Thea Gvetadze, Becoming Thea Merlani, 2018, cloth, wood, 63 × 51 1⁄8".

Thea Gvetadze, Becoming Thea Merlani, 2018, cloth, wood, 63 × 51 1⁄8".

Thea Gvetadze

Thea Gvetadze’s exhibition “Subtropical Ushguli” coincided with the opening of this year’s Tbilisi Art Fair in Georgia, where her work also appeared in the show “Four Discourses” alongside that of three Georgian artists of different generations. The conjunction of these presentations confirmed Gvetadze’s prominence within the country’s contemporary art scene. If “Four Discourses” gave context to her work, the solo show offered a welcome opportunity to delve more deeply into her oeuvre, which spans diverse mediums, including painting, ceramics, relief, drawing, and installation. The paintings and ceramics on view were recent, whereas the twelve drawings were older, dating from between 2002 and 2008. The drawings, shown here for the first time, comprised figurative scenes in small formats, executed in wet and dry media. She draws in parallel with the painterly process to test subsequent steps and develop work.

Subtropikuli Ushguli, 2019, was the only large-format oil painting on display, its significance underscored by the fact that, translated into English, it gave the exhibition its title. Ushguli is a toponym, the name of a village in the country’s northwest, situated in the Caucasus at an elevation of almost seven thousand feet. Far from subtropical, it gets snow six months out of the year. The title, in other words, is a pointed geographical absurdity, from which the artist derives a vision of antithetical temperaments: As Gvetadze—who was born in Riga, Latvia, but spent her summers in the subtropical Georgian town of Batumi—recalls, an artist friend once jokingly called her Subtropical Ushguli, and the phrase stuck. The painting itself shows a scene bathed in dreamlike gloom. A female figure seen from behind stands in a theatrical setting, a murky and essentially placeless space. A panoramic view of a coastline unfurls to her right, but a mountain landscape in front of the woman absorbs her attention. It is impossible to tell whether these are windows or paintings, or perhaps both at once. Her bright-blond hair appears in duplicate, evincing a specular doubling, an emblematic representation of inner conflict—and could those reiterated heads also be snowcapped peaks? Gvetadze interweaves ambiguities to create imaginary spaces in which contraries blur together. The surreal quality of her pictures was nourished by her studies with Konrad Klapheck, whom some critics have called “the last Surrealist.”

In one major ensemble, Gvetadze integrated painting into installation art. Working with her bare hands, she coated several walls with plaster in different colors—green, russet, black, and blue. On these monochrome surfaces she then arranged selected works, including colorful glazed ceramics, such as the two-part To Rajden Gvetadze, 2019. Rajden Gvetadze was the artist’s great-grandfather, and his work means a great deal to her. Another of these ceramics, Tetri virebi shens garshemo ukhmod dadian, 2019, takes its title from one of his poems. The Georgian words may be translated as “White donkeys mutely run in circles around you.” The assemblage Becoming Thea Merlani, 2018, another fictional self-portrait, received pride of place in this grouping: Hanging on the russet plaster, it comprised a sheer, sky-blue dress—the garment seemed woven out of pure air—with two flat wooden objects (inspired by traditional carved-wood handheld mirrors) where the hands would be, and a wooden carving of an eggplant above an invisible neck. Having encountered the name Merlani in the village of Ushguli, Gvetadze adopted it into her private mythology; this alter ego also figured in the title of her 2018 solo show “Becoming Thea Merlani” at M HKA (Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen). As this piece suggests, Gvetadze’s work is always deeply personal and yet transcends the merely individual; rooted in Georgia, her art speaks to universal concerns: the ambiguities of identity and one’s place in the world.

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.