The Colour of Pomegranates.


Andrey Belle's rapid rise to fame has thrown many art critics and curators
into confusion. Indeed, all the criteria of today's mainstream suggest that
he should have no chance of success.
Firstly, he stands alone, having never received the blessing of that
impersonal curatorial/museum/gallery establishment which determines the
rules of the game today. But most importantly, he works with a material
which that very establishment has declared irrelevant. He is inconvenient,
if not downright hostile to them.
His material is that of desire, the senses, of sexual languor, of
unrealised and foreseen passions. It is sensual and romantic, with no
desire to act like the subject of contemporary art, which is by very
definition hermetic, impenetrable, existing according to its own logic. His
is an art, moreover, which throws all its forces against the postmodernist
logic of art as text, as self-sufficient, alienated both from its creator
and its auditorium.
For all these reasons, Belle should surely be doomed to irrelevance, to
superfluity. Somehow, however, things have proved otherwise. I shall seek
to explain the reasons for this unforeseen, unplanned success.
The key lies in today's specific artist context (I refer here to the
mainstream, supported and formed as it is by a powerful establishment of
up-to-the-minute contemporary art, with all its theoretical, material and
media potential). Much has been achieved by this art which perceives itself
as text: self-sufficiency, self-obsession, independence of any obligations.
Obligations either to the author and his life, his ambitions, weaknesses,
dramas, loves and hates, or to the outside world, with its logic, common
sense, spirituality and banality, its routine and its flights of
extravagance. Art which is textual, existential, cut off from everything as
if by bullet-proof glass.
We can easily picture the archetypal contemporary collection, put together
on the basis of recommendations from advisers according to the accepted
conventions of the mainstream establishment. The objects are fully worthy
of attention, representing the foremost artistic ideas and strategies,
demonstrating the owner's hipness, his involvement in the artistic process.
But nothing more. Even in museum collections this impersonality and
archetypal approach are coming to be perceived as the effect of inertia:
everything is too impersonal, too sterile, too bland. And as for the
private collection! How is it possible to live in the same space as a
selection of such self-sufficient, enclosed works, which cannot by
definition be "de-hermeticised"? Visiting several such collections in New
York with an international group of curators, I noted their excellent
quality, but it was clear that they were utterly alien to the lives of
their owners. I found myself thinking that the scattered toys of one
collector's grandchildren were no less intriguing to me than the art
objects: even the passing visitor has a tangible need to overcome the
alienation radiating from such art.
This is a real and highly relevant problem facing artistic culture today:
that of the perception of art and the context of art, its existence in our
lives. It has led to a growing interest in phenomena which had apparently
been squeezed out of the sphere of modern art for ever, phenomena which are
once again emerging from museums onto the art scene, and onto the art
market: Art Deco, various Surrealist trends, the work of Klossowski and
Balthus. Art which is fascinating, tempting and intriguing.
Belle's work and the attention it is receiving must be seen in the context
of this new interest in a sociable art, an art which relies on response -
and notably on emotional response.
My personal conviction is that such art is in demand precisely because it
gives form to those moments which are so catastrophically missing in the
dynamics of everyday life - romantic emotions, sexual languor, a sensual
perception of every moment.
In a word, Belle has chosen the right strategy. Was his choice made after
long reflection or was it intuitive? I cannot say. It was probably
intuitive. He is not a master of intellectual constructs. Belle is a master
of the senses. Of pauses. Of emotional states. Such is his character, his
nature. He does not analyse, but tends rather to look and listen
attentively. I remember how - before the jeeps and snowmobiles which came
along with success - he used to listen carefully to simple household
mechanisms - to clocks and telephones belonging to his friends - and then
fix them in a trice. Thus it is that he looks at those objects which will
go to make up a still life, the material from which such a work is then
built up. Thus he taps and strokes some old plank which will be his
picture, not the support but the very tactile flesh of the work itself.
Thus it is that he lingers at the flea market, looking penetratingly at
some old photograph or manuscript which he will introduce into the fabric
of the image.
Is he then, a lonely voyeur, passeist and intuitive? Certainly, the
qualities described above would seem to confirm that image. As would the
lifestyle he has led in recent years. After many unsettled and nomadic
years (on completing higher education he tried his hand in several
different spheres and came to be an arts manger, travelling with musical
and artistic collectives throughout Russia and the West), Belle created a
Home. The kind of Home which is always written with a capital letter, the
kind of Home which is, according to old Russian tradition, a shelter, a
refuge. (Russian scholars of 19th-century artistic culture know the theme
well, for it recurs frequently in their work - "the motif of refuge in the
work of such and such an artist..."). Belle lives near St Petersburg in
this large house built according to his own design, on a hill in a bend of
the upper reaches of the River Neva. He does not often come into town.
Nature, the secluded location, the low horizon, water... A veritable
Lakeland School.... Yet at the same time Belle is a very modern man, using
a computer in his work, getting around in a jeep and on a snowmobile, fully
competent to judge the relative merits of different kinds of aqualung
equipment, seriously into underwater diving in the most exotic locations.
