Vitally Grigoryev's paintings are as polished and precise as a Bach fugue. Bachian humanity, however, is conspicuously absent in Nostalgic Realism, a show at GSIFine Art that consists of thirty technically breathtaking oil paintings. When he works without the human touch, which is all too often, Grigoryev is a master without a message, a technical whiz who dazzles with his attention to detail but is in the last resort frosty and academic. When, however, he allies technique with feeling, as he does in a handful of these works, he's a force to be reckoned with.
At the age of 41, the native of Moldova, a tiny former Soviet republic between Ukraine and Romania, is something of an artistic maverick. Refusing to bow to the pressures of modernism, he is instead an avowed adherent to a fifteenth-century aesthetic. His work, with its pictorial brilliance, concentrated sentiment, and absolute refusal to let go in a burst of passion, bears the stamp of early Dutch masters like Rogier van der Weyden. Like his predecessors, Grigoryev goes for distillation--just as a chef keeps reducing a sauce so that the flavor becomes more intense, he adds layer upon layer of paint to his canvases, refining color while ensuring that surfaces are lacquer-smooth and bear no trace of brushstrokes or other telltale signs of human involvement. The resulting equanimity, in still lifes and portraits alike, is often sleep-inducing. But in a few instances, a dose of modern angst seems to invade Grigoryev's world, and as he struggles to retain his customary control despite the rude incursion, he creates his best work.
Sometimes the incursion is slight, as though a tiny stone has been thrown into a lake, and the resulting ripples are more imagined than real. This is the case with the 1993 oil-on-linen "Still Life With a Dragonfly"; green and black drapery in the background, the folds and creases expertly delineated, gives way to a foreground arrangement of a saucer, glass, and spherical container. Each of these objects is treated as an end unto itself, with rigorous attention paid to shape, color, and the play of light on reflective surfaces. The painting comes alive, though, with Grigoryev's addition of three insects: a dragonfly, a butterfly, and a bee.
The textural variety that Grigoryev finds in the bee's outer skin--yellow fuzz against glistening black bands--stands in direct contrast to the monochromatic feel of the drapery and the mundane household objects. Unpredictable nature has been juxtaposed with domestic normalcy, and the contrast provides just enough tension for the still life to take wing. The viewer imagines the buzz of the bee, the gentle flutter of the butterfly, and the whirring of the dragonfly, and the implied sound breaks through all that stillness.
A work like "Still Life With a Dragonfly," with its irregular visual rhymes (each object gets its own insect) and its combination of implied sounds, reveals sure poetic instincts. It's reminiscent of Emily Dickinson's poem "I Heard a Fly Buzz--When I Died," another work which reveled in the tension that occurs when an errant sound intrudes on an overwhelming silence.
Unfortunately, Grigoryev's other still lifes boast impeccable technical execution but little else. Every fold in every piece of cloth is examined with a microscope, and ordinary household objects are turned this way and that so that the wizardry of all that perfectly spun (and expertly rendered) light doesn't escape the viewer. In works like these, control becomes the only point; it's saddening to see such technical finesse expended in works so devoid of feeling.
Of course, this stern mixture of emotional austerity and technical finish is exactly what Grigoryev wants. And though his rarefied vision won't sit well with those who ask more of art than mere technical prowess, there's reason for hope here, primarily because Grigoryev's aesthetic isn't quite as static as it initially appears. An artist's unbridled flights of fancy may lead to bold and unsuspected strokes which, upon being filtered through a discriminating intellect, gain a previously unimagined order and even inevitability. In "Still Life With a Dragonfly," such a transformation takes place. Perhaps it was only a happy coincidence, but there seems to be no telling when and how Grigoryev will make lightning strike.
If his still lifes are uneven, his portraits are more consistently engaging. The 1998 oil-on-panel "Portrait of the Daughter" has no truck with the stereotypical cuteness that infects many an artist's portrayal of children. Grigoryev gives us a young girl who is particularized and authentic. There are sharply observed details like prominent cheekbones and strands of hair that refuse to stay put. The watchful expression, with just a hint of impatient irritability, is also idiosyncratic enough to seem real.
Grigoryev captures these qualities in his lean, spare style, and the analytical clarity that proves antiseptic in many of the still lifes is deployed here to fine effect. The human face is fascinating and can bear scrutiny in a way that a glass or a pitcher can't--a point Grigoryev drives home with the 1995 oil-on-linen "Shells." In it, a young girl peers over a table on which a number of shells have been scattered. Although she reaches for a tall glass at the far right of the frame, she seems absorbed by some internal drama. Her ear echoes the shape of the shells; like "Still Life With a Dragonfly," this painting seems to be about echoes and sound. It's as though Grigoryev is encouraging us to free-associate about shells, tall glasses, and daydreaming girls.
Free association was not an artistic strategy beloved by the fifteenth-century Dutch masters (unless Freud was moonlighting in a century not his own). But it's one with which twentieth-century painters like Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte felt right at home. Despite their ultra-conservative Old Master trappings, works like "Shells" have a pronounced twentieth-century streak worthy of Magritte. This quasi-surreal combination of anachronistic exactitude with twentieth-century doubt is a rich lode for future mining, and one hopes that Grigoryev does more in this vein. It's worrisome, though, that the four-year-old "Shells" is one of the earlier works in this show. One hopes it represents where Grigoryev is headed as well as where he's been.
Many of Grigoryev's works are so meager in content that his painstaking technical mastery seems more like an affectation than a fulfillment of design. When he dons his Bachian wig and puts some heart and soul into his work, he's a painter to look out for. He doesn't deliver the goods very often in this exhibit--mainly in "Still Life With a Dragonfly," "Shells," and some of the portraits. Still, one leaves the gallery with memories of his striking works, rather than the cool and inexpressive ones. That's a good sign--and cause for hope that Grigoryev will more consistently leaven his mathematical precision with a little passion.
Vitally Grigoryev: Nostalgic Realism, through March 19 at GSI Fine Art, 1240 Huron Road, 216-363-0000.