Karlo Kacharava

If you ask artists active in the U.S.S.R. during late Soviet times about what their art might have been responding to in the 1980s and '90s, it is exceedingly likely that, among their top concerns, they'll mention gaining access to information—knowledge of the art, theory, and literature that was circulating in the West and how it was being received. What's voiced far less is the incredibly limited view the West had of what was taking place east of Berlin during that same period. Though Moscow Conceptualism and Nonconformist art was known, these modes had begun to fade with the introduction of glasnost and, until very recently, little critical attention had been paid to work emerging post-Perestroika. Artists like Karlo Katcharawa give us some clues as to what at least his circle of artists held at stake as he not only made things but wrote extensively about his process as well as about the work of his friends and peers, and of the international figures that came into his sphere as he travelled in Europe before his early death at the age of thirty in 1994. However, and though Katcharawa was beloved in Georgia, hardly any writing on his work has ever been penned beyond the Caucasus. With thirty years hindsight, this exhibition now offers an excellent chance to take stock of what Katcharawa was making and why, and for local and foreign audiences to jointly explore the formal and art historical coordinates through which it might best be read.
To start, it’s worth noting first that Katcharawa identified as a critic foremost and then as a painter—that is, as a critic who felt that writing joined with painting, specifically, was an ideal form of communicating with a global art world and, of equal importance, for relaying this international discourse to his home audience in Tbilisi. Considering the decades of dematerialized practice that had transpired by the time Katcharawa began showing his work in Europe, this might sound like a conservative position. But it is good to keep in mind that Katcharawa, having graduated in 1986 with a degree in Art History from Tbilisi State Academy of Arts, would have spent his formative years surrounded by classical painting practice, trained to value naturalistic portraiture and perspective and a harmonious balance of tone, value, and line. What's striking then about his oeuvre is the great degree of stylistic and compositional leeway he permitted himself under the rubric of painting. For example, figures in Katcharawa’s work, with their large heads and tapered torsos, frequently appear compressed, clustered together or truncated by the edge of the work or by some architectural element. As foci of his canvases, they destabilize the illusionistic space. And while some of Katcharawa's paintings are as much as three by three meters large, there is this feeling that they are never large enough; that to resolve, the items and landscapes they contain always need of just a few centimeters more. Further, it is often as though Katcharawa has shifted the pictorial plane several degrees toward the viewer so that that world it depicts is positioned on the cusp of its tipping point, liable, at any moment, to spill its contents into the physical space of the room.
Though one could read such traits as a refutation of academy training—a literal upending of the stable ground Soviet socialist realism sought to portray or canceling of the placid neo-impressionist treatments popular with official Soviet artists of the late 1970s and ‘80s—it is perhaps more interesting to read Katcharawa's stylistic choices in terms of the classic avant-gardist operation of elevating artistic process to the status of finished work of art; of showing us the working through of language and codes (which, at the time, were multitudinous and epically mixed), the metabolizing of contemporary conditions and new information that precedes the final product. We can entertain this line of thinking given that the contents of the Georgian artist’s journals show him making little distinction between the canvas and the sketchbook, the space of the painting filled with mark-making typically reserved for a notepad while reciprocally, his hand-written criticism and prose were liberally interspersed with painterly vignettes, words not infrequently morphing into images themselves. Given the limited art supplies available to non-official artists in the Soviet Union in the late '80s, such displacement, presumably, would not have been lost on Katcharawa’s immediate peers and other members of the 10th Floor Group (primarily: Levan Chogoshvili, Gia Dolidze, Temur Iakobashvili, Mamuka Japaridze, Gia Loria, Giorgi Maglakelidze, Zurab Sumbadze, Niko Lomashvili, Oleg Timchenko, Mamuka Tsetskhladze, Maya Tsetskhladze, Niko Tsetskhladze, Guram Tsibakhashvili, and later, Koka Ramishvili). Likewise, one need only think of the anodyne graphics and muted tones of communist packaged goods to understand how energized his liberal application of color must have appeared to even the casual passerby—entire canvases slathered with blue, red, or yellow over-painted with figures outlined in thick graphic black or electric green.