Living within the rhythms and stresses of today's world. Apparently,
therefore, fully comprehending the danger of alienation which is
inseparable from those rhythms and stresses. Perhaps it is as a
compensation for this that his is art is so human, so open.
Let us begin with his still lives. A common theme and selection of objects
runs through them all: bottles and jars, pharmaceutical vessels, old
kerosene lamps... Fanciful forms, but, most importantly, enigmatic and
mysterious visual effects: the strange fragmentation of rays of light,
unexpected inner luminescence, elusive reflections and sparks. Fish - dried
to paper lightness, or simply smoke-dried, edible, ready to put on the
table. Fish which demonstrate their structure, their anatomy, the skeleton,
and yet appetising...
Lastly, the fruits of the earth: onions and potatoes, apples... and
pomegranates. Most frequently pomegranates, a point of some significance.
Pomegranates are the key to Belle's poetics. Quasi-real pomegranates,
almost corporeal, as if we can taste the bitterness, seem to embody Belle's
sensual outlook.  A concordance between the fruit theme, with all those
accompanying cultural associations of temptation, and purely visual
anthropomorphity, an excuse for something spherical, tactile, squeezable -
a kind of painted writing... Sensibility overflowing into sensuality. A
sensuality which has not quite managed to become manifest, an elusive
sensuality.
Here, to me, is Belle's main secret. On the one hand he seeks to
objectivise both the object's form and the emotions behind it. The plank,
picked out from amongst many apparently identical planks, weighed and
endlessly assessed, preserving the warmth of the sun and some now
non-existent (such planks are usually taken from the remains of a
dismantled wooden house), sets in train this "objectivisation". This is not
just a surface, like the panel on which an icon is painted; this wooden
support has symbolic meanings and emotional content. Next the role of
"objectiviser" is taken up by painting itself - painting which is concrete,
tactile, warm, handmade in the full sense of the word. Objectivity,
"objectivisation", corporeality - the theme resounds sharply throughout;
such it would seem is the work's content. But not so. Of no less importance
is the theme of elusiveness, ambiguity, of mystery... (This theme is deeply
rooted in Russian culture: there was a whole sphere of work in the 18th and
19th centuries known as "obmanki" - deceptive, illusionistic still life or
nudes. The objects were painted so convincingly that a viewer felt he had
only to hold out his hand to touch the fruit or the warm female body - but
instead he found only canvas). This theme too is realised through very
specific devices. The object's form, particularly when the object is not
natural but handmade, is - for all its illusionistic, convincing nature -
quite openly a generalisation. You notice this when you are distracted from
the form of the natural (fruits, fish etc) and from natural, apparently
carefully observed lighting effects. Then you see that the image is in fact
graphic and linear, that its summary nature is emphasised by a broken, even
exaggerated contour. Finally, the motif of generalisation -temporal in this
case - is supported by the appropriation of old photographs and
manuscripts. Welded into the fabric of the work, they are not there for the
sake of literary suggestion or to make historical references. Their natural
function is to provide a sense of the majestic flow of time... That is,
they are there to provide a generalisation, to mark the deceptive nature of
the "here and now" which we inertly perceive as given.
Belle thus balances himself between the objective presence and
elusiveness, between quasi-corporeality which promises possession and the
impossibility of possession...
This theme of ambivalent possession continues in the artist's images of
women. In extremely concentrated form. Corporeality, sensuality and
eroticism are here not guessed at, sought for, expected. They are
primordial categories determining form and meaning. Belle paints women who
are openly erotic, attractive and tempting. He presents his nudes as
precious jewels, painting the rich surface, the ennobling texture, the
attributes, with immense love and care. As Andre Malraux wrote in his
foreword to Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, "eroticism is also a kind
of jewel". Belle relies upon a very concrete type of female sexuality.
These are women of the Symbolist and Art Deco period: from the come-on
female types of Klimt and Sacher-Masoch to the wantonly refined "American
women in Paris". Yet he paints his models (or rather, variations of one and
the same model - Belle's nude) from life. This is not stylisation. This is
a game, a game of aesthetic sensuality, of refined eroticism. (The
dialectics of the objective, quasi-real and ephemeral, the mirage, here too
are combined with corporeality, right down to the transparent superficial
strokes and the working up of masses, and with generalisation and the
outline drawing.) But since this is a game, by accenting the tangibly
fleshy, the directly accessible (all those poses, those garters and other
attributes) Belle remains faithful to himself: reminding us of the
impossible, the inaccessible, the elusive. Articulating the sexual, he does
not forget the romantic. Stealing Beauty...
Here lies Belle's poetry. Together with his works, adventure and intrigue
enter your home. Physical, final possession of his works is deceptive. You
have almost tasted the pomegranates, almost touched the desired flesh...
But it all melts away, like a mirage. Yet still with an almost physically
tangible possibility - almost an inevitability - of return...
Each of us seeks to somehow resist the rationality and alienation of
contemporary existence. For Andrey Belle, his weapon is confidence in the
reality of the mirage.

                                      Alexander Borovsky