Victor Berezovsky’s recent works

An Irish friend of mine is descended from Charles Coote (1738-1800), the notorious first Earl of Bellomont, an 18th century aristocrat remembered for being a political opportunist and a harsh landlord in the land of the shamrock. His 1773 portrait by the go-to Sir Joshua Reynolds is in the National Gallery of Ireland and depicts a languid, rather foppish man decked out in pink-to-apricot satins, crowned by an excessively-plumed hat and leaning nonchalantly on a sheathed sword. This description sounds far from promising, but the painting is a masterpiece.

Once when my friend was visiting Dublin she arranged to see this painting, and was taken by a curator to a storage area to inspect it. As they examined its formal complexities and lush depiction the curator exclaimed with an exasperation tinged with admiration: “Now, where would you start?”

In considering Victor Berezovsky’s work this is a very good question. His formal complexities and lush depictions can be a challenge to viewers, who, more often than not, are exposed in contemporary art-making to over-wrought (but largely failed) ambition and nationalistic contemporary cliches. Part of the challenge of trying to unravel the potential meanings in Berezovsky’s work is that it just doesn’t fit easily into any “New Zealand art” context.

Besides, as an artist he doesn’t take prisoners. He’s like the host who greets his guest at the door then slugs him across the chin – not so much a violent gesture as an attempt to wake him up. There’s a sleek complacency and over-arching sense of entitlement in the operations of the art world, increasingly about artist reputation and sales rather than the works’ lasting value to the wider culture. The New Yorker’s art writer Peter Schjeldahl’s withering phrase “period decor” comes readily to mind. It’s the art equivalent of “today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip paper”. Apart from the matter of formal interpretation, Berezovsky’s work is problematic in that it’s never had the imprimatur of an art-world insider, and generally viewers need this kind of mini-stepladder to get “into” the work as well as the reassurance it’s worth making the effort.

A cruel joke is to sidle up to an attendee at a Berezovsky opening, and after the standard pleasantries allow a pause, then ask in a low voice “Tell me, what is Victor’s work about?”. If you take delight in seeing what raw fear looks like, try it. All joking aside, take note of a reply Gertrude Stein made to a reporter who had asked her what she thought about “Modern Art” and with her legendary simplicity she said “I like looking at it”. This is very good advice. As there’s virtually no writing about Berezovsky’s work, you’re on your own – once you’ve recovered from that slug on the chin.

While there’s no body of writing about it there is an impressive body of work, albeit shown rarely (a further disadvantage of not having much of a profile, a maddening reinforcement of an existing problem). Berezovsky’s production is testament to the artist’s commitment and illustrative of his focus and – crucially – his avoidance of offering any easy way into his world, for that is what it is: Victor’s World. It may contain multiple mysteries, but it’s both a coherent and an immensely rich web of symbolic motifs which function not as isolated fridge-magnets but exist as the connected elements of an ongoing narrative which maps out the terrain of Victor’s World. Any really attentive and reflective viewer can easily join the dots and earn a passport to this wondrous place.

Its geography, seemingly antithetically, sites its coherence in chaos, visually and emotionally, to the point of over-load – but then, what could better connect with today’s global challenges and the crises in personal identity and social relationships? Modernism’s formal values and Postmodernism’s linguistic antics have hardly left us with the equipment to cope, or even assist with recognising the parameters of humanity’s deepening situation. Earnest and opportunistic works addressing climate change and, now, the ravages of pandemics, seldom come to terms with more basic anxieties around personal identity and the nature of relationships. While Berezovsky’s images avoid specific reference to such dilemmas, the depthless staging he constructs paradoxically opens up avenues to their consideration.

Whatever you make of this artist’s imagery, there’s a palpable and intense urgency easily felt in his work, and sometimes the hint of menace and anxiety evident in, for example, Bill Hammond’s early work, before he became seduced by recycling his birds. Similarly, in both these artists’ gawky draughtsmanship, there is an avoidance of any idealisation: nothing is at rest, which tends to reinforce the impression of chaos. Where Berezovsky scores is that his use of carnivalesque colour also reinforces the same impression. In his work the Newtonian colour-wheel has simply lost its spokes.

New Zealand revered masters such as Hotere, McCahon and Fomison privileged an austere palette which commentators have interpreted much along the lines of our film-making’s “cinema of unease”, a sombre, existential angst-ridden approach to life in Enzed – sometimes bordering on the theatrically gothic – picked up later by the likes of Jason Grieg and Fiona Pardington. Berezovsky will have none of this, opting instead for the lyricism of early Chagall and the melancholy of late Bonnard, recharging a European tradition rather than submitting to antipodean gloom. There is, however, an enthusiastic rawness in Berezovsky’s use of colour, foreign to European sensibility, a use which perhaps arises from our colonial situation but which nonetheless amplifies his chaos theory. As well, this rawness may transmit, consciously or not, an anxiety about the credibility of painting’s place in contemporary art-making.

As with his forms, his colour offers challenges too: the restless juxtapositions and the visual overload, the equivalent of that slap across the chops. Only this time it's our eyeballs. It may be a paradox that his bright and varied colour-range throws light on the sometimes nightmarish and clotted scenarios he constructs, conferring a joyfulness seemingly at odds with these psychological passion plays. But then, what dream makes sense? (The artist admits to being a vivid dreamer.) These scenarios can resemble film stills, a moment caught, possibly trapped, suggesting many possibilities but suffused with the absence of likely resolution. In this way Berezovsky’s works are not so much artworks as visual predicaments.

Which brings us back to Gertrude Stein. The story may well be apocryphal, but a group of friends standing around her death-bed heard her ask, stimulated by their silence, “What is the answer?” When no response was forthcoming, she was said to have said, “Well then, what is the question?”

Peter Ireland

October 2020