For almost ten years, Iva Gueorguieva has been painting strikingly beautiful abstract canvases with a foreboding undercurrent of agitation and drama. For the artist, painting consists of an emotive and sensuous experience framed in a conceptual and philosophical structure. Grounded in a firm grasp of modern art history, philosophy, and contemporary painting, her interests center around the absurd, the grotesque, caricature, and universal conditions of humanity: beauty, sex, violence, death. Olympia and The Dead Matador—created specifically for the exhibition on view here—represent the fullest expression of her painting to date.
Gueorguieva chooses feeling over reason, intuition over calculation, and the subjective over the objective. Like Romantic artists of the late 18th- and early 19th-centuries, she responds to the sublime and the gothic. And like her Romantic predecessors, Gueorguieva’s work takes an expressionistic and dramatic form, reflecting her state of mind.
Gueorguieva is also deeply invested in the history and practice of painting. She finds herself drawn to artists who successfully linked the philosophical, literary, and artistic concepts of the absurd and the uncanny with virtuosic painterly technique. Honore Daumier, George Grosz, Otto Dix, James Ensor, and Francisco Goya are all sources of inspiration with their powerful artistic expressions of raw emotion. Gueorguieva also responds to artistic strategies found in early modern art, in particular Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, and German Expressionism, that paralleled her own: the fracturing of multiple spaces, the layering of simultaneous multiple narratives, and the liberation from a pre-Modern, or Renaissance, space.
Another core influence is the 19th-century painter Edouard Manet, who is often credited as one of the first artists to shift modern art towards a representation of the reality of the everyday world. Gueorguieva studied Manet in depth in graduate school, and came to feel an affinity in the way he handled paint, how he dealt with color, and his choices of subject matter. Gueorguieva titled her Olympia of 2007 after Manet’s iconic Olympia of 1863 to honor his attack on 19th-century bourgeoisie mores and sensibilities. Like the confident courtesan boldly confronting proper society in Manet’s painting, the forthright, unapologetic imagery in Gueorguieva’s painting represents an attack on the complacency of the 21st century. And while Manet’s The Dead Toreador (1864) is bloodless and immobile, Gueorguieva’s Dead Matador is brightly colored, tempestuous, and physical.
In conceiving this Project Series exhibition, Gueorguieva envisioned two enormous paintings as bodies confronting each other across the gallery—the viewer caught between the two. To complete the installation, she conceptualized a series of drawings related to the iconography of Olympia and The Dead Matador. More linear, often collaged, and frequently black and white, her drawings distill imagery derived from the paintings into more intimate moments of reflection. The new drawings enhance the concept of the paintings in communication with each other. They represent mementos and characters from the experiences depicted in the paintings.
Iva Gueorguieva’s exhibition is the thirty-third in the Pomona College Museum of Art’s Project Series, an ongoing program of focused exhibitions that brings to the Pomona College campus art that is experimental and that introduces new forms, techniques, or concepts.
The Rising of the Monster: Iva Gueorguieva’s Olympia and The Dead Matador
Rebecca McGrew, Curator
Rochelle LeGrandsawyer, Curatorial Assistant
Iva Gueorguieva’s Olympia is a vivid nightscape, dominated by shadows of black and gray, and the saturated potency of cool blues, reds, and purples. Among the swirling movement of colors and shapes, a woman’s abstracted torso merges into the background landscape, while her truncated thighs are exposed in a fore-shortened cross-section view. Divided by the woman’s splayed open legs and vulva, two realms of pulsating activity occupy the canvas. On one side, a disintegrating blackened cityscape looms over a series of fleeing anguished figures. On the other, a lone, barren tree and an agitated green dog-armed man struggle amidst a torrential deluge emanating from the urban chaos.
Olympia’s dusky scenery finds its mate in the high-noon warmth of The Dead Matador. Flushed with boiling shades of pinks, oranges, and golden yellows, The Dead Matador exudes the tired heat of the aftermath of a riotous carnival. At the top of the painting lies its solitary figure, the matador, in his death throes. Between the matador’s clenched teeth hangs a jumble of intestines and dismembered body parts. Tangles of flesh and blood lead the eye down the center of the canvas; a tumescent penis and bulbous organs connect the path to the ruins below.
Iva Gueorguieva’s two newest paintings, Olympia and The Dead Matador (both 2007) bristle with energy and seethe with color, movement, line, and imagery. Shedding the post-modern cool of the past, both paintings teem with emotion and drama—anxiety, exuberance, tension, and turbulence fill the canvases. For Gueorguieva, painting consists of an emotive and sensuous experience framed in a conceptual and philosophical structure. For almost ten years Gueorguieva has been painting strikingly beautiful abstract canvases with a foreboding undercurrent of agitation and drama. Grounded in a firm grasp of modern art history, philosophy, and contemporary painting, her interests center around the absurd, the grotesque, caricature, and universal conditions of humanity: beauty, sex, violence, death. Olympia and The Dead Matador—created specifically for the exhibition at the Pomona College Museum of Art—represent the fullest expression of her painting to date.
