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by Ilka Scobie
Eteri Chkadua, Sept. 11-Oct. 29, 2005, at Danny Simmons’ Corridor Gallery, 334 Grand Avenue, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11238

Eteri Chkadua’s intense figurative paintings, currently on view at Danny Simmons’ Corridor Gallery in Brooklyn, are well worth a trip across the bridge. Simmons is, of course, an artist, author, collector and Fort Greene resident, and has established a nicely appointed gallery adjoining his living space, which is in itself a mini-museum of African tribal art and African American art and photography.

A native of the Georgian Republic, Chkadua started out as an abstract painter. "Classical art was not very fashionable," she told me. Then, "just for fun," she began working in a Flemish-inspired figurative style. Since arriving in the U.S., her highly personalized, hallucinatory realism has found a selective and enthusiastic audience. Her works were included in "The Nude in Contemporary Art" at the Aldrich Museum in Ridgefield, Conn., sent to Arte Fiera 2005 in Bologna, and shown at Maya Polsky Gallery in Chicago. Drawing the attention of dealer Gian Enzo Sperone, she is now represented by Sperone Westwater Gallery in New York’s Chelsea art district.

Chkadua is something of a latter-day magic realist, imagining a new global mythology peopled by herself and the men in her life. The Corridor show focuses on portraits of African American men from the 1990s, plus one more recent self-portrait. Two large canvases, Shane #1 and Shane #2, capture a certain tension that is suggestive of a crack-house drama. The paintings, with their poses and gestures taken from Leonardo’s Last Supper, combine timeless spirituality with vulgar contemporaneity.

Free references to Old World culture abound in Chkadua’s works, jolting her contemporary narratives with a historical, metaphorical sensibility. In the series of three portraits of black men, she uses a palette of subdued earth tones to paint crocheted caps and manicured beards with Hans Memling-like attention to detail.

The exhibition has a political subtext, as well, reflecting Chkadua’s experiences as a woman, an emigrant and a New Yorker. A reappearing male figure, a former lover, represents "a male as a supporting role." Whether placed in the center of a complex composition in the manner of Masaccio, or emerging solo from a velvety background surrounded by imaginary flora, the dread-locked young man is given an expression that is intensely emotional.

The influence of Chkadua’s trip to Indonesia can be seen in several works, including the iconic Man and the Sea. Old age and youth are contrasted in the images of an aged woman and a young man, both in traditional sarongs and sharing an encompassing serenity. Invented decorations intensify the visual drama. In the 2004 Self-portrait, an obsidian-eyed beauty sits backwards astride a zebra, as if an updated illustration for H. Rider Haggard’s She. The subject’s casually provocative modern garb weirdly accents scarved hair and an intricate tribal necklace.

Chkadua’s mix of Pop Americana with global imagery has grown surer and bolder. Dowry (2003) presents a splay-legged female with a satiated grin. She clutches a Georgian silver ceremonial dagger that has nothing at all to do with the white fox stole or the ruffled burlesque costume she wears. Theatrical make up and an elaborate red curled coiffure complete the ensemble, which has the nostalgic effect of an early Playboy pinup.

Chkadua’s work is in demand -- an exhibition at Robilant & Voena in London is forthcoming. Sensual, playful, masterfully naturalistic, Eteri Chkadua encircles the culture with a poetic and passionate purity.

ILKA SCOBIE is a New York poet.