ALEXANDER BERDYSHEFF: EXPANDING POSSIBILITIES
Alexander Berdysheff is an artist of unique talent and insight. I met him through artist Michael St. Amand who suggested that I interview him. As I always say, artists make the best referrals. I looked at Alex’s website,www.alexberdysheff.com and the rest is what you see below. We had a cool chat. By the way, he lives in Tbilisi, Georgia. The country, not the state.
“… I expand possibilities of existence by combining recognizable objects with abstract shapes, visualizing such invisible things as thought, sound or emotion ...”
MICHAEL: Alex, Your work is fantastic. I see lots of modern art influences, but I'll focus on you. Your use of color is really fun and inspiring. How does color inspire you?
ALEX: Hi Michael, Good to hear from you! I like the interview format you use. Interesting that your first question is about color. I think it’s the most changing element of my work. As I know, the way we see shapes and colors reflect our inner state and many psychological tests are based on color perception.
My early work was almost monochrome. The selection of materials I used was basically pencil, pen and ink and other graphic tools and methods, like engraving I could explore at the art college. Watercolor was probably the only addition to that, but I was looking for something else. I had an idea how colors should be arranged. I read books on color theory and explored Icons, Medieval and Renaissance paintings, examples I could find at art museums. However, it was still unclear how to combine my knowledge, skills and ideas to produce something that could satisfy me.
Eventually, I realized that collage was the most suitable media for me at that time. Naturally, I was influenced by Russian Avant-Garde, Dada and Surrealism. I did a series of collages and constructions where colors and textures of found objects already existed and just needed to be revealed or altered. It was an exciting game. Those pieces were pretty sombre. Dark varnish made them even more ancient or, if you want, mummy-like. I continued experimenting by adding color to those constructions. Very carefully, just highlighting certain details and developing the background. I found that it gave an extra dimension to the compositions. The last thing I wanted was copying the reality or environment in any way, however, the alternative, inner reality I created could contain elements of everyday life. I just interpreted them as I wished.
Lots of interesting things were happening around that time, rapid political changes, civil war, etc. I was thinking to start oil painting, but it was too complicated to do at that time. I returned to works on paper, but with some new experience. It allowed me to produce numerous series, where I used collage technique. In some works, color was more intensive and in some less, but generally, the images became more vivid. Working with color is very much an interactive process, as you discover something new every time you touch the paint. Literally, not just color, but feeling its density, temperature and smell. I also noticed it changed my vision and I started seeing colors of very simple things around me a different way. Sometimes certain color is obsessive enough to force changing the entire composition. Finally I concentrated on oil painting. It's an excellent media for unlimited experiments with color. Every time I travel I look for a new color or color combinations, man-made or natural, doesn't matter. It’s always exciting and inspiring to find something unexpected.
MICHAEL: Since your work is so strongly steeped in historical genre, how do you create it and yet make it your own? Do you ever feel like a slave to Russian Avant Garde, Dada or Surrealism? Where is your voice in all of this?
ALEX: I needed a sort of navigation system to start up. And a time machine to escape, because I found the existing mainstream in Tbilisi too provincial and false. It was rather liberation than slavery to find something I could admire and start following in that situation. My imagination never required any “borrowings,” but I needed to be more certain about things I did. You may get an encouragement from somewhere or not, but, at least, you need to understand the process.
We live in the world where everything is labeled. And it’s tricky to take that and still preserve individuality and integrity. Many strange things can be noticed. It’s funny to find numerous variations of melting watches theme. Do these artists really see such things in their dreams? I know only one who really did, but others? Who knows? I'm not that lucky to see any melting watches in my dreams, so I paint something different. There are as many ways as there are people doing art. If it is sincere, it is still true art no matter which school or movement you “belong.”
I don’t feel I belong to anything. It’s very difficult for me to imagine myself to be in any group. No matter how good the relations could be, there’s always a leadership problem or a competition or it’s just my paranoia. Anyway, I allow myself to work in any direction I find interesting. For me, it’s just too boring to do the same things even if the galleries demand more constancy.
MICHAEL: Your figurative works are strongly folkloric and seem to have narratives. When you paint are you thinking about stories? Are you ever telling stories in your work?
