Last year marked the passing of the artist Tamuna Sirbiladze, who died of cancer aged just 45. The works that survive her hint at a woman of vitality, who pursued an ambitious artistic practice until her untimely death. It is the later period of her work that is presented in ‘Traces of Life’ at Galerie Eva Presenhuber. Curated by Benedikt Ledebur – Sirbiladze’s partner at the end of her life – the exhibition includes a variety of paintings and oil-stick drawings composed between 2002 and 2015.
Sirbiladze is almost inevitably mentioned in the same breath as Franz West – she was the Austrian artist’s wife, occasional collaborator and widow – and this connection is not forgotten at Eva Presenhuber, where West’s Diwan (2012) sofa is on display. But Sirbiladze should not be defined by this relationship alone; as the title of an energetic, freestanding work that was made in 2007 for a show at London’s Saatchi Gallery asserts: The Husband Is No Wall. Ledebur’s selection provides a varied overview of Sirbiladze’s practice, although not a comprehensive survey – neither video work nor pencil drawings are included. The first of two pieces titled Fold (both 2015) is three metres wide and nearly as tall, an unstretched and unprimed creased canvas that has been stapled to the wall and scored with a flurry of brown and russet oil-stick markings. The second iteration sees red, blue and orange lines coiling around a canvas like limbs, folding over one another as they reach the work’s centre. For B&W (2015), Sirbiladze has loosely worked blue and indigo acrylic around the edges of a square canvas. From the negative space at the centre emerges a frame, a face or a figure: it’s not clear.
When operating at the more figurative end of the spectrum, Sirbiladze gloried in scurrilous female scenarios – her women defecated, had enemas, took pills ad nauseam – a glimpse of which is provided by Kaktus Fell on My Leg (2006). A figure rendered in broad strokes reclines with knees bent, crotch pointing to the sun. Her legs are swarmed by a tumult of acid-green plants and dark red lines that might be menstrual blood. Scrawled amongst this is the word ‘exssex’, an unexplained compound of ‘ex’ and ‘sex’ – maybe ‘excess’, too – as if the whole composition embraces a vulnerable, complicated state of body and mind. Nearby are two crudely painted mask portraits, Mutter Mole and Drama (both 2010), the second of which – half in darkness, half in light – echoes the theatrical symbol of comedy and tragedy. Matisse (2012) could be described as a still life: a huge gravid flower bends under its own weight, its rounded form popping in bright yellow and white, its edges limned in bottle green. In spite of its title, the painting’s dynamism does not approach the style of Henri Matisse. Rather than work through this contradiction, however, Sirbiladze overlays another reference, adding a water lily in the foreground and summoning the spirit of Claude Monet.
‘Traces of Life’ provides an array of possible narratives about the artist’s life that we might choose to follow. This is exemplified by Torso (2015), in which a body reclines diagonally across a small canvas. Crimson, burgundy and plum roughly outline a ribcage, while its interior is filled with gleaming primed canvas. What are we seeing here? A chest, prepped for surgery, or a pair
of furled wings that might carry our figure away? Once again, the body exists as multiple things: it is that which can be injured, and that which can provide escape.