ref: hPw May 16-Jun 12 2006 KINGS ROAD GALLERY Konstantin Bessmertny


Such is the inherent complexity and multifacetedness of Konstantin's work,
it is hard to make generic statements that summarize the content or import
of the works in a sentence or even a paragraph. What is beyond doubt is that
an erudite, highly sophisticated mind is operating behind his work, which is
cerebral and witty and both allusive and elusive.

The exploration of man's tastes, foibles, dreams and fantasies is conducted
through humour, irony, parody and satire. There is always something vaguely
disconcerting about the works (like catching one's uncle in frilly knickers
and high heels or like a teenager voyeuristically peeping into a strip-club)
but they remain totally compelling.

Complex in composition and recondite in iconography, the paintings pose an
intellectual riddle: indeed, part of the challenge and the pleasure resides
in identifying and disentangling the motifs and sources of inspiration. One
senses that the cultural well from which Konstantin draws is a deep one:
from opera, Berlin cabaret, vaudeville, burlesque, cartoons, newspapers to
theatre and costume design. Even the artistic sources of inspiration are
multifarious and multilayered: Russian icons, cartoons, ex votos, old master
portraits, still life's, trompe-l'oeil and allegorical painting  (from
Titian to Vermeer, the Fontainebleau School to Matisse, Bosch to Brueghel,
Chagall to Picasso). Moreover, the theatricality and parabolic narrative
imply affinities not only with Bosch's Ship of Fools but also Hogarth's Rake
's Progress.

The literary kinship if not inspiration is similarly complex: from the Old
Testament to Erasmus (In Praise of Folly), Brecht, Kafka, Beckett, Ionesco
and of course the Masonic libretto of The Magic Flute.

It is perhaps Konstantin's love of opera or maybe Russian propagandist art
or just awareness of the delights and ambiguities of language (traditore
traduttore) that leads him to incorporate words or texts into most of his
works: sometimes these are legible and have an explicatory or narrative
function, often they are indecipherable, half-erased and bewilderingly
opaque, so for most viewers they have only a decorative or aesthetic
function - as tantalizing as a fragmentary manuscript. The words can be in
the form of printed text, or can be meticulously written, sometimes in a
period hand, sometimes scrawled like graffiti  or a doodle or a child's
scribble - or all combined like a palimpsest. There are libretto texts, ex
voto type titles, legal texts, propagandist slogans - and to make these even
more enigmatic and inscrutable, they are in Russian, Latin, English, French,
German, Portuguese or Chinese.

The dramatis personae who strut across Konstantin's stage constitute a
colourful medley of characters: gamblers, the décolleté women of the
demi-monde, dictators, Banana Republic generals, cowboys, bourgeois, Mafiosi
cigar-smokers, angels in the form of paunchy middle-aged men in saggy
underpants and wings, sinister men in suits, naked capitalists, liegemen in
18th century court dress, Zorro, Lenin, Marat - and of course the usual
kinky habitués of Konstantin's work - the cross-dressers and hookers in
fishnet tight and stilettos.

Konstantin lives in Macau, the oldest European colony in China, administered
by the Portuguese until 1999 and now part of China, famous today for its
nightclubs, gambling dens and casinos. The complex ethnic, social and
linguistic mix of Macau has no doubt influenced Konstantin but one suspects
that much also derives from his own quirky imagination.

Almost every work invites careful scrutiny. Even what at first seems like a
straightforward portrait of a young man, standing beside a Louis XV armchair
and a gaming table, proves, on
closer inspection, to be more mysterious. It is, we are told  twice, "a
portrait of a young man in a middle of something" (sic). In the middle of
what, we don't know. The painting abounds with abstruse symbols and obscure
shapes: a rectangle with what looks like a sun and a volcano (which
reappears elsewhere on the canvas), with the subtitle 'Casino Republic';
fragments of text, half-erased scribbling, scratchings, erasures, vague
outlines. Amidst all this stands the young man, cool, detached, with clear
eyes and a penetrating gaze. Could this be a symbolic portrait of the artist
himself as a young man?

Thus Konstantin's work is witty and erudite, a colourful parade of folly,
perversity and excess. One suspects a moral lesson there, but Konstantin
withholds judgement and remains the inscrutable artist - as James Joyce
said, once the artist has finished his work, he should sit back and pare his
fingernails. It is up to the viewer to decipher the puzzles.

These are highly original, inventive and endlessly intriguing works, deftly
painted but much looser in brushwork, more richly coloured and more complex
compositionally than much of his previous work. There can be no doubt that
they are, to use one of Konstantin's own titles, "paintings for people with
an IQ well above normal".
TERENCE RODRIGUES Art Historian, Critic & International Art Consultant