Poetics of Dissonance: Curator Nina Mdivani Interviews Artist Rusudan Khizanishvili

Rusudan Khizanishvili (1979) is based in Tbilisi, Georgia. She is a figurative artist who has been exhibiting in the West in the last ten years, more so in Europe. Recent years have brought more exposure to her unique, sumptuous manner of handing acrylic and oil paints. She invites viewers into her multi-layered portals of distorted figures and animals, with these portals acting as symbolic doors between cultures, nations, times and identities. The artist explores borders as a cultural phenomenon while commenting on a society starved by the prevalence of digital reality in her practice. These works lack harmony because, to the artist, contemporary reality is more about the dissonance than about a peaceful co-existence.

As it is with the music of Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, Khizanishvili creates tightly controlled dissonance within her overall harmonious tableaux. In the following interview, themes touched on include this atmosphere of uncertainty in Khizanishvili’s works as well as in the world at large. This interview occurs as the artist’s works are currently on view in Berlin for “Rooms & Beings,” a solo show at 68 Rooms, the project space of Galerie Kornfeld curated by Mdivani and up through January 9, 2021.

”Circus Paradise” Rusudan Khizanishvili. (2020) Acrylic and Mixed Media on Canvas. 150 x 150 cm.

Nina Mdivani: On many levels this is a very disorienting time globally. How did it affect you?

Rusudan Khizanishvili: Right now, we are living through an extremely complex and stressful circumstances, our planned and structured life has been taken from us and we would need an extremely long time to return to our pre-pandemic frame of mind. By directly affecting the whole world the pandemic brought changes, pushing us to reconsider our own personal positions. The crisis pushed us into a deep self-analysis, and even more profound self-reflection was triggered by the public discussion of racism. In a certain way, Georgians can sympathize with what has happened in the wake of the outcry surrounding George Floyd’s murder in the United States. Going back to the 1990s collapse of the Soviet Union, this incident triggered civil war, bringing the question of rights for ethnic minorities to the forefront of public attention. And the question of ethnic as well as national identity is still an issue in Georgia, not fully resolved in the face of the continuously aggressive foreign policy of the neighboring Russia. This was a theme explored by a group presentation “Crawling Border” at Venice Biennale in 2015 where I represented Georgia along with several other artists.

ND: Has the pandemic changed anything directly in your work? If so, what precisely?

RK: Being blanketed by the cover of pandemic has significantly changed the visual aspect of my paintings. Until now, the closest I have ever experienced such an existential crisis was only through books such as Plague by Camus and Touch by Daniel Keyes. This spring served as a litmus test for my work, taking me on a faraway trip within myself. For a specific period of time, a ceaseless interaction with the outside – that, until now, was one of the ways of expressing myself -has been unexpectedly paused. This catapulted me more toward my subconscious rather than the real life. This change was somewhat traumatic, awakening fears that I have not faced before and bringing physical dimensions to unexpected states of mind.

NM: Fears play a role in your art.

RK: Yes, fears are integral to my visual language as I allegorically paint what terrifies me. This element came to my art over time. I graduated from Tbilisi Academy of the Arts with a degree in film studies what is roughly translated into art director in its Western understanding, so early on I started to create my compositions from a perspective different than a traditional figurative approach. Even today, I approach my paintings as though they are following one moving image after the other, creating a cycle of works. After my graduation I still felt like I was a student for the next 7-10 years. In those important years I worked through my own technical challenges, between what should be and where I was at that moment. Over time I started to travel abroad through invitations to various residencies and art symposiums and at one point found out that I am radically shifting away from any kind of national or folkloric themes in my art. My personal struggles, my search for identity started to gain some aggressive overtones.

I would say that in 2013 my visual language as you can partially observe it today started to take shape by inclusion of taboo images: images of my fears that I started to talk about openly. I found parallels to this approach in the art of African tribes, where interlocutors of the Higher Powers work with images of individual fears. At that time, I started to get feedback from viewers that some paintings produce anxiety in them, namely works about symbolic cross-breeding between animals and humans that I was exploring at that time. And I realized that I was on a right track, because whatever is hidden deeply scares us.

NM : Who are you as an artist now? 

