Public Gallery: Stefania Batoeva 'Divorce' (until 17 December 2022)
Public Gallery, somewhat ironically given its nomenclature, can be found in a tight spot in East London. Parallel to Brick Lane, popular with tourists and Londoners alike, as well as being a great cultural spot for South Asian communities, it is also tucked behind the busy Whitechapel Road, which again is abuzz with the same communities, as well as the institutional Whitechapel Gallery. All this being said, Middlesex Street, where the gallery is based, is decidedly quiet; businesses are open during the day but they function rather quietly, almost patiently. The quiet vicinity merged with the accessibility of nearby transport and destinations makes Public Gallery arguably a prime location for viewing art.
Their current show is London-based Bulgarian artist Stefania Batoeva, whose 'Divorce' body of work finds itself in an exciting midpoint between figuration and abstraction, allowing a bewildering but stimulating experience of mental gymnastics to figure out what exactly is going on; the clincher is that there is no fixed conclusion or endpoint. This lack of finality was solidified by the fact that the works list, which was available through a QR code, unfortunately wasn't working when I visited. Although having access to titles of works does allow a more thorough understanding, where this fell short, I was able to get creative with how I approached the works, and challenge my very perception.
As one might expect with a show of this title, there is a palpable amount of pain in Batoeva's paintings. I seem to have seen many (perhaps too many) group shows of late, so being able to delve into an individual's body of work like this certainly felt indulgent and incredibly satisfying. It should be said that the Public Gallery space itself is rather unassuming, both inside and out, which makes for an effective platform for allowing artworks to pop. This is executed very well on the occasion of Batoeva's exhibition, whereby palettes that may be dulled in other settings come into their own power here; greys, purples and greens swirl together to present a world that is drowning in its own sadness and despair. One interesting element about the title 'Divorce' is that it can be an agonising episode of one's life that has the power to change the direction of one's life immeasurably, yet at the same time it has been experienced by a vast number of people; therefore this transfer of feeling, emotion and sensation might be one way of viewing the works here. That is, of course, if we are to take 'Divorce' in its most literal meaning of the dissolution of a marriage; it is most likely that we are being invited to think about what this might mean in different contexts.
If we cast our minds back to early 2020, when every corporate or corporate-lite email began with "I hope this email finds you well in these interesting/uncertain/crazy [delete as appropriate] times", with the first global lockdown ushering in incredibly bleak and end-of-times, it feels like the general public consciousness has folded in on itself in the months and years since. Almost three years later and the general feeling is that COVID no longer exists, but neither does anything else; the world as we knew it has illuminated itself and there is nothing to feel but peaks and troughs of anxiety; sometimes all we can do is play in the rain. Maybe that will seem incorrect or glib to some, but the misery and surreal whimsy found in Batoeva's paintings do seem to resonate with that truly bizarre present moment of abject despair mixed with a crazed urge to live life (audaciously) while we still can.
The figures we can see in the paintings are generally forlorn, stooped over and almost cradling themselves. There is an element of Mindy, a 3D model depicting a "scientific" prediction made in 2019 of what humans will look like in 2100, with poor posture and inwardly clawed hands due to a lifetime huddled over phones and computers. However in 'Divorce', the paintings do not possess a loquacious quality; the figures themselves are not even fully present. A certain level of commitment is required to enter the artist's world, or, indeed, her imagination. Sensing the emotions, pain and challenges of the world that Batoeva is communicating and living in is surely how artist and viewer unite through the works.
Where the observation of the equidistance between figuration and abstraction is fairly evident, we are ultimately left experiencing Batoeva's dreamworlds. There are glimpses of the natural environment, but also that which could be seen as spectres, lost souls that remain dormant in the domestic space. Despite soft, swirling paint movements that produce fluid canvases, the melancholy flowing from piece to piece evokes the notion of groundedness, perhaps a fixed bodily state that leaves only the imagination and the mind to wander off into territories new. Maybe this divorce between bodily and mental states is the chasm we are being invited to peer into after all.
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