ALEX: I did something like comics stories, but it was ages ago. But not now. A story starts living in any work no matter if I want it or not. Sometimes, I create “personages” and place them in different settings. Just like a theatre stage. But I have no idea what happened there before or will happen later. It’s just a situation where any evolution can take place. Some pieces are titled “Performance” and one even “Illustration for a Nonexistent Tale.” A story could be written based on the image I create, but it’s not my part. I believe that painting and literature speak completely different languages and shouldn’t be mixed. All the books, myths, tales, memories, nightmares, etc., are synthesized into a picture, a new object, both physical and virtual. This new object contains rearranged codes of those experiences. Am I thinking about stories when I paint? Painting is very much an interactive process and I’m rather hearing stories than telling them.
MICHAEL: When did you first become aware of yourself as an artist? Do you come from an artistic family?
ALEX: No one in my family was professional artist. The men were mostly military, but women were very creative doing embroidery and other craftwork. For my father, drawing was a hobby. He changed many professions in his life, worked for an architectural office and knew many architects, craftsmen, designers and artists. It was an opportunity for me to visit their shops and studios and see the process. I loved that. I was doing pencil and ball-pen sketches all the time when I studied at primary school and this made the teachers furious. When I had to decide where to go next, it was already clear that the art college was the only option.
I decided to study graphic design because it would give me a profession where I could make living. I believed that my experiments wouldn’t fit the existing art scene and I had to have an alternative. From the very beginning, I decided to split my time between commercial design projects and pure creative work. I worked for different design offices, publishing houses, individual clients, etc., as long as it allowed painting “for myself” the rest of the time. It allowed me to remain independent as a person and as an artist, not conform myself to the local art market or the dominating concepts. It was a big time waste as I realize now, but it was the only way.
MICHAEL: Why do you believe that was a big time waste? Weren't you able to support yourself financially AND still create art on your own terms? How was that a waste of time?
ALEX: Doing paid jobs for the design office or just a client is extremely time consuming. It’s supposed to be creative and could be really interesting, but in this country, it’s not that obvious. Some projects were interesting enough and I worked on them with great enthusiasm, but most of the time, I had to compromise and do just what the boss or the clients wanted. Often they didn’t even appreciate that. I had a desperate feeling that somebody took my best years and all I got was money which hardly covered my living costs.
There were paintings sales too, of course, but too random and I couldn’t rely on that. The country I live in is small and has been politically unstable since the ‘90s. A normal art market didn’t exist and even now is insignificant. In 1994, when the post-war situation was very depressing, my friends in Scotland helped me to survive inviting me to Edinburgh. First time I went there in 1990, it was a month-long post graduate exchange program. I was lucky to attend lectures at the well-known Glasgow School of Art. My visit in 1994 was much longer. I took some of my early works with me and produced many new ones in my friends’ house. My very first solo exhibitions were arranged during my stay there. In fact, it was my first recognition as an artist. However, I had to come back and keep doing both graphic design jobs and painting, but the time spent in Scotland changed me and encouraged me to concentrate more and more on art.
MICHAEL: Artists must struggle to create art, they struggle to sell it, they struggle to find materials and it's always such a struggle. Why do you think art is so difficult? Doctors, lawyers and teachers also have struggles, but no one seems to struggle like artists ... even artists who are doing well still struggle. Why is this?
ALEX: It’s true. Many people think, however, that artists enjoy easy life.
There are many reasons why we have so much struggle. Generally, it’s a common belief that art is something not serious at all and not the job to be paid for. It’s not a much demanded profession. Most people believe they can live without any art and for many, visiting museums and galleries is more than enough and just a few eccentrics bring art into their homes.
MICHAEL: Haha! I’ve never thought of myself as eccentric, but by your definition, I am extremely eccentric.
ALEX: There’s also very unclear criteria as to what’s good or bad and, therefore, lots of manipulations take place. But for me, the main one is permanent uncertainty and doubts. It’s not just about sales and other material problems, but inner struggle which is a companion of the working process. Each time I start a new painting, it’s an adventure, terra incognita. Even if hundreds of other works were successfully completed before and I feel inspired, there’s no guarantee that nothing will go wrong with this new piece.
