New York

Peter Hristoff

David Beitzel Gallery

In an era of fashionable murk the incandescent tones of Peter Hristoff’s latest paintings are like a defiant shout of joy or anger. I suspect that they may also be a protest against esthetic conformity, something for which this passionate and fastidious painter has never had much time. His gaze is fixed on things beyond the confines of the New York scene, and for that matter, beyond the Western tradition. To a Western observer, for example, the coiling, serpentine forms in Untitled (Red Landscape) [all works 1993] and several other paintings might seem to resemble intestines, but they may also be related to the stylized cloud-shapes that Turkish ceramicists borrowed from China via Persia.

The work of this Istanbul-born, New York resident of Bulgarian extraction is, in fact, far more Turkish than that of most contemporary Turkish painters (who are determined to appear as Western as possible). The brilliant Üsküdar, for example, is named for one of Istanbul’s Asiatic suburbs, and its highly formal—if asymmetrical—design of overlapping, vertical and horizontal oblongs includes many collaged elements, among them the Turkish flag, arabesques of Kufic script, even a kitsch photograph of the sun setting behind the Blue Mosque. The whole painting, like the closely related Prayer, could be seen as an abstract analysis of a sunset (the colors are predominantly red, yellow, orange, gold, and blue) or as a Cubist reconfiguration of an Anatolian kilim.

Whereas Üsküdar and Prayer evoke the patterns of tiles and textiles, other paintings move closer to the figurative. There are clear elements of landscape and skyscape, but they are all assembled with a dreamlike unpredictability and fluidity. Weep, for example, is a tall, stratified panel in which frothy, blue-white clouds lie below forms like the silhouettes of red mountain ranges. In Wait (Perfect Air), swirling areas of blue and white can be read as sky and clouds, or pools surrounded by ice and snow. In Triumph, a white, flowering tree seems to spring out of mid air. Even among these more organic forms Hristoff’s love of geometry is not effaced: his characteristic oblongs hang like banners amid the cloud or water shapes, or, as in The Sky Swallows Us Whole, they take on the properties of architectural elements in Byzantine frescoes.

The same painting includes the tiny figure of a crouching imp or demon, and an acrobat of some kind rides a horse across the lower edge of Wait. These miniscule figures are enigmatic but purposeful. They introduce a distinct note of Symbolism into Hristoff’s work. Here everything exists for itself, and yet, at the same time, is symbol, shadow, and allusion. Taking a leaf from Rimbaud’s book, Hristoff might have called this show Les Illuminations: the colors suggest stained glass or enamels; the intricate and meticulous craftsmanship seems positively late Medieval. In the current, dispirited artistic climate, it is heartening to discover a young painter of such fervor, who is in the process of evolving a wholly original vocabulary of forms.

John Ash