13 — 23 March
With their vast, stark blocks of colour, the landscapes of Farkhad Khalilov paint a striking picture of his native Baku and the coastline of the Absheron peninsula. Works like ‘Light on the Forest’, with its blazing white space flanked by two dark, green-topped trees, or ‘In the Field’, a simple tricolour of soil, grain and sky, reflect this artist’s talent for stripping the world to its essential elements and presenting the results in unflinchingly austere form.
In some respects there are parallels between Khalilov’s paintings and the music of mugham. His output can be seen as a single theme with infinite variations, in either vertical or horizontal plane, much as the chants and modes of mugham take a core idea and place it in the hands of musicians who can explore it, improvise around it and reinterpret it indefinitely
At first glance his work seems abstract, a continuation of the experiments in shape and colour that began with Malevich’s ‘Black Square’, but closer inspection reveals that these often huge canvases are in fact taken from nature – specifically the vast skies and seascapes of Khalilov’s native Baku and its surroundings. “It’s funny for me that people perceive my work as abstract,” the artist said. “For me this is what I saw or felt. I sit and look and draw.”
Some elements of Khalilov’s work echo the artists of the so-called ‘severe style’ that grew up in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death and the relative cultural thaw that peaked during his student years. Hints of this style are particularly clear in works like ‘In Govadil’, a scene of village life picked out almost entirely in straight lines or perfect arcs. Many of the early exponents of that approach had connections to Azerbaijan, following the ideas of Baku’s Tair Salakhov, but Khalilov himself was more drawn to a minimalist approach. He likes to talk of an early encounter with Chinese poetry – the first verse he read was ‘In fish’s eyes, only tears’. The art of saying much with few words became a principle that has informed his creative career.
It’s a career that has often seen him at loggerheads with the artistic establishment: insufficiently realistic for the Soviet commissars of old, he now finds himself similar out of step with contemporary conceptualism. This amounts a paradoxical swing of fashion from being judged too abstract to being judged too literal by the prevailing tastes of the age. However, in recent years his work has received more attention beyond his native country. In 2008 he had a large-scale solo show at the prestigious Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, and in 2011 the Great Room 1508 hosted his first ever London exhibition, ‘Acquaintance’, presenting 15 new canvases.
Khalilov is also chairman of Azerbaijan’s Union of Artists, a position he has held since 1987 when the perestroika era lifted many of the shackles on Soviet artists. At that time he was also working to advocate the work of artists who had been labelled as ‘dissident’, including Javad Mirjavadov, a former housemate in his student days whose colourful canvases are subject of another exhibition in the Buta festival.
The Saatchi Gallery
Courting controversy since it opened in 1985, the Saatchi Gallery is a testament to one man’s love of contemporary art, and his determination to share his passion regardless of whether it ruffles any feathers. Charles Saatchi, advertising guru and art collector, has been shocking audiences in London and New York with his uncompromising explorations of the meaning of art for three decades. But these are more than just headline-grabbing antics and Saatchi is keen to promote his vision of the most provocative modern works remaining available to the widest possible audience. Buta’s exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery builds on the relationship that began when Saatchi visited Baku’s Museum of Modern Art and saw at first hand the range and talent of Azerbaijani artists.