For Gueorguieva, painting is a profoundly personal experience. She cannot not paint. Painting provides emotional sustenance, and a forum to process and express the agonizing realities of contemporary life. She is also a painter deeply invested in the history and practice of painting. Gueorguieva firmly holds to the ideal that art can change the world. She is a painter who chooses feeling over reason, intuition over calculation, and the subjective over the objective. Like Romantic artists of the late 18th- and early 19th-centuries, Gueorguieva responds to the sublime and the gothic. And like her Romantic predecessors, Gueorguieva’s work takes an expressionistic and dramatic form, reflecting her emotional and psychological state of mind.
Neatly meshing with these romantic ideals, Gueorguieva’s paintings combine expressionistic abstraction with the pursuit of a transformative experience. Lurking in the dynamic colors and churning strokes, absurd characters and grotesque creatures surface. For the artist, these characters are diaristic, emerging from her thoughts and dreams to find expression in her paintings.
Gueorguieva grew up in Bulgaria, where she remembers drawing at a very early age and spending hours with her grandmother reading and sharing Bulgarian folk tales. These stories abound with jokes, allegories, and proverbs, and contain specific characters that represent universal situations or dilemmas. Inspired by this childhood experience, the characters in her paintings function like proverbs, serving as carriers of meaning and uniting the universal and specific. They operate as oppositional on multiple levels, linking fear and fearlessness, the playful and dramatic, the ridiculous and powerful, the beautiful and repulsive. These characters often act as self-portraits while suggesting symbolic and complex narratives.
This formative grounding in folklore and myth became essentially dormant during Gueorguieva’s adolescence and young adulthood. As a teenager, Gueorguieva left Bulgaria in 1990 for the United States, where the multitude of new and overwhelming experiences temporarily superseded her love of these folk tales. As an undergraduate at Goucher College, in Baltimore, Maryland, she majored in philosophy. She studied painting at the Tyler School of Art, at Temple University in Pennsylvania, where she expanded her practice formally and conceptually. Her philosophical studies led her towards the absurd, dark, tragic-comic, and uncanny where her art practice began to take shape.
Simultaneously culturally specific and universal, the early Bulgarian folk tales—with their gothic elements—began to resurface as Gueorguieva’s scholarly interests paralleled ideas of Romanticism in modern art. She embraced the absurd and the uncanny as philosophical, literary, and artistic concepts. Romantic art of the 18th- and 19th-centuries often unleashed the dramas of a pre-Freudian world—monsters, nightmares, and other dark visions of humanity and religious symbolism. In its increasingly abstract and dehumanized content, early modern art, in particular Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, and German Expressionism, contains elements of the absurd and uncanny—the irrational, nonsensical, violent, or grotesque. Gueorguieva also found in Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, and Expressionism artistic strategies that paralleled her own: the fracturing of multiple spaces, the layering of simultaneous multiple narratives, and the liberation from a pre-Modern, or Renaissance, space.
Gueorguieva finds herself drawn to other artists who successfully linked concepts of the absurd and uncanny with virtuosic painterly technique. She admires their ability to create aesthetically powerful images that also camouflage serious intent with satire, highlighting aspects of contradiction, comedy, and horror. The absurd allows her to bring in caricature, high emotion, and make sense of the insanity of contemporary life. Honore Daumier used caricature, raw emotion, and the surest of lines to create images of profound political protest. George Grosz and Otto Dix responded emotionally to the horrors of war with grotesque figures and dramatic shifts in scale and space. James Ensor incorporated masks and monster-like figures rendered in a wavering, tenuous line, which conveyed a sense of unease and angst. Francisco Goya entwined color, line, and motion together with political commentary and the horror and absurdity of the human condition.
While Gueorguieva admires Daumier, Grosz, Dix, Ensor, and Goya for their powerful artistic expressions of raw emotion, contemporary films also provide a major source of inspiration. She watches movies avidly, and contemporary film is quickly becoming a central source of inspiration. She is most drawn to the dsytopian, hallucinatory tragicomedies of three filmmakers: the American filmmaker Terry Gilliam, whose Brazil she watches repeatedly for its surreal black humor; the Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike, whose ultraviolent, hyper-stylized Ichi the Killer influenced some of her mutant animal/human characters; and the Bosian/Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica, whose epic, absurdist Underground of 1995 channels Futurism’s merging of space and motion, flesh and machine.
