Running away to Different Regions
Eteri Chkadua – Between Tbilisi, Jamaica, and New York
"It is possible to say one thing without hesitation regarding Eteri's self-portraits: she is a natural continuation of Frida Kahlo's path... Or a natural continuation of Madonna's path. She might be a mixture of the two, if we add Cindy Sherman to it... Or, she might not be any of them because not one copy or reworking of one of these three is encountered in Eteri's creative work. We can only compare her to other female artists who radiate a similar sincerity, openness, and wild power. Eteri is more of a rational artist than Kahlo, Ciccone, or Sherman, when we imply the art of psychological striptease; when we examine the act of stripping ourselves bare, of birthing ourselves.”
– Cintra Wilson.
The Path to Eteri
It is March 10, Friday, a windy and snowy day. I try to make my way in Brooklyn frozen in spring. I'm going to Eteri Chkadua's flat at 851 Park Place. Bowie's album Blackstar is on the stereo and I think about the limitless possibilities that will open up to us after death.
Transparent holographic bodies. The birth of ideas through means of the internet. A postmortem existence on social networks. “And how will everything happen? Will a robot convey and publish my thoughts in my place when I'm no longer in this world? Sex after death? Art after passing away? Doctors. Medications. Test-tube children?” I want to rid myself of thinking about the future that you think will never materialize. The brilliant Bowie who is speaking to you as if from the other world. He states things that make my hair stand on end, because I know he already died.
“Something happened on the day he died,
Spirit rose a meter then stepped aside...”
It's cold. The weather's humid. A large black bird flew heavily off from one roof to another. I turn off Roger Avenue onto Park Place. Snow is piling on the windshield. I park the car in a parking spot while cursing New York. I have some candy in a brown paper bag. In hope of some tea.
A house on Park Place
I ring the doorbell two times. The weighty door opens and a young Latino American looks me over out of interest.
“Eteri?” I ask her.
“Eteri?” she repeats, nods her head, and disappears into the depths of the house.
“I look terrible,” Eteri tells me with a smile. “I was at two clubs yesterday and got tired out. Let's go upstairs, I live there.”
This Brooklyn townhouse is everyone's dream. An expensive pleasure. Millions of dollars. A few of Eteri's works are in the interior – some really good works. She lives in the loft. The loft has such a low ceiling that if you don't bend down, you can't go into the room.
“Who’s been here? Misha, Saakashvili, look, he settled in over there,” Eteri nodded towards a green mattress that lay on the floor. She twists my neck and I lower myself down into an armchair.
“How did you find yourself here?”
“It's my friend's house. She works at the UN. In January, the doctors in Canada told me it was no longer possible to leave father alone. I was intending to travel to Jamaica, since I hadn't been there for quite a while. It was my only desire as to when I would leave. I had even rented a house, but it turned out that everything had changed. Everything was frozen in Montreal, it was 11 degrees below. Father was sick, unable to walk. At the same time I could no longer leave him alone in that frosty weather for even one day. I began painting a new picture because of the worry. All my worries were sent to a light and joyful planet. I wanted to somehow free myself from the horrors...”
A giant black dog approached me and placed its wet snout on my knee.
“What's his name?”
“Kumo, kumortuo, jima,” I joke in Mingrelian, a language that's remained in my heart.
“In short, I could no longer bear it... I left father for a few days and scampered off to Jamaica. I settled in a large house with a garden and some large palm trees. I soon returned to Canada to take my father away and sank down into some warmth from the cold. My father didn't want to come along at all, but I didn't leave him alone in anyway whatsoever...”
Eteri can no longer find what to say, becoming tangled up in geographic names. She had been unable to heal from her father's death, having shown him the exotic interests of Jamaica in his old age. Her voice trembles. I avert my eyes. Kumo-kumortuo lays curled up at Eteri's feet.
“From where did you end up here?” I repeat the question.
“When we returned from Jamaica, my father was already really sick. I was no longer able to go to Canada. Neither did I have a place to stay here. I asked a friend and she let me in here...”
A Nomadic Artist's Diary
Eteri's work in the visual arts is a completely new format in Georgian painting. This is a Georgian woman telling us about herselve and her life through her paintings and with unprecedented sincerity.
Chkadua's confessions are done through the rare craftsmanship of a nomadic artist – these diaries are a powerful flow of new energy for others so they can find their own path in life. There is everything in them – sexuality, hidden indications, pride for one's own sex, and fear before a strange world. A female warrior, a female artist raised to do battle. The world is ruthless, Eteri's hero however is always with head held high and with a gaze focused on the viewer, prepared to face anything.
I'm now at her studio, observing details. When I acclimate my eyes to the place and the camera lens comes to terms with the chaos, I capture the logic in such a layout of space.
“This is not chaos,” I suddenly realize.
