Sanya Kantarovsky was born in 1982. They are a Russian-born artist who lives and works in New York. The dark humor consistent in Kantarovsky’s work across a variety of mediums pits the sumptuous against the abject and thrusts private space – be it physical or psychological – into public view. Evoking the feeling of an uneasy inner monologue, figures are gawked at, exposed, poked, or spooned medicine. They interact with one another, as well as the edges of the canvas itself, testing the confines of their given bodies and their given frame. Similarly, Kantarovsky probes their art historical predecessors: both canonical and relatively unknown painters, writers and illustrators. The presence of these references simultaneously questions and indulges in a lineage of painterly impulses.
Some languages are better than others at conveying the malleability of certain words. The word ‘type’ in English – a category, or a thing or a person exemplifying the defining characteristics of something – cannot fully translate the Russian usage of the equivalent teep, which carries both the above meaning and a colloquial usage through which one can indicate the unsavouriness of a particular character. A gut reaction where something about a person feels off, a kind of intuitive ambivalence or distrust, may result in someone being referred to as a teep.
Teeps proliferate among Sanya Kantarovsky’s work – a word that for the US-based, Russian-born artist has seeped into their English-language usage and artistic practice. Kantarovsky’s teeps have arrived from a place where cartoon characters also take shape, creatures formed through an efficiency of means – confident lines, luscious patches of colour. These figures are the close-up face baring its teeth (what does it want and why is it so difficult to hold its gaze?), they are the humanoid creature that stroppily stomps across the image, they are the body collapsed on the floor and partially obscured by the urinal they cling to (should we help?), they are the tiny figure digging a hole for a giant (a David and Goliath? A child single-handedly burying the body of a father? What kind of act preceded this?), they are the bare pink-red flesh and emaciated face of a figure splayed in a bathtub (are they OK?).
In the absence of stable referents, Kantarovsky’s images position the viewer somewhere between the voyeuristic act of looking at discomfort and humiliation and being confronted – looked back at – by the unsavoury and repellent. Are these ambiguous figures to be pitied and helped, or avoided? What does your gut tell you?
And even when these figures are so repellent, how can you peel your eyes off the sticky, shiny surfaces built up from delicate semi-transparent glazes that leave the seemingly sparse and empty pictorial space of Kantarovsky’s new works saturated with the substance of paint? Kantarovsky’s practice has until now spanned predominantly oil painting and printmaking in the form of woodcuts. For the Baltic Triennial 13, Sanya Kantarovsky will show their creatures that appear on the surfaces of monotypes. A technique that produces singular prints, a monotype nonetheless enables a ghostly resurfacing of a figure in their shadowy form, and the spillage of one image into another, like a faint image burning itself onto the retina after looking at something too bright. Thus a seemingly innocuous scene in which a melancholic figure rests their head on their hand with the lips of another – mostly hidden – figure passes on a whisper. This melancholic face and the whisperer’s large green hand resurface as faint shadows for an abject, repulsive grinning figure. Cross-pollinating and spilling into one another in uneasy moments of déjà vu, they collapse the stable boundaries between what appears harmless and saccharine and what seems threatening and nauseating.