. Strange Eyes, 2014, a figure group rendered in oils, watercolor, and pastels, measures the distance he has come: Where once there was one, now there are many characters, barnacled around a young man. The repertory thus assembled is so stylistically disjointed—including a moony wraith, a red-faced Capitano, and a death’s-head that looks to have ambled out of James Ensor’s crowds, plus a parrot for good measure—it gives Kantarovsky’s palette a run for its bold money. Veering from lilac to acid green, in scrapes and stains and buttery strokes that build rigorous compositions even as they loosen the spatial logic, his surfaces swell with formal intelligence.

The repertoire in question is no less motley than the players. This suite of paintings travels from Matisse’s seraglios to Gauguin’s yellow meadows to Saint Petersburg’s streets, peopling them with Slavic illustrations and saltimbanques alike, along with a set of props from woven peasant slippers to MacBooks. Art-historical gallimaufry may be as old as modernism itself. But if Kantarovsky has taken a page from Manet’s playbook, his scenarios mesh the old scenes with the “ob-scene,” a history of de-Stalinization and spate of social anxieties that have laid beyond the frame. It’s a real shot in the arm.