Cologne

Vadim Zakharov

Galerie Sophia Ungers

Upon seeing these works by the Russian artist Vadim Zakharov, the viewer’s initial response may be bewilderment. What do they mean, these six adjacently hung paintings (all works, 1989), which are rendered in a near-uniform gray, with a single vertical line in the left half of each canvas? Why are those tiny wads of scrunched-up paper squeezed in between the individual pieces near the top? And why is the wad missing between the last two pictures? This series of paintings has a cold, almost sterile quality, yet it arouses our curiosity. We would like to know more about these works, about their background and genesis, so that we may come closer to them; for we already sense that there is more to them than they immediately reveal.

We have a similar response to the next series of canvases: eight more gray oil paintings, in which the pigments are applied almost like a relief upon the surface. At the top left of each picture, a glass pane encloses a photograph of the artist. At an angle to the photo, a ceramic plate is glued to each canvas. The plates cast shadows, which grow shorter from one painting to the next. The gaps between the last two paintings are filled with a bright red cloth. Near every painting, we see a scrap of paper, each scrap containing the very same inscrutable text. The titles vary—Auf der Höhe des Kehlkopfes (At the level of the glottis), Auf der Höhe der Lunge (At the level of the lung), lm Umfeld der Leber (In the area of the liver)—but all refer to the human body.

In the early ’80s, Zakharov performed various experiments on himself and his body, and investigated the modes of human perception. He introduced the image of the elephant as a complex emblem, making it his loyal companion from then on. That period also brought another daring experiment: for two years, Vadim Zakharov wore an eye patch, seeing the world purely from a one-eyed perspective, and such a one-eyed personage also recurs in his paintings.

However, this information only confuses us all the more. Why these experiments, why these mild forms of self-mutilation? They seem to have something to do with the ancient tradition of Russian icon painters, who adhered to an ascetic code full of fasts and renunciations. They believed that their way of life, by directly influencing their physical and spiritual condition, would be reflected in the flow of brushstrokes and the intensity of their colors. Zakharov’s paintings do seem to be immediately tied to his physical state. This link is already borne out by the titles, which, as in the eight-part series of pictures, assign a specific region of the body to every painting.

For Zakharov, each series is part of an overall concept. The artist often puts older works into new contexts, developing them further. None of his paintings constitutes a definite result: they are in a state of flux, challenging the audience to test its past, its present, and its future in terms of that concept. By working with a fixed iconography—the elephant, the one-eyed figure, the artist’s own body—Zakharov again seems to be tapping into the work of the icon painters, who also followed a pre-ordained concept. Like them, his individual artistic expression is concentrated on the force of the lines, the harmony of the forms, and the intensity of the colors.

Noemi Smolik

Translated f rom the German by Joachim Neugroschel.