RK: For me, there exist two types of artists, artists who take their stand through actions and those who are storytellers. I certainly am the latter, because I concentrate on my own vision of the world. I look at global questions through my own viewfinder, understand how they affect me and then I retell this story using my own instruments. What I talk about now is the human being writ large. There is all this talk about human rights, but I deeply feel that humanness, uniqueness of any particular person as an individual became obsolete and forgotten. So, whatever I work on is always about a Human, how they try to survive in the world that they have personally created and how the process of saving one’s dignity or humanity is taking place. 

What I am working on right now could be understood through the phrase that there is no harmony left in this world, so I am exploring disharmony and dissonance in the world of total aggression. I am certain that art should not strive to be beautiful. I might change my opinion, but this needs to happen naturally. This perception of the world is also visible in my choice of materials. When I started, I was consistently working with oil paints that dictate their own classical laws of painting; gradually, I switched to acrylic and mixed media. I believe our synthetic existence should be envisaged by synthetic means.

Something new and as-of-yet-unexpressed unexpectedly returned me to oil paints during the pandemic, though. Several exhibitions were postponed and, unexpectedly, this allowed me new space for a deeper self-exploration. As an artist I was given a new stimulus through this release from my comfort zone and this state will continue for a bit as the main motive of my next works.

NM: Do you have a clear idea of what exactly you want to do when you start a painting?

RK: Literature plays an important role in this. The first step I take with a new work is: I think of a sentence that centers a painting around it. Inside my mind it always comes in English, probably as certain homage to American novelists and poets as they have considerably influenced me over the years.  Steinbeck, Faulkner, Kerouac, Plath, Whitman and many other classics of the American writing tradition act as creators of the first outline for my art. This tradition of literature taught me honesty and differentiation of who I want to be and what I want to say. As with them, I am trying to be very open in my works and express what is hidden deep within me.

Symbols inside my works are pertinent to me in the process of painting them, but I never try to force my view onto the observer. To me, they are at a complete freedom to see what there is in that particular point of their life trajectory. I often use religious or mythological themes in my works, I am drawn to sacred nature of this or that story. I am in an imaginary dialogue with an artist who created the work on that theme before: it never is a direct homage, more like a very broad variation on the theme.

NM: Where do you see yourself within mainstream Georgian and international art?

RK: Because I was born when the Soviet Union still existed not in Georgia, but in neighboring Northern Caucasus, Russian was my first language. Later when my family moved back when I was thirteen, I had to learn Georgian. I suspect that at that time my own visual language had been conceived, as what I could not verbalize at that time later became part of my work. My visual vocabulary developed organically from the combination of mythological, pagan symbols as well as in dialogue with elements of Classical art. Based on this I consciously or unconsciously have always perceived myself as an outsider artist within the tightly knit Georgian ‘mainstream’ art. Subsequently, I keep feeling a much deeper affinity with Western and, even more so, with the American art (Louise Bourgeois, Helen Frankenthaler, Rauschenberg, Rothko, Basquiat, de Kooning, Henry Taylor, Kara Walker, Sam Doyle, Henry Darger.) For me, the most important part has always been a creation of a universal painterly language that would be completely free from any national or folkloric references, any kind of national self-identification. Being an artist who lives in Georgia and converses using a global language about private as well as more abstract questions, this has become my most important artistic task.

Installation image, “Rooms & Beings” at 68 Projects in Berlin, Germany. (Courtesy 68 Projects)

NM: What are the main obstacles and breakthroughs you have encountered in the past two years?

RK: These past two years have been very important for me as far as my own self-positioning goes as well as for analyzing my work in the context of the larger society. A big obstacle I encounter is distance, and although I travel a lot and this helps in enriching and globalizing my visual language, I still feel this is not enough. For me to be understood in the West and to be seen by a larger audience, a wish of any artist if she is honest with herself, I need to be more closely connected to the international art scene. And this is my main goal, to be an actor of the big stage: a goal that I am slowly and diligently work towards. – ANTE


In 2021 a dual exhibition is planned at Annarumma Gallery in Napoli, Italy and a group show at Thisted Museum of Contemporary Art in Thisted, Denmark.

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