by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Touch of the Brush

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 14 June 1997
Maxim Kantor
Maxim Kantor (right) with his canvas Criminal News, 1996



'I think we are at the end of a cycle, and we are about to see the reincarnation of figurative art,' said Maxim Kantor, a 40-year-old Russian painter, as he put the final touches on the hanging of his dramatic pictures in his country's pavilion in the Castello Gardens. 'The significant difference between so-called post-modernist art and real art is the touch of the brush on the canvas, the hand on the material being worked and the disregard of this individuality and rendering art anonymous has been the greatest crime against art. '

Within the hour, Germano Celant, the artistic director of this year's Biennale, was declaring in a press conference the old values of the 'gerarchical dimension of traditionalist art dead and the triumph of the multimedia, hands-off approach complete.

The presence of these diametrically opposed philosophies at the 47th Biennale (which opens Sunday and continues until Nov. 9) is due both to the 57-yearold Celant's last-minute appointment as director and the existence of more than 30 national pavilions, a handful of which have deviated for various reasons from the prevailing post-modernist trends of this, and other, contemporary art shows.

The Venice Biennale, which also runs the film festival, was set for reform in February. The proposed institutional reconstruction has been described as a 'privatization' - something of an exaggeration, given that state bodies, according to the plans, would remain in the voting majority. But the reorganization has yet to take place, and Celant, a well-known advocate of everything post-modem, was called in only in January to put together a show in the Italia pavilion and the Corderie (Rope Walk) in the Arsenale.

Celant has made a fairly predictable selection of 60 post-modernist artists from around the world, including Roy Lichtenstein, Rebecca Horn, Anselm Keifer. Jeff Koons, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, for his 'Future, Present, Past.' Celant called in fewer artists than in past years, therefore allowing each of them more space, and mixed them in the Italia pavilion and Corderie, previously used for 'young' artists, regardless of age. Many exhibitors have done pieces specially for the show, and among them are 'found' works, such as a brand-new, exceedingly expensive-looking mechanical digger thereafter festooned with tinsel and Christmas decorations, a giant sphere coated with dead beetles, a pile of rubble intertwined with copper funnels and tubes, photos, videos; beer bottles, distressed furniture, and some interesting new canvases by the Belgian painter Luc Tuymans.

Most pavilions had decided their entries before Celant was appointed, notwithstanding the uncertainties of the form and dates of the event. As a result of a national competition, Robert Colescott, now 72, won the chance to be the first black to have a one-person show in the U.S. pavilion. Colescott's career spans more than 50 years, during which he has lived in Paris and Cairo, and his bold, bright canvases often revolve around themes of racial and political injustice. Though he may sometimes have felt isolated not only by his color but also by his insistence on plowing the figurative furrow, his labors have born fruit. And his complex, multifaceted scenarios, constantly informed by a kind of mordant playfulness and drollery, reveal a man as much interested in eternal human dilemmas, aspirations and fears as in political issues. This show of Colescott's work over the last decade will go on a U.S. tour in 1998.

The Australian pavilion is exhibiting for the fIrst time three Aboriginal women artists: Emily Kame Kingwarreye, Yvonne Koolmatrie and Judy Watson. All three's works reflect traditional Aboriginal imagery, but have a strong and appealing personal presence.

It is a nice irony that Kantor, a veteran of the struggle against the old Soviet regime, who equally makes no secret of the dim view he takes of received thinking in contemporary art, was unexpectedly able to exhibit in the Russian pavilion. His modernist countrymen, Komar and Melamid, were scheduled to occupy•the space, but in the meantime they were invited to appear in Celant's 'Future, Present, Past' , Kantor learned only a month ago that he could fIll the vacuum, and his powerful and dynamic oils should become a major attraction of this year's Biennale.

Kantor's paintings contain echoes of artists he admires, from Goya to van Gogh and Bacon and the Russian masters of devotional art, but are characterized by a distinctive, commanding sense of composition and vigorous brushwork. Most of his present work is a response to the misrule that has followed the end of Communist rule - a businessman shot to death with his bodyguards in his car, the permanently dispossessed in the streets and in the gutters, the elderly and confused, the pathetic inhabitants of overcrowded, shared apartments, and apocalyptic visions, such as his Judgment Day-like icon 'Rebellion of the Pygmies, - but others, like his portraits of his parents and relatives, are more intimate, though still inescapably direct and poignant.

The Biennale 'fringe,' meanwhile, is showing encouraging signs of vitality and diversity. 'Modernities and Memories' at the Zenobio Institute (Rio Tera Antonio Foscarini, by the Accademia Gallery) is staging a display of artists from the Islamic world from countries as far-flung as Turkey, Pakistan, Mali and Inqonesia, which reveals not only how unmonolithic Muslim cultures are, but how artists are tackling the impact of post-modern influences and the reinterpretation of local visual traditions. In the 'Commedia dell' Arte' show at the Galleria del Leone on the island of Giudecca, the sculptor Joan FitzGerald, provides a sharp satirical commentary on today's, or possibly any era's, art world in a series of finely worked small bronzes representing familiar figures, stripped of their fashionable accessories (except for one gallery owner on his mobile phone), transformed into naked apes.

The Palazzo Querini Stampalia has a selection of works that have so far been gathered for the 'Sarajevo 2000 Project.' This initiative was launched during the darkest days of the siege and was aimed at collecting works for a future modern art museum in a city that has lost nearly three-quarters of its historic buildings. Despite the difficulties, some suitable sites are now in view. Judging by the works on display here, however, the collection is leaning heavily toward a certain type of post-modem art. It can only be hoped that a fuller picture of contemporary artistic endeavor will eventually find a home in Sarajevo.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023