“I want to paint a green planet, here, with these flowers,” Eteri shows me some strange plastic items that her brother makes from remnants. The studio is full of radiant, thorny creations of extraterrestrials. A bearded Sufi watches me from some cellophane with woeful eyes. My gaze is no secret to Eteri and she explains to me why she can't leave painting alone.
“It began with an exhibition put on in Chicago. All the works were sold. I found some success. I came to New York with this money, where I was informed that painting is not popular here. Yet I didn't let it go. I realized that I could not become someone else in a blink of an eye. I had always wanted what I created to not only be something familiar to artists and 'art people', but for others as well. My local friends, beginning with my first husband, are serious intellectuals. They work as journalists in hot spots, taking human rights to the “Third World”, leaving their altogether ordered world. But when I browse galleries and museums with them, they remain disappointed. They say that they don't understand it. I want for them to be able to understand the language of art. Painting is the most acceptable thing for me. It doesn't demand special financial expenses. You stretch out a canvas, pick some paint, and begin painting.”
“These are your diaries, right?”
“Yes... Look, I paint these works according to old photos. I began them in Jamaica, following the tiny black and white photos taken by my father. Here in this picture is my brother and I together. Father had an entire room full of photographs; that place was like a temple. A desire came to me to use everything in paintings. Look here, my father took this photo of us – this boy is the first foreigner I saw when I was a small child. He was Vietnamese.”
The line between fantasy and reality is blurred in Eteri's works. On the painting where Soviet children are standing beside an Asian-looking young man, I assumed she had included the Asian for an effect of a foreigner. Apparently it had been reality – the first Vietnamese student in Soviet university.
“Georgian journalists always demand one and the same thing from me – to tell them about my successes... What successes? Life is difficult. I take canvases everywhere I go. I live with friends. All my things are in a storage rooms. Yet I had once been close to real success...”
One block away from the New York ‘New Museum’ one building will catch your eye with its completely different style. It is a masterpiece of modern architecture, a monolith, one of the best works by famous architect Norman Foster. It was built with one and only objective – to be an art gallery, and it is one of the most famous and influential galleries in the world – Sperone Westwater. Founded in 1975 by the art dealer Gian Enzo Sperone and Angela Westwater, the gallery collaborates with such giants of modern art like Bruce Nauman, Guillermo Kuitca, Wolfgang Laib, and William Begman. In the early 2000s, Gian Enzo Sperone had seen Eteri Chkadua's painting and fell in love with her work.
“A general acquaintance had me meet with Gian Enzo Sperone, after living in America for five years. Sperone is distinguished by good taste, being an attractive person, aged, but still handsome, a “stylish” Italian. He was one of the first ones to begin selling American minimalism in Europe. He liked my works despite the fact that I didn't suit the style of his gallery at all, nor did I make a good impression on his female partner, Angela Westwater... I probably shouldn't be saying this, but... What do I have to lose, I would shoot a documentary film about the relationships of art dealers and artists with pleasure...” Eteri's eyes lit up. I'm confident she was still working on that theme as to how close she had been to success, an enviable career, money, and fame...
“In short, I didn't pay attention to that woman, to Angela Westwater. It really happens sometimes that you find yourself before a person with no prominent features and are unable to notice them. I had no idea who she was, because I generally had no clue as to who was who in the New York art world. Otherwise, she is the most important figure in this business – Gian Enzo's partner. I however, didn't greet her even once, because I thought I only had dealings with Gian Enzo.”
“The devil hides in details, Eteri. What? You didn't know?”
“I didn't know... Apparently, I trusted myself too much. Then however, when I understood who she was, it was too late. Gian Enzo no longer liked me...”
Sperone still arranged Eteri's exhibition in his gallery in 2004. The works caught the public’s attention. Ken Jones, an obstinate art critic for The New York Times wrote that “Having been raised in Soviet Georgia and received an academic education, Eteri Chkadua paints magical canvases of medium size. Her female characters resemble the artist herself, whereas the paintings 'are an investigation of the wild sides of the feminine principle.”
“What happened?” I asked, possessed with interest. Everything that has happened to Eteri in the realm of art resembles a thriller.
“Sperone began collecting my works. The gallery paid me the required monthly money for everyday expenses... But I moved to live in Jamaica and...”
“Sperone Westwater ceased sending me the checks. They broke the contract. They didn't like my freedom...”
Monday. March 13.
“I fell in love with a guy and followed him to Jamaica,” Eteri tells me. She wears sunglasses and the dark lenses mask her eyes completely. I however, am thinking what would it be if only stories of spiritual infatuations and carnal passions were written in the formal, short biographies of our lives? Would we not be more interesting to the world at large?
Why does no one ever had the thought of writing this phrase in the CV: “I fell in love with a guy and followed him to Jamaica”...?
