BY Burkhard Meltzer in Reviews | 20 MAY 08

Comic Commentary and Neo-Expressionist Posturing: A Dialogue Between Two Painters

Kunsthalle Sankt Gallen hosts a joint exhibition of Armen Eloyan and Roman Wolgin

BY Burkhard Meltzer in Reviews | 20 MAY 08

Armen Eloyan & Roman Wolgin, ‘Local Gothic and Culture’, 2008, exhibition view. Courtesy: Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen; photograph: Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen, Stefan Rohner

When two artistic positions are shown side by side, it’s not unusual for each to affect the way the other is perceived. But in the case of Armen Eloyan and Roman Wolgin, the mutual influences go far beyond individual points of contact. Between spacious halls hung with Eloyan’s paintings, one finds a small room of Wolgin’s over-painted magazine and book pages. A conceptual surprise in the midst of Eloyan’s extravagant paint-fest? With his careful distinction between figurative and abstract painting, Wolgin could just provide an interpretative framework for Eloyan’s works. 

Single pages torn from both art books and gossip magazines on celebrity and fashion form the basis for Wolgin’s over-paintings, in which links are made between political, metaphysical and artistic interpretations of the world. In one, a portrait of Vladimir Putin encounters a dark-skinned beauty in a bikini and Wolgin’s version of Van Gogh’s self-portrait with an injured ear. Van Gogh looks much older now, and he seems to have given up smoking his pipe, too, though maybe just for the moment portrayed here. Perhaps the famous painter obeyed the ‘Smart Smoking’ slogan on the opposite wall. Clearly sorted by style and theme, various portraits, scientific schemas and geometric patterns are spread over different walls.

Scraps of text from books and magazines often shimmer through the translucent layers of colour (like the revelatory announcement, ‘The Way Men Want To Live’; good advice for an aesthetically acceptable home environment?) Rather than developing a coherent conceptual system, Wolgin’s space makes playfully loose associations across different aesthetic categories. In a series of abstract patterns, the viewer is suddenly confronted with a furious facial expression evoked by two black rectangles on a white and yellow ground. At least the grimace isn’t directed at the viewer. No cause for concern, then. Perhaps it’s just an abstract composition after all? Even geometry can show strong emotions.

While Wolgin lays geometrical figures and well-know portraits over ripped-out pages, the foreground of Eloyan’s oil paintings is occupied by emotionally charged comic figures. In some cases only the outlines are sketched in, with the background shimmering through. Painted in strongly varying ways, a huge head, big eyes and a long beak suggest the familiar figures from Disney’s Duckburg (Bluffing Duck, 2008). Semi-transparent and almost detached, the figure stands against the overloaded colour space of the background. Where the paint is applied most voluminously, the surface is only interrupted in certain places by scratched features or smears. And if their upturned eyes are anything to go by, almost all of these comic characters appear to be moved by strong emotions; whether petrified or ecstatically happy remains in doubt. These creatures act as ongoing commentators on the painterly action, reacting to Eloyan’s overemphasized gestures with emotional outbursts.

This style of painting seems to strike home with the audience: an art critic from the local Thurgauer Zeitung newspaper, referring to the Expressionist painter Max Beckmann, diagnosed a fearsome ‘Beckmannian vehemence’. But, precisely because of the comic commentators’ presence, Eloyan’s work maintains a critical distance to its own approach that prevents it from being read as straightforwardly neo-Expressionist posturing. Its dialogue with Wolgin’s work generates such an interesting discussion about painting, expression and models, that one can only hope the future beings a closer cooperation between the two artists.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell