Andro Semeiko Paintings
London-based Georgian artist, Andro Semeiko creates paintings that are dense, rich explosions of poetry, passion, and politics. Stylistically, they fuse those traditional skills acquired from his formal art education at Tbilisi Academy of Fine Arts where he studied between 1992 and 1998, with a more conceptual and experimental approach making art that was encouraged and fostered by his subsequent eight years spent attending the Utrecht School of the Arts, and then Goldsmiths College and The Royal Academy in London. Semeiko’s intense quest for knowledge is born out in his practise as a painter, but also in the artist’s books that he has published and in his installations. Collectively, they signal key influences from his cultural heritage and his personal biography.
A number of the canvases are distinguished by broad, black swirls that leap and spiral across the surface. These bold brushstrokes are intertwined with transparent pink globular shapes of varying sizes with glints of white, suggesting soap bubbles. They appear to float against a backdrop of smaller, repetitive marks – rather like doodles. To English language speakers, these paintings can be viewed as defiantly abstract calligraphic marks, but to Georgians they are literally read.
Three works, Oh (ვაჰ), If Only (ნეტავ) and Forest air (ტყე, ჰაერი) directly reference lines from Vazha Pshavela’s (1861-1915) acclaimed epic allegorical poem of 1901, The Snake Eater. Semeiko takes pleasure in the fact that the exclamation, Oh, is an example of iconicity – a word that looks like the thing that it describes while also capturing the protagonist’s inner turmoil caused by trying to reconcile the needs of individual freedom with devotion to one’s country, and the relationship between mankind and nature.
In Snake Eater (გველისმჭამელი), Semeiko delves further into Vazha’s poem. This time he quotes a lengthy section that tells of the hero’s failed attempts to kill himself by eating the snake, resulting in his developing special powers to understand the language of animals and plants. In this painting the gestural brushstrokes appear as a frenzied swarm where letters and words are in a pitched battle.
Poems by the generation who followed in Vazha’s footsteps are the basis for other paintings. The period of extreme political unrest and revolution in Georgia during the first decades of the 20th century provided the brutal backdrop to poems by Galaktion Tabidze (1892 – 1959) and his cousin Titsian Tabidze (1895 – 1937), who were also both distant cousins of Semeiko. They were key members of the Blue Horns poets who, like many artists and writers in Europe, were influenced by Symbolist ideas, and also experimented with Futurist and Dadaist poetry. In the paintings Dreaming Eagles (არწივებს ჩასძინებოდათ), and The Wind Blows, I pity you (ქარიქრის, მებრალები), Semeiko quotes sections of Galaktion Tabidze’s poems. In Portrait (პორტრეტი), Semeiko excerpts lines from several of Titsian Tabidze’s poems. These are layered on top of one another with colourful ribbon swirling amongst the words to create a tangle of text. In these works, the Georgian is depicted as loose cursive script and can be clearly deciphered. But now, bubbles are replaced by bullet holes painted in trompe l’oeil style, which contrasts with the soft saccharine blues and pinks of the background. The passionate nationalism in the poetry of the turn of the century has been replaced by looming devastation of a country and its people during the lead up to the Great Purge in 1937-8, during which Titsian Tabidze was executed.
One of the paintings does not take poetry as its starting point, but instead a Georgian word that does not have a translation in English. The day after the day after tomorrow (მაზეგ), for Semeiko is redolent of the Georgian post-Soviet condition. A concept that is born out of decades of repression and resulting in a kind of apathetic and psychological and emotional dependence. But this work – as in all Semeiko’s paintings – dexterously balances often dark and at times unspeakable trauma, with lush painterly exuberance.
Semeiko’s skill as a painter draws on his years of study at the Tbilisi Academy, but also goes hand in hand with a more speculative and exploratory approach to the communicative power of his art. Letters and words segue into images that are both read (even if you don’t understand the language) and seen. The use of trompe l’oeil underlines this dialogue between traditional and conceptual registers, by also playing off the fragile link common in all painting between the material of paint and the realities of what is represented, swinging between illusion and fact, between historical record and poetry, between something seen and verifiable and that which is felt and believed. Ultimately, Semeiko’s approach proposes a kind of history painting which both presents glimpses of the past, however horrifying and challenging they are to confront, and imbues them with the liberating power of poetry.
Ingrid Swenson MBE is an independant curator and co-president of the International Association of Art Critics. From 1998 until 2021 she was the director of PEER, London.