Jamaica was an extensive, twelve-year stage in Eteri's life. Her best canvases were created there. There she had tried to find a place in this world. A place out in the sun.
“I was born in Tbilisi, being raised in Vake district. I'm from there...”
We're sitting in Prospect Park, in Brooklyn. There is not the slightest trace of life around us. It is cold. Snow will probably fall soon. The weather forecasters also promise this. It's been several days now, that I'm trying to crack the mystery of Eteri's craftsmanship. She laughs upon mentioning the prestige that Vake district has among Tbilisi residents. She talks, I listen, while also observing a girl with a dog approaching us from woods on a deserted alley.
“I graduated from the Tbilisi Art Academy. I first studied modeling, then I switched to the Department of Monumental Painting, in Professor Koka Ignatov's class. I worked freely, painting abstractions, but as soon as I transferred over to be with Ignatov, I changed my style. I was given a different perspective. Koka Ignatov regularly traveled abroad and this had an enormous influence on us students. We thought that he knew what was happening in art around the world. I adopted everything very quickly. Ignatov advised me to study the old masters and I began making copies of Ghirlandaio, an Italian artist from the Renaissance era. I really liked this way of studying - painting according to the old masters was a true delight to me. I admired their eye for details. I tried to figure out how these details are painted, and I also discovered how difficult it is to convey facial expressions. Apparently a love for traditional painting was conceived within me from that time...”
The woman with the dog vanished from sight and again just the two of us were left in that humid landscape, sitting on the bench, shaking from the cold.
“You were lucky that you met with Ignatov. What good advice he gave to you! If you had painted abstractions, today you would be one of the millions of abstractionists. Now you resemble no one. Your paintings are recognized with just a glance out of a thousand works.” I tell her.
“Probably,” she agrees and adds, “There exists a banal superstition in New York, that you must live where artists dwell. You must know them in person and have a relationship with them. I however ran off to other regions, to where no one knows anything about art. I didn't want to follow the crowd. I need complete freedom to do what my soul longs for. I'm a real outsider. I even painted a picture called Outsider, which was a self-portrait with my tongue sticking out...”
“Of course you're an outsider,” I agree with her, “A lady raised in Vake who lives in Jamaica and sells her paintings to an Italian art dealer in New York...”
“That evening when Damien Hirst and Larry Gagosian met each other, I was also there at the restaurant...”
“Whaaat...? How?” I don't believe it. We are discussing now the most expensive artist of modernity and the world's most famous art dealer. This acquaintance grew into the most fruitful collaboration. Through the help of Gagosian, Hirst had sold paintings for thousands of dollars.
“Yeah, that's true... So a journalist and writer, Anthony Haden-Guest invited me to dinner,” Eteri tells me. “By the way, his book, True Colors: The Real Life of the Art World, is a classic of this genre and it is my dream to see it translated into Georgian... So, Anthony wrote the book about art and he invited me everywhere. Look, knowing him was, by the way, another chance that I didn't take advantage of... In short, Anthony and I go into the restaurant. Gagosian is already there, except I have no idea who this guy is. He introduced himself to us and suddenly, I don't know why, I ask him, 'Are you Armenian? I'm Georgian. So we are the Caucasian brotherhood...'”
I see my own reflection in Eteri's glasses – I had truly opened my mouth in amazement.
“Have you gone crazy?”
“Yes, I didn't give a damn.”
Both of us break into laughter. Eteri grabs my hand. We are in hysterics and our laughter echoes out all across the empty park. A crow spreads its wings and flies off to find a peaceful place.
“I knew that there is this super art dealer Gagosian out there in the world and so I ask this 'armenian man' if they are somehow related. He realized that I had no idea about who he was and smiled at me, 'Yes, I know him, of course, I know that “famous Gagosian”...
“Oh dear, my...”
“Larry Gagosian was accompanied by his girlfriend, a really young and pretty model named Veronica Webb. The first thing Damien Hirst asked Gagosian was, 'Are you a real couple? Do you have sex?' Veronica embraced Larry and responded to Hirst, 'Yes, every night.'”
“Eteri, Anthony Baden-Guest didn't introduce you into his circle in vain,” I'm encouraging her, “He probably liked you as an artist and as...”
“As an exotic girlfriend,” Eteri interrupts me.
Can someone resurrect the past with the utmost accuracy? Did Damien Hirst really ask Larry Gagosian about sex with Veronica Webb? No one is able to bring up their past with perfect accuracy. I believe what Eteri had said. Neither are we able to predict the future. For example, right now I can't say whether Eteri Chkadua's works will be put on exhibition at the Georgian Museum of Art or not. Well, what is left then? What we know for sure? Only the present day, because “the sand cannot hold water”, it slips through the fingers.