Sanya Kantarovsky - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Friday, October 15, 2021 | Phillips

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  • 'I’m more in tune with this Russian avant-garde idea of ostranenija, making strange. This was the notion that art had to defamiliarize something and make you feel you're looking at it for the first time. Those are ideas that resonate with me more.' —Sanya KantarovskyAt once unsettling and utterly compelling, an encounter with Moscow-born Sanya Kantarovsky’s paintings feel like stumbling upon an open page of a novel, or being an unseen observer, watching as a private drama unfolds. Featuring an array of abject but highly appealing characters, Kantarovsky’s works read like Russian tragedy or, more precisely, like an exchange between the Brothers Karamazov and the darkly comic works of Mikhail Bulgakov, who Kantarovsky referenced directly in his 2015 collaboration with Leva Misevičiūtė for Studio Volatire.


    Featuring archetypal figures rather than portraits of individuals, as the artist describes in his 2016 monograph, No Joke, the men and women that populate Kantarovsky’s canvases are both simple and complex, capable of good and evil, love and cruelty. Profoundly affecting in their tender display of human frailty, they speak to and allegorise modern civilization and its discontents, tapping into a particular thread of ennui that anchors Kantarovsky thematically and stylistically to the Symbolist movement that awkwardly straddled the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

    'I am drawn to simultaneity as a value […] the cognitive dissonance involved in negotiating simultaneous truths is something I find productive and worthwhile. Perhaps the main simultaneity — the inherent truth in lived experience — is that of cruelty and love, violence and beauty.' —Sanya Kanatrovsky 

    Odilon Redon, Alsace or, Monk Reading, c. 1914, Kunstmuseum, Wintherur, Switzerland Bridgeman Images

    While Kantarovsky’s exquisite flair for colour recalls the unmodulated hues and broad spatial harmonies of Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin, the sweeping arabesque lines, distorting elongation, and eerie luminosity of his figures here draws on the psychologically strained Symbolism of Odilon Redon and Edvard Munch.


    Left: Edvard Munch, Melancholy, Bergen Art Museum, Norway. Photo © O. Vaering / Bridgeman Images
    Right: Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait, or Man Walking Night Painting by Edvard Munch, 1923-24, Munch-museet, Oslo. Luisa Ricciarini / Bridgeman Images

    Like Kantarovsky, Munch too was fascinated by the extremes and contradictions of the human condition – of jealousy, love, melancholy, and cruelty – although without Kantarovsky’s sardonic humour, the Norwegian’s celebrated oeuvre tends more straightforwardly to the morbid. Contorting his figures into impossible arrangements, Munch was a master in bending line and colour to a hysterical expressivity, his flattened, swirling backgrounds articulating agitated emotional and psychological states. Although the quietly violent tone of No Eyes is eerily serene by comparison, the shallow depth of the sparse interior against which the impossibly elongated figures strain corresponds to a sense of psychological interiority that we find in Munch’s finest works. 

    Violence and Humour: Making Strange  

    'Art has never been about morality or about the pure and clean and correct. It’s always been about the grime and pain and totally unfair contradictions of being alive—and humor, very much so, is a kind of pressure valve.'
    —Sanya Kantarovsky

    Working across a broad range of media including film, drawing, animation, and writing, Kantarovsky’s practice is nevertheless anchored in the vivid possibilities of paint, the limits of which the artist has described as encompassing ‘a rich and complicated arena’.i Combining a sumptuous handling of paint in delicious, deep tones with sophisticated spatial harmonies, the serene compositional balance of No Eyes is masterfully offset by the sinister undertone of the painting, emphasised by the sudden textural shifts from the smooth, chalky passages of the central figure’s robes to the roughly weathered treatment of the hands and head. Heavily worked up in a rapid series of chunky brushstrokes and concentrated areas of thick impasto, these areas also document Kantarovsky’s ‘expressive range of mark-making’ as these more ‘additive procedures (paint building in tensity through layers or piling up in thick impastos) dovetailing with subtractive ones (bleaching, scraping, scumbling, abrading)’.ii


    Details of the present work 

    With his face set, deeply furrowed lines scratched directly into the surface of the paint, the slouching, seated figure stares directly ahead, his hands covering the eyes and face of the figure limply drawn up onto his legs. Visually beguiling, No Eyes draws us in before we fully comprehend the scene in front of us.