Katcharawa demonstrated these aesthetic impulses from early on and yet they also no doubt ring of the ways in which space, color, and form were being handled by some of most important West German artists at the time—artists such as Markus Lüpertz, Jörg Immendorf, Martin Kippenberger, and Sigmar Polke, whose practices Katcharawa may have known in part in the ‘80s, but whose work he wouldn’t have encountered directly until at least his first visit to Europe in 1990 for international arts festival in Paris or the year following when he traveled to Germany to mount a solo show at Françoise Friedrich Gallery, Cologne. An intriguing comparison is to be had, for example, in the themes and treatments of Katacharawa's interior scenes and Immendorf's famous "Café Deutchland" series (1978–82), what with their shared exploration of Pop culture and Eastern Bloc totalitarianism, the representational values of Abstract Expressionism and Socialist Realism, but also self-portraiture and issues of gender. To be sure, women in Katcharawa's work, as in Immendorf's were more likely to appear as muses than peers—a far cry from the relative gender neutrality established by the historical avant-gardes of the 1910s and ‘20s. And this reference is apropos here at least in so far as the fact that Katcharawa was not only looking past geo-political borders, but also back across time, Georgia's pre-Soviet configuration having established early twentieth century Tiflis (as Tbilisi when then called) as a nexus of international bohemianism. More research is needed to know precisely which art would have been accessible to Katcharawa as a young art historian, but generally speaking the influence of avant-gardists in the region—including figures affiliated with the city’s numerous Symbolist and Trans-rational literary circles (e.g., groups such as the “Blue Horns” and “Forty-One Degrees” and those contributing to publications such as H2SO4, and Leftness)[1] as well as that of contemporaneous western European artist (Ernst Ludwig Krischner, Otto Dix, to name just two) is palpable.
But in fine neo-Expressionist form, Katacharawa’s work tempers such historical referents with gestures borrowed from highly iconic commercial figures such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Francesco Clemente. Take, for instance, მეფე და პოეტი (Mepe da P’oet’i), 1984, in which two male subjects, graphic and blocky, float beneath a similarly rendered girl. One of the men wears a patently Basquiat-like crown and the bodies of all three contorted in stylishly primitive formations. Below the figures, painterly text shares the pictorial plane, labeling the men König and Dichter, while written out cartoonishly large across the work’s bottom segment is the artist’s own signature. It’s not clear whether Katcharawa intended such stylistic decisions in this work to be read ironically (if so, it’s difficult to say what, in this instance, he would be critiquing exactly) or rather just read directly in what he may have taken to be the visual lingua franca of the international art elite. Presuming the latter, it is interesting to consider Katcharawa’s relationship to the overtly capitalist Western art market, which may have signified for him a kind of ultimate autonomy from the Soviet art system. He was certainly playing with multiple readings in works such as სიუზან ზონტაგი (Susan Sontag), 1992—the American critic’s name and that of her powerful book of collected writings Against Interpretation and Other Essays appearing prominently in and Katcharawa’s painting several times. One can imagine the Georgian artist having truly admired Sontag and wanting to have underscored her impact on his work, bringing her name (conspicuously written in Latin letters rather his native Mkhedruli) to his local dialogue. Yet at the same time, seeing as Katcharawa was, by this time, showing his work internationally, he could have also intended it as a provocation to his growing Western audience—as in, “Here, isn’t this what you want? Good post-Soviet painting fortified by key critical references?” (And indeed Sontag would have been key figure for Katcharawa given her pronouncement in 1982, wherein, acting independently from her Marxist peers, she claimed communism to be “fascism with a human face.”[2]) And in these various and at times divergent gestures—Katcharawa’s exaltation of hyper-market oriented practices and simultaneous identification with supposedly anti-market German figures, for example—it is clear that there is an incredible trove of “information” to which Western critics have long had access yet have rarely taken into consideration. მIndeed to write off neo-Expressionism (as ‘serious’ art writers largely did at the time) claiming it to be complicit with the market and therefore wholesale divested of its criticality is to occupy a position entrenched in Capitalism and the comparatively privileged concerns of Western discourse during the late Cold War period. To be sure, there is something to be learned from the fact that Katcharawa and his circle took little interest in Louise Lawler and Robert Longo, but instead put great effort to be considered among the likes of Basquiat or Immendorf. And as soon as we are ready, Katcharawa’s images words are waiting to tell us more. Giving insightas to the 10th Floor group’s concerns, he writes, “this was a world inhabited by the knights, kings and dwarfs or ironically characteristic devils, or demons who were exhausted by mundaneness of everyday life—all of these were brought to life by neo expressionist figuration. These allegorical images reflected the interest in the social problems of the time.”[3]

—Caroline Busta [1] Peter Brooker et al., The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines: Volume III: Europe 1880–1940 (Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 1244
[2] Susan Sontag made these remarks during a Poland solidarity rally at New York’s Town Hall, February 6, 1982. See: “Susan Sontag Provokes Debate on Communism,” New York Times, Feb. 27, 1982, and the edited transcript published in the The Nation, Feb. 27, 1982.
[3] Translation from Georgian by Irina Popiashivili

this text is part of the catalogue published in 2014 by Goethe Institute, Tbilisi for the exhibition Fur Karlo