It’s also a big struggle for recognition, especially the first steps. I went through this process, and it took decades and great efforts to achieve something. I was realistic enough to expect quick results and learned to take failure as a norm. For some reason, I was never sensitive to what the public or art critics were saying. The public is just too eclectic to take it serious and the critic’s role in this country was always insignificant. I’ve met very few people whose comments have really changed something in my head.
Artists are often blamed for their egocentric behavior. That’s true. Inspiration comes and goes and the need to struggle often exposes dark sides like jealousy and excessive extravagancy, what makes the artist’s life even more difficult.
MICHAEL: How do you sell your work? Do people in Georgia buy it? Where are your buyers? Are you doing okay?
ALEX: I prefer that galleries do the business. A couple of galleries represent me here in Georgia, one gallery in England and one gallery in Miami started representing me very recently. My buyers are all around the globe, even when I sell work in Georgia very often the buyers are from other countries. Sometimes I know who they are, but more often I have no idea. More diversity of markets is what I'm trying to achieve, because it's the only way to balance sales dynamics. I can say I’d love more stable sales and better prices, but I’m doing okay now. It’s actually up to me to produce big enough number of works. It’s 40-50 different size works per year.
MICHAEL: What do you think needs to change in the art world? What are some of the things that you think make things difficult for everyone?
ALEX: It’s confusing. First of all, are we talking about these changes and problems locally or globally? It makes some difference. There are similarities too, but the situation is very different. As I mentioned before, the local art market is just nominal and no gallery is focused on certain style, artists, or, at least, a historical period. Some are just more predictable. I’m not saying they do things completely unprofessionally, but too sporadic, without clear vision or concept. It all looks more like an Oriental bazaar rather than elaborated cultural process. The physical space is also very limited. The museums are bigger, but just a big red tape you better not touch unless you have good “connections” there. I’m not talking about absence of art magazines, etc.
On the other hand, I find over-organized the “big art world” with all its auctions, huge museums and corporation-like galleries. It is all very complicated and artists have to spend more time on filling out application forms than doing art to get through all that.
Now, it’s common everywhere that artists have to pay money to show their work. Maybe there’s no other way the system can provide the artists with space, but selection has no sense anymore and as a result, it makes no difference between good and bad art.
I’m afraid the existing system works better for people with good skills for writing smart proposals for getting grants rather than for those with real artistic skills. Maybe it’s done on purpose? I don’t know, but I’ve seen more than enough shows with absolutely zero artistic value. Obviously, the only goal is pointing to a political or social issue.
I don’t have a solution and I feel very old-fashioned. I just wish to be able to concentrate on my work and to improve it every day. More simplified communication with the professionals (galleries, curators, dealers, etc.,) and less "politics" is not just a convenience, but an important part of the process.
MICHAEL: Finally Alex, does your art have a message? When you're gone and your art is still here, what do you want your body of work to say to people who see it?
ALEX: Let me put it this way: Probably, I’m trying to evoke very personal associations in the viewers of my work. Just as I do myself when I see something, no matter if it’s an art object or just a tree or stone, I want to offer maximum freedom of interpretation. It’s not that bad to open your mind and let yourself explore the alternative realities that the artwork contains. I call it alternative, because in my work I ignore, in most cases, the existing physical norms. I expand possibilities of existence by combining recognizable objects with abstract shapes, visualizing such invisible things as thought, sound or emotion. It's hard to find another place but art to play with these things and I find this possibility most exciting.
Thinking is a job and those who rule the world do all possible to “liberate” us from this job. But at what price? Imagination is our unique ability, often underestimated and willingly traded to a mass-produced substitute.
I’m too far from understanding the nature of the process, its genesis. There are different theories why the prehistoric man painted those signs and animals on cave walls, but who really knows why? Why it all started?
I feel I’d still work even if there’s no one in the world I could address it to. Or if I had no capability to produce something physically, reasons can be different: disease, jail, disaster… Sounds unreal, but it is possible to construct the entire process in your mind, virtually so to say. I often do that to select the best idea to produce later physically. Sometimes my memory fails to keep these ideas and I dream about a technology to record them. But, again, it can be self-sufficient practice too. They can take everything but not my thoughts.
MICHAEL: Nicely said. Thanks Alex. Very cool chat.
ALEX: It was interesting experience. I enjoyed that. Thank you!