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Issue 211

Satire Without the Bite: Sanya Kantarovsky at Taka Ishii, Tokyo

The paintings and woodcuts at Tokyo’s Taka Ishii Gallery miss something in their nostalgia for an older vision of image-making

BY Ella Fleck in Reviews , Reviews Across Asia | 05 MAR 20

Sanya Kantarovsky’s recent solo show at Taka Ishii Gallery, ‘Paradise’, is rich in art-historical references. As well as nods to Luc Tuymans’s ghostly pale palette and the swollen faces of George Grosz’s dadaist paintings, there are – topically for Tokyo – echoes of the lines and hues of Ukiyo-e print master Utagawa Kuniyoshi. Kantarovsky delivers these considered citations with technical brilliance in works that oscillate effortlessly between abstraction and figuration, between areas of dense, mutilated paint and eloquent disseminations of economic marks.

The exhibition consists of four woodblock prints, created with Adachi Hanga printmakers, four larger paintings and a series of diminutive portraits. In the woodblock prints and larger paintings, Kantarovsky continues to develop the scenes of woozy figures for which he has become known. Set into a slab of muted khaki, the contextless pair embracing in Curtain II (2019) are distinctly male, white and of differing ages, but the rest is undefined. Is this a hug between family members? A kiss between lovers? A dying person being claimed by the grim reaper? In an interview with Allison Katz in his monograph No Joke (2016), Kantarovsky described his paintings as ‘narrative fragments that imply some sort of problem, the exact conditions of which are rarely available to the viewer’.

The gaunt, older man in Curtain II stares us down with his low-set eyes, awkwardly self-aware that he is a glossy, eau-de-nil quote from Egon Schiele’s self-portraits. The smaller figure (a recurring character throughout ‘Paradise’) is evoked by a faint peach outline whose insubstantiality next to the wholeness of the other figure feels weighted with significance, exaggerating the pronounced, cryptic dissonance between the two.

Sanya Kantarovsky, Woe to Wit II, 2019, oil and watercolour on canvas, 216 × 165 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Taka Ishii Gallery. Tokyo/Hong Kong/; photograph: Kenji Takahashi 

In Woe to Wit II (2019) a swooping, Edvard Munch-like Madonna-cum-Morticia Addams figure haunts the upper half of the canvas; behind her, a crowd of smudged, skull-like faces scream or stare. In the foreground, a small boy – or young man – peels potatoes next to two fish and a vase of wilted flowers. The scene has strong, 19th-century overtones: it’s impossible not think of Vincent van Gogh’s series of ‘Peasant Character Studies’ (1881–85) or Albert Anker’s The Little Potato Peeler (1886).

The press release for ‘Paradise’ notes that ‘Kantarovsky refers to a tradition of dark and satirical image-making’. Woe to Wit II references Russian playwright Alexander Griboyedov’s eponymous satire of Moscow society from 1831; however, the painting’s relationship to the genre stops there. The scene is gloomy and soft: Kantarovsky’s potato peeler glows peacefully, reminiscent of Anker’s, whilst the Madonna-like figure shimmers in the darkness. Their relationship could be tender or threatening: she could be his mother, his ghost or his lover. The image is ambiguous and dark, but not ironic or sarcastic.

Winding through art history, the universe depicted in ‘Paradise’ is painterly. For all of Kantarovsky’s technical proficiency and attentiveness to the specificities of his media, the works rarely strike a nerve that feels contemporary; these are images nostalgic for an older vision of satirical image-making. It seems a shame, given the abundant opportunity for satire in our current times, not to have acknowledged the present day a little more.

Sanya Kantarovsky, ‘Paradise’ was on view at Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo, until 22 February 2020. 

Main Image: Sanya Kantarovsky, ‘Paradise’ , installation view, Taka Ishii Gallery Tokyo. Courtesy: the artist and Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo/Hong Kong; photograph: Kenji Takahashi 

Ella Fleck is a writer, curator based in London, UK. She is co-founder of 650mAh a project space located in MIST Vape Shop in Hove, UK