Presented in three vignettes, Tamuna Sirbiladze’s exhibition “Sculpting in Color” eschewed the vibrant palette, scale, and imagery most readily associated with the late artist’s work—typically energetic, abstracted female figures caught menstruating, vomiting, shitting, or in other moments of banal excretion. Curated by Nina Kintsurashvili, the show focused instead on a contemplative selection of smaller-scale, abstract compositions that Sirbiladze made between 2005 and 2014 on her annual summer visits to see her family in Georgia.
Born in Tbilisi in 1971, Sirbiladze found success abroad with frequent exhibitions across Europe, the United Kingdom, and the United States up until her death at age forty-five in 2016, almost four years after that of her husband, Franz West. The majority of her paintings remain in Vienna, meaning her work is largely unknown to her compatriot audiences. More an educational endeavor than a commercial one, as none of the works on display were for sale, this show sought to convey the energy of Sirbiladze’s effervescent spin on Viennese Actionism to the local public. The pieces she made in Georgia highlight the limiting realities of artistic production in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Even today, professional-quality art supplies remain hard to come by there. Undaunted, Sirbiladze maintained her practice using whatever materials were at hand: bits of paper, an oddly shaped piece of cardboard, the reverse side of works from her years as a student at the Tbilisi State Academy of Arts.
In the gallery’s first room, a wall-mounted drawing (all the works in the show were untitled) suggested psychic residue filling an abstracted interior. The paper’s crinkles, crumples, and a rip through to its center register the artist’s aggressive making process. At the bottom right, the heavy cotton fibers drape, no longer intact, but not entirely detached either. The drawing conveys—it is—the violence of rupture. On the floor, a low plinth supported an unfurled slender composite of taped-together pieces of vellum dripped and scribbled on with blue and black paint, recordings of the gestures of a body that flung and scratched the material. An irregularly shaped, double-sided monochrome painting on cardboard jutted side-mounted from the wall, allowing viewers to move back and forth between the black swirls on both sides.
Four ink drawings on notepad-size paper were presented as two vertical diptychs facing each other under glass in the central salon room. This installation in the conspicuously narrow space forced a self-conscious awareness of the viewer’s body: To face one pair was to turn one’s back on the other. Hanging in a row on the far wall of the third and last room were five framed watercolors displaying delicately measured brushwork. These paintings were a particularly marked departure from Sirbiladze’s better-known works that show women letting it all hang out. Across from these calmer pieces hung two manic floral scratchings in blue and black gouache and oil pastel on bits of paper brimming with her signature energy. Presiding over all this was a framed oil-pastel drawing on cardboard that resembles trembling architectonic forms. Though raw, rough, and teetering, with its balance between casual and insistent gestures demanding space up to the edges of the picture plane, this felt like the most resolved work in the show.
“Sculpting in Color” offered a mixed bag of finished works, studio exercises, and ambiguous pieces that might have been either one. The clipped energy and absence of figuration suggested an artist taking a break from her usual work. Whether this show presented a portrait of a woman editing out her edgier proclivities at her parents’ home in a culturally orthodox country or a window onto quieter moments of recharge between eruptions of jouissance remains open to interpretation.
— Kim Córdova