Within and Without of Itself
The Journey of Andro Semeiko’s Painting
At the source of Andro Semeiko's research lies an innate need to narrate, perhaps a form of cultural imprinting inherited from Georgia, his land of origin. “I grew up in a land where people, when speaking of life, draw on citations from stories, poems and legends”: and thus, as his words witness, from this coming and going between stories of life and the life of stories, his art takes its form; a privileged art, steeped and nurtured in the explosive cultural milieu of London's art scene. These are the roots of his inventive talent and ironic wit, of his capacity for scenic arrangement and themed elaborations, his fantasies, his visions and his whims. However, be well aware that these last three terms should not sound as generic attributes to a vague sense of imagination – as we will see, they all refer to precise genres and categories grounded in the past centuries of art's history. It is as if Andro naturally appropriates the methodology and the hermeneutic nature of the anachronism, legitimated of late by Georges Didi-Huberman; consciously entrusting himself to those “times of exuberance within the image”.
His narrative technique could be considered a lilting, breezy sarabande that bridges, and simultaneously mocks, the course of the centuries: space shuttle launch pads in underground vaults alluding to Piranesi, astronauts journeying through space and time wearing Renaissance knights' armour instead of spacesuits, the realisations of spatial capsules whose projects are lost in the past while their wanderings sidle up to our present, paintings that seem to belong to a century of Flemish splendour or perhaps of Lorraine visions, paintings that unexpectedly drop into our space, merging with our lives, taking shape in objects that we can touch, and in so doing, perhaps even dirty our hands with the coloured substance from which they are shaped. In as much, along which parameters and according to which itinerary does this voyage unravel – that journey involving paintings and objects, representations and signs?
Painting, in the economy of these deployed tapestries, is like an elastic fabric, whose weave contracts at times and expands in others; one could add that the more this weave relaxes, and the freer the brush stroke becomes - proudly exhibiting the traces of its lithe movements of swerving liquefaction - the more the function of painting protrudes from the plane and the work itself, colliding with the real world. Thus, for Andro Semeiko, painting is a practice that moves like a loom shuttle, sliding in and out of the forms of conventional representation: at times fiction is smothered by smooth, amalgamated brush strokes; in others it puffs up – as if agitated – and it is here that painting is used to reveal deception, showing itself as the material and indicating itself as the object. As such, it will able to interact with other objects that could be included in the order of the installation's discourse, combining and integrating it with other media that come into play.
Here, painting is a coherent device containing a sort of built-in metronome that regulates and articulates the timing and intensity of the brush strokes. Until a few years ago, this controlled pendulum has been swinging between stuffiness and rarefaction, between attention to detail and the process of synthesis, accelerating its rhythm in the realms of precision and his predilection for detail. This said, it always obeys the imperative rule of a certain economy in brush stroke - an almost dictated preamble absorbed by the artist from the post-Soviet academy during his first period of study. This operational directive in painting, portraying only the essential traces, both constructive and formal, is, in my opinion the lymph that ensures the freshness of painting. It favours, in the most direct, immediate sense, the maintenance of the personal contact, the hand and body of the painter. Norman Bryson, speaking of the so called deictic indications (and lamenting the lack of this element in the Western tradition), masterfully dwelt upon the action of traces and echoes of bodily movements, through brush strokes that indicate the physical presence of the artist, evoking the time taken, still resonant with the temporal length of execution.
The scenes which we see here, are characterised, as the indisputable protagonists, by these armoured figures, encased completely in cataphracts that do not betray even a semblance of human form: gleaming, burnished standard-bearers, ex-servicemen of a military pomp now lost in space, dazed coxswains of a past that is disseminated in our present. The armour is, for them, an astronaut's spacesuit; exo-skeletal substance, the crowns and the sallets of their helmets are their ossified faces. But they are possibly simply shells, the domains of absence, which, like Italo Calvino’s phantom knight, guard an unfathomable emptiness… Whatever it may be, protective trapping or robe of state, bewitched object or phantom armour plate, this armour connotes the intention of figures, their poses at times grotesque, in others elegiac; their function at times poetic, in others paradoxical. This said, if these are the actors interweaving the plot of the fabula, what happens then, on the surface of the tabula?