    Conceiving of induvial paintings as belonging to larger cycles, there is a strong sense of narrative and thematic cohesion across Kantarovsky’s figurative paintings. Although not included in the 2019 Luhring Augustine exhibition On Them, the present work can certainly be read in light of the ‘intensified level of irony and a solemn attitude to the eternal questions of life and death, suffering and injustice, power and powerfulness’ brought out in this cycle’, and particularly in light of the show’s title painting, as the artist explains:iii

    'In On Them the subject has one hand over the other person’s face and another hand underneath and he’s in the process of wringing his neck and twisting his hand, but there’s such a complex interplay of hands and arms that some people don't see that' —Sanya Kantarovsky 

    Left: Sanya Kanatrovsky, On Them, 2019 © Sanya Kantarovsky; Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and Modern Art, London. Photo: Adam Reich.
    Right: Sanya Kanatrovsky, Fracture, 2019. © Sanya Kantarovsky; Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and Modern Art, London. 

    Undercutting the quiet violence of the picture, the title signals an abrupt tonal shift, referring to a more childlike, playful logic of hiding or ‘no peeking’ before a surprise. Resistant to anchoring his works in any single, fixed reading, Kantarovsky uses his titles to complicate rather than clarify meaning, ‘mobilis(ing) both the painted subject and the audience’ by artfully turning ‘something that feels very tragic into a joke.’iv


    It is precisely this jarring defamiliarisation that lies at the root of Kantarovsky’s adoption of ostranenija, a concept taken from Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky’s 1917 essay ‘Art as Device’. Opening up a gap between the things that we perceive and the things that we know, Shklovsky insisted that it was art’s purpose to make objects ‘unfamiliar’, making us see previously accepted things anew.

    'The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects 'unfamiliar.'
    —Viktor Shklovsky 

    As the inclusion of the Memento mori in the bottom left of the composition suggests, while intellectually we might be able to conceive of death, we can never know the sensations imparted by it, and only by making it unfamiliar can we see it more completely.


    Collector’s Digest 


    •    Since his 2014 breakthrough exhibition with Casey Kaplan in New York, Kantarovsky has exhibited widely, including solo shows at Kunsthalle Basel and the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow. His most recent exhibitions include ‘Recent Faces’ with Luhring Augustine, New York (April – June 2021) and ‘The House of the Spider’ with Modern House, London (Mauy – June 2021). He was also included in the 2020 Whitechapel Gallery group exhibition Radical Figures: Painting in the New Millennium.


    •    His works can be found in important public collections including the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C., Tate Modern, London, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. 


    •    Just this year Phillips set a new record for Kantarovsky at auction in Hong Kong. 


    i Sanya Kantarovsky in interview with Jason Rosenfeld, The Brooklyn Rail, June 2019, online 
    ii Scott Roben, ‘The Cartoon Network’, Frieze, 27 October 2014, online 
    iii Mengyun Han, ‘Sanya Kantarovsky’s Truth-Bearing Fantasy’, Hyperallergic, 12 June 2021, online 
    iv Sanya Kantarovsky in interview with Jason Rosenfeld, The Brooklyn Rail, June 2019, online 

    • Provenance

      Modern Art, London
      Acquired from the above by the present owner


No Eyes

signed, titled and dated 'S Kantarovsky 2019 NO EYES' on the overlap
oil and watercolour on linen
140.4 x 102 cm (55 1/4 x 40 1/8 in.)
Executed in 2019.

Full Cataloguing

£100,000 - 150,000 

Sold for £390,600

Contact Specialist

Kate Bryan
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

+44 7391 402741


Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe

+44 20 7318 4099

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 15 October 2021