Karlo Kacharava, Perversion of Kings, 1993, oil on canvas, 47 1⁄4 × 39 1⁄4".

Karlo Kacharava, Perversion of Kings, 1993, oil on canvas, 47 1⁄4 × 39 1⁄4".

Karlo Kacharava

Georgian artist and writer Karlo Kacharava was feverishly prolific. A polymathic figure living in Tbilisi of the late 1980s and early ’90s, he produced paintings, essays, poetry, and art criticism as if possessed by some secret knowledge that his would be a short life: He died in 1994 of an aneurysm at the age of thirty.

“People and Places,” curated by Sanya Kantarovsky and Scott Portnoy, offered a glimpse into Kacharava’s idiosyncratic visual universe, full of spirited melancholy and fervid discipline. He assimilated a dizzying range of enthusiasms—from Georgian art history to rock music, Futurism to Western philosophy—and shuffled them like a deck of tarot cards, as if trying to divine the future course of history. The peculiar energy of his scenes comes from a collision of styles in which everything almost but not quite makes sense: evoking a hypnagogic state between dreaming and consciousness.

Bible, 1987, a watercolor on paper, limns a typically disquieting and ambiguous scene. Two morose-looking women are marooned in an off-kilter room. One directs a burning stare straight at the viewer; the other, shrunken in the corner of the frame, gazes away. Perspective is characteristically askew, so that the holy book of the title floats free of the table on which it should be sitting, pinning down the staring girl’s arm like a deadweight.

Doomed romantics and isolated dreamers drift through Kacharava’s oeuvre, multiplying like doppelgängers. His is a private world of cultic obsession—the lonely image worship of an eternal teenager stuck in his own head. In English Romanticism, 1992, a goth couple with pale, drawn faces and black hair wander across a windswept field. The word LONDON appears in small letters in the streaked-blue sky along with a miasmic haze of esoteric symbols: phallic scribbles, hearts, and sickle-shaped moons. Indeed, the characters in his work have a fairy-tale quality—they are more symbols than people—while language is conjured like a spell. In Sentimental Journey, 1993, we see a similar-looking cast of characters from this lugubrious family tree—pallid, glowering, enigmatic—arranged on a winding hilltop road. A cannon smokes behind one woman; a gas lamp hangs in midair. The palette of slate grays and venous blues emphasizes the frozen emotional landscape. Various scripts—Latin, Georgian—murmur across the canvas, a cryptic code promising entrance into another dimension.

Kacharava’s stylized aesthetic borrows heavily from cartoons and cinema. Perversion of Kings, 1993, has a bleak, noirish feel: Against a background of skyscrapers, a black-suited figure in shades swaggers by, holding a cigarette. My Daughter Is a Prison Ballerina, 1992, is more improvisatory and playful. The left side of the canvas is divided into cells like a comic strip. A woman’s face tilts upward; a bare-chested dancer poses in a tutu. Collaged with the stubs of Parisian theater tickets and blue-and-white Gitanes cigarette boxes, the work is typical Kacharava: an elliptical series of signs and gestures, with his oblique doodles (a trumpet-playing rabbit, a blue pine) trailing the canvas like clues.

Morbidity and passion reverberate throughout these works. There’s the miniature bloodred interior of Dead, 1997; the cadaverous sitter in Do you think so, 1993. Kacharava’s works burn like candles lit to honor his idols. Susan Sontag, 1992, reimagines the American intellectual’s avant-garde polemic “Against Interpretation” (1964), as a kind of graphic novel in brash letters and geometric shapes. PS to the General, 1990, uses wild brushstrokes of sunflower yellows and burning oranges to immortalize an army officer and his flame-haired lover. Yet whether the artist’s homage is to Nick Cave or Cy Twombly, everyone in Kacharava World is reduced to the same rubric: a brooding storybook image full of strange and seductive conformity.