Let us begin by looking at the paintings that make up part of the recent project Unveiling: Rocket MT210, created over the past few months for Gymnasium Gallery in Berwick-upon-Tweed and Basement Art Projects in London. At first glance we see one of these “phantom knights”, compactly painted in an erect, soldierly position, but when we look more closely we note that unexpectedly, his armoured hand melts, dripping onto the support on which it rests: a hand that discovers paint, revealing the touch and tricks of another invisible hand, the hand that delineates the encounter of our gaze, and, exactly as this representation becomes more significant in terms of the narrative plane, the coloured substance returns – pouring out of the convention of painting, becoming surplus material, a mere pigment that drips. Thus, the knight’s hand is reabsorbed by the substance through which it is represented. Representation drowns in itself, and in so doing, estranges itself from its own fictitious sense; it returns to the dimension of reality, that which is common to both the artist and the viewer, it disassembles and de-constructs. Another knight is formed of two juxtaposed halves, one half perfectly forged in shining metal, the other half a mysterious silhouette: an outline that, cut lengthways, completes itself in the mirroring of its own shadow, a ragged, tenebrous smoky trace. In other scenes, the knights are ensnared in wig-like head coverings or hoods which, over and above their function in obscuring that which already serves to obscure, they proliferate in density becoming incongruous, redundant thicknesses, masses of pictorial paste, clotted and stiffened until break point, that again - without any half truths - depict the pact between representation and painting. This last element is found constantly suspended between the narrative flow and confabulation, and unexpected shifts of auto-referentiality and tautology.
In his most recent paintings, created for the exhibition at the Atlantica gallery, Andro Semeiko abandons himself completely to the vertiginous mark impregnated with movement, to the total disengaging of the mark arising from the thrust of the wrist and gesture of the hand. This action is facilitated by the chosen themes: fantastic sights, maritime horizons and scenes depicting mystery and ruins.
And so then, in the Glorious Journey, galleons and caravels that - like euphoric steamboats, Rimbaudian archetypes of a glorious journey to the confines of material - set off against the tide, confronting the trials of time, in endless maritime battles. In fact they are nothing but the infinite battles of the brush against the friction of the canvas, of the brush-keel that challenges the billowing canvas.
Painting imposes itself as a discipline of immediacy, rejecting any patina in a celebration of rapidity and freshness, of a quick musicality that resonates and vibrates without any dampeners. The journey, the glorious journey, is therefore also that of the brush; it is the ductus of dictus, the trace of the course, the wake of that which passes through the narrative. It is the subject of this narration, it is a painted chronicle of the voyage, but first and foremost, it is a journey itself, the continuous search for an alchemy founded on a notion of similarity. The representative convention becomes allusion to an affinity of substance, of the physical state: clouds that liquefy into spray, smoke curls that blow into festoons and dancing banners, the planking of the sailing vessels that participates in the aquatic substance, dripping resin and spirits.
If between representation and that which is represented there lies a chemical or empathetic analogy, between the act of representation and its result, between tableau and peinture, there lies not only a continuity, there exists also an identity, a simultaneity and a coexistence. One could say the course of the brush, and navigation of the hand in one way. In the other, a gesture of ships and brush strokes of waves and clouds, while from above, it soars in the writing of the black gulls.
Here it is, the principle of economy in brush striking, harnessing its most decisive liberty: here painting is constructive gesture, movement of the hand that builds through the traces it leaves - traces that slip like foam, exploiting the liquid measure of pigments and oils, their fluency: this too is a journey, through canvases and panels, parallel and simultaneous to the other, traversing forests and seas, moving between horizons and the clouds. There is always an element of the far and beyond to which this painting is connected, because it is incarnated in a circuit of clots and thickened materials that scrape against and jut into the viewer’s space; pictorial elements which frequently - in certain installations - come away, dripping and congealing into objects, into pigment sculptures and desiccated oils. This painting moves inward and outward, points itself as a representative act, and re-defines itself as boiling colour, as colour that goes beyond, as colour that pushes outwards: opening parentheses and dialogues, finding a sort of objective correlation between drawings, projects and objects.In the works of Andro Semeiko, I sense a secret incommunicable conception of painting, that relates to the much-discussed principle about conformity of copies to the original, about resemblance to the invisible: to grasp in the sail the image of the banging wind, the lapping of the water in the water craft, the shifting light in the façades of the palaces; and the blending of the mists and waters along the fine thread of the horizon line, the intricate tangle of the clouds with the flight of birds, and the entwining of the vapours and wisps of smoke with the flags, banners and festoons. The transmission of qualities and attitudes, interchanging roles while obeying only the rules of the brush stroke.
Painting comes and goes, meandering through time and space, re-evoking genres, citing iconography of the past, sometimes thickening and then melting into an interminable (and glorious) voyage at the frontier of its endurance, roaming with no end: without, within, within and without of itself.
Alberto Mugnaini is an art historian, a regular contributor to Flash Art magazine.