With any new exhibition by Russian artist Petr Shvetsov, all bets are off. Delighting in the subversion of expectations, each new body of work is a confrontation that asks as many questions as it answers. Whether making drawings, sculpture, painting, installation or, as in the latest exhibition, working with ceramic tile, Shvetsov explores each medium to its fullest, testing the limits of the possible while remaining true to his artistic vocabulary.
For his latest show, Shvetsov has converted the gallery into his studio as much for practical as for aesthetic reasons. The result is that, in each of the three gallery spaces, he has created a unique environment which negotiates the line between installation and the straightforward presentation of painting. The panels of tile lining the walls of the ground floor galleries bring to mind the interior of public conveniences with their cold uniformity. Shvetsov’s strategy is to attack the hygienic white surface and regularity of the grid with his own imagery in an act of creative vandalism.
The images and texts found scrawled across bathroom tiles throughout the world are some of the oldest and most culturally interesting forms of communication, artistic expression and free speech that have ever existed. And while street art has long been accepted within the gallery and museum, the often base and abject graffiti of the toilet room has not. By turns cruel, comic, inane, enigmatic, ill-mannered, philosophical, trite, rude and obscene, it is precisely this form of expression that interests the artist. In his quest to shatter existing stereotypes and reveal new ways of experiencing the world, he also understands that graffiti too can be monitored, edited, and censored. Shvetsov makes explicit reference to the ephemeral nature of most graffiti in the fact that his work will also be removed from the wall in a matter of weeks.
Not content to simply negotiate a dialogue with tile as an element of a sanitized interior design, Shvetsov also takes a different but related approach to the uses of the material. By employing the tiles themselves as the building blocks for fantasies that take on a life of their own, it is as if the illegal arts worker making hastily scrawled declarations in isolation has become the gastarbeiter using the tools of his trade to make an aesthetic statement. Clumsy and obtuse, the pixelated forms that emerge bring to mind H.G. Wells’ aliens, felled not by disease but, rather, collapsing under the weight of their own history. Likewise, a panel of cunningly broken tile in the form of a bolt of lightning becomes a three-dimensional representation of the act of creation itself that is both elegant and brutal.
By starting with a material whose noble history as princely decoration stretches back thousands of years, but is today so ubiquitous as to be found in even the humblest of dwellings, Shvetsov uses his perverse and often violent imagery to blur the boundary between high and low culture. The result is a celebration of permissiveness that is as joyful as it is painstakingly considered.