Oleg Tselkov confronts “The Man”
Look at the round and affable face of Oleg Tselkov Tselkov March (2017), the documentary that accompanies the artist’s mini retrospective at the Multimedia Art Museum in Moscow, I couldn’t help but notice that all but the 16 works on display represent anonymous, bald men who have more than a fleeting resemblance to the late Russian artist. But these flattened, disc-shaped faces are more than self-portraits. As the narrator of the film, actress Isabelle Adjani, recounts: “In 1960, in Moscow, a young painter had just portrayed a man’s face when he realized that he had involuntarily portrayed something else: the Man’s face. Not just one human being, but all of humanity.
Entitled “I am not from here, I am a foreigner”, the exhibition opens with three works from before this breakthrough. In the brightly colored, densely painted semi-abstract Two women and Rope walker (1957), it is easy to spot revealing Cubist influences in the deconstructed geometric shapes and flat compositions of the painting. In the same way, Flush toilet and agave (1956) echoes Henri Matisse in his dynamic assemblage of checkerboards in brilliant hues, plants and porcelain. While this assured management of color would feature in Tselkov’s work for the rest of his career – becoming brighter, sharper, and more brilliant with each passing year – the recognizable influences and affinities gave way after 1960 to pure idiosyncrasy. The first clue of this can be seen here in Portrait with a flower (1962): a smooth and daring oval of a face that fixes the viewer with an expression that is at once impenetrable but deeply relatable. With the eyes and the mouth, these usual signifiers of the personality, hidden in the margins, the empty and open plane of the central section of the work creates an almost mirror-like surface onto which viewers can project their own interpretations.
Browsing through the exhibition, it’s clear that the effervescence of Tselkov’s palette, coupled with the airbrushed quality of its surfaces, plays a key role in the work’s contemporary appearance – and Instagram-friendly. Five masks (1979) – with its hyperrealistic green and yellow cord, which seems to hang from the top edge of the canvas – might well have been painted yesterday. Such clever compositional details – the little nail in the upper right corner just above the stack of eggplants from Five faces (1980); the deliciously wandering puff of smoke about to float over the top edge of Smoking (1969) – repeated throughout Tselkov’s work, allowing the artist to test the form and positioning of the founding element of his vocabulary: the face and its multiple ways of being. While Tselkov’s faces have an unmistakable origin in common, they are kaleidoscopically varied by these subtle plays of contextual detail. What you find in these non-portraits is a survey of Emmanuel Lévinas’ claim, in Ethical and infinite (1985), that “The face is meaning, and a meaning without context […] The face gives priority to itself […] The face is what cannot be killed.
Forced to leave the then Soviet Union due to the ruling party’s dissatisfaction with the “bourgeois tendencies” of his work (according to the wall text of the exhibition) and the corresponding limitations of his ability to exhibit – let alone profit from it – his art, in 1977 Tselkov moved to France where, for the next 40 years, he chose to remain stateless while continuing his painting practice. Evoking and refuting the meaning in the same phrase – empty but loaded, anguished but emancipated – the faces of Tselkov speak of his own condition: in them the whole spectrum of the community and individuality of humanity is gathered from one shot.
that of Oleg Tselkov “I’m not from here, I’m a foreigner” is on view at the Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow, until December 5, 2021.
Thumbnail: Oleg Tselkov, Group portrait with watermelon, 1963, oil on panel, 1.3 x 1.7 m. Courtesy: Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow
Main picture: Oleg Tselkov, Self-portrait (detail), 1964, oil on cardboard, 1.1 x 1.4 m. Courtesy: Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow