Ellie Violet Bramley

Absurd and Appealing – the art of Ruslan Vashkevich

tep into Beirut’s Q Contemporary Gallery from the blustery seafront to get your first lesson in Belarusian Ruslan Vashkevich’s art where you should expect the unexpected.

Vashkevich is considered to be a "crown jewel of the contemporary Belarusian art scene". With an education in Fine Art, the 46-year-old’s first Beirut exhibition titled New Retrospective is refreshing. The curation is done with apt good humor, having a real-life goldfish mirroring a painting of a goldfish hung from the ceiling.

Vashkevick’s work could have easily found itself on the wrong side of gimmicky, but skillfully trotting that fine line, the artist managed to steer clear of that fate. Elements of realism and portraiture are accented with elements of the surreal and the occasional nod to Pop Art.

The artist explains of his work, saying, “I am interested in the process of recovery and transition into a new substance by means of Dadaism, the absurd, alcoholism, minimalism and maximalism.”

In “Fox Dress,” Vashkevich plays on his Soviet Union heritage. A woman, who would look at home in a socialist propaganda poster, is drawn with the bluntness and idolatry characteristic of political art. Against a backdrop of industrial pipes and machinery, she is presented in a new context – the kind of paint-by-numbers given at children’s arts and crafts class. The artist playfully subverts a traditionally non-playful genre. Literature from the exhibition states "the premise for this project lies in a post-modern idea of 'new exploitation of old things.’" This painting captures that theme brilliantly.

In “The Rest Is Inside,” Vashkevich's Mickey Mouse head and ears host a beautifully depicted face. Where the orifices of the ears would be, there are folded arms and hands. Knots of flesh suggest mental confusion, with pink polka dots punctuating the otherwise monochrome canvas.

“Three Sisters” shows off Vashkevich's talent for portraiture, but alters what might otherwise be a painting of realism by using a surreal twist: a third eye and a backwards double braid. Vashkevich toys with conventional aesthetics, drawing a few dots of sky blue to enliven the overwhelmingly monochromatic whole.

“Strong Willed Girl,” too, sees a girl's face made strange. With one eye, no nose and a hole for a mouth so small you'd struggle to fit a chickpea in it, the painting aligns with “Three Sisters” in its surrealist take.

But it is in his triptych work, “Color Blindness,” that Vashkevich really starts telling a story. This series depicts young love, showing in the first panel a young girl clutching a flower in one hand and a love-flushed cheek with the other. She is squealing with what can only be pure glee. Her feet in white stockings and girlish sandals along with her 1950s-style attire communicate innocence, the kind you'd find standing next to a jukebox at the Happy Days diner.

In the second painting of the series, she and her crush have matured. She is in a moment of intoxication and some of the earlier innocence has gone. In the final painting, her face is in the shadows, her posture defeated, her clothes are plainer and her hand is bandaged, a visible marker of a bruised heart. Splashes of red and green punctuate the darker overall palette.

The narrative of “Color Blindness” might be compelling, but it is in the grotesquery of “Girl With a Bread & Co” that Vashkevich's art really comes to life. The painting, made up of a grid of six small portraits, shows people reminiscent of those in the paintings of the Dutch masters. The exaggerated “warts and all” realism will not be to everyone's taste: faces are scrunched, stretched or unsmiling; hands are spindly, noses large, mouths unappealing and eyes heavy with bags. These are not pretty portraits, but they are lively and interesting. The physicality of the piece is brash, and in some ways unexpected. A cigarette is held not to the mouth, but to an eye; a plait is fed into a mouth. The artist here is playing with what we expect from classic portraiture, and doing so in a way that is comical yet unsettling.

Once reputedly dubbed the "Belarusian Quentin Tarantino," one struggles to see why based solely on Vashkevich's paintings on display at Q Contemporary Gallery. Undoubtedly, Tarantino would find the majority of the paintings rather tame. Even “Angel,” a painting which can be found in a catalogue of earlier works with its cheeky nudity, legs akimbo is, relative to Tarantino's usual output, quite understated.

Tame or not, these pieces are both eccentric and mildly yet pleasingly absurd.  At first glance, they seem to represent identifiable everyday objects and realities; however, they demand more thought than feeling from their viewer. And they are well worth the thought they require.

New Retrospective exhibition is on display at Q Contemporary Gallery in downtown Beirut until May 5. For more information, please click here.