Another core influence is the 19th-century painter Edouard Manet, who is often credited as one of the first artists to shift modern art away from the Romantic and mythical, and towards a representation of the reality of the everyday world. Gueorguieva studied Manet in depth in graduate school, and came to feel an affinity in the way he handled paint, how he dealt with color, and his choices of subject matter. Like Manet, Gueorguieva seeks out the in-between, marginal moments in an attempt to expose power structures, and lay bare the trappings of modern life. Gueorguieva—after arriving at the imagery of the two paintings for the Pomona College exhibition—titled her Olympia of 2007 after Manet’s iconic Olympia of 1863, honoring his attack on 19th-century bourgeoisie mores and sensibilities.1 Like the confident courtesan boldly confronting proper society in Manet’s painting, the forthright, unapologetic vulva in Gueorguieva’s painting represents an attack on the complacency of the 21st-century. And while Manet’s The Dead Toreador (1864) is bloodless and immobile, Gueorguieva’s The Dead Matador is brightly colored, tempestuous, and physical. Both of Gueorguieva’s powerful images confront us directly, while simultaneously engaging the history of art and the traumas of contemporary life.
In conceiving her exhibition for the Project Series at Pomona College, Gueorguieva envisioned two enormous paintings as bodies confronting each other across the gallery—the viewer caught between the two. She wanted to make the two paintings as large-scale as possible for the Project Series gallery, thus challenging herself to make manifest and insistent the entwined, dramatic relationship between the two works. Like many painters before her, Gueorguieva considers painting to be a bodily, almost erotic, process. The painting is a stand in for the human body: the canvas its skin, and the stretcher its skeleton. Additionally, working on large-scale paintings requires a different physical engagement than smaller paintings or drawings. For both the artist and the viewer, scale changes how an image is perceived; when the viewer steps closer to get a better view, or the artist moves closer to make a mark, both become engulfed by the canvas. There is a somatic and psychic adjustment to confronting this challenging, dynamic imagery at such an insistent scale.
Gueorguieva prepared a large black canvas and a slightly smaller white canvas. She began painting the black canvas first, placing a series of parallel sloping diagonal lines from left to right across the surface. She followed with two swooping curves. Structurally, these three linear elements anchored the painting, and dictated the primary content. After working on this canvas for several days, Gueorguieva intuitively created a vaginal form from the two ovals, which merged with the beginnings of a dark landscape. Next, tiny flaming figures appeared, fleeing the city that emerged on the right side.
From these initial elements, the rest of the painting emerged. The top right corner holds a faint impression of far away skyscrapers. Moving down the right edge of the canvas, diagonal lines score the sky, suggesting gusts of wind. In the midst of that wind, a falling figure plummets towards the ground. From the bottom edge of the leg/cityscape protrudes a cluster of narrow pathways. In the bottom right corner two large, mutant figures lay on the ground, water-like curls of blue paint threatening to envelop them.
Nature dominates the left side of the canvas. A large, barren tree occupies the center of the left cross-section. At the tree’s base resides the painting’s largest character—a green man with two agitated dogs in place of arms. From the top right corner a force—perhaps debris, water, or wind—rushes down to the left. The flooding constantly changes direction, sometimes flowing down and other times blowing up toward the city.
The scale of the black painting dictated constant movement, compelling Gueorguieva to step back to see the whole entity, then move forward, brush in hand, to work. Treating this painting like a drawing, Gueorguieva used very small brushes with long bristles to convey the crisp linear components, to give detail to the characters that continued to appear. Working with these brushes, she laid down thin washes of paint, muted glazes, and delicate lines that move from one element to the next. Once complete, Gueorguieva titled the painting Olympia, marking the relationship to Manet’s Olympia.
In contrast to the more linear, stroke-filled Olympia, Gueorguieva’s The Dead Matador was painted more intimately. Here, she rarely used the fine brushes of Olympia, instead applying the washes of paint by hand or with cloths, rubbing the pigments sensuously into the skin of canvas. The Dead Matador began, like its Manet namesake, as a horizontal painting. However, soon after beginning the painting, Gueorguieva rotated the canvas to a vertical position. The painting’s structure is strongly tied to the resulting vertical orientation: elements shift back and forth as the eye follows gravity down the canvas.
At the top of the canvas lies the matador’s mask-like, burnt orange face. In the agony of death, his deep blue eye recedes back into its socket, while his teeth are bared in a distorted grimace. At the left corner, the matador’s greasy black hair streams down. His chest swells under his maroon and pink coat, bulging out of view to the right. Fleshy organs tumble down to meet thick black and red lines speeding across the canvas. The mass of shapes and colors mutate into a too-quickly-growing mound of garbage, threatening to overtake the scene. Yet, among the ruins, one can perceive a faint image of a peaceful landscape—a barely-there respite in The Dead Matador’s chaotic decay.
To complete the installation, Gueorguieva conceptualized a series of drawings related to the iconography of Olympia and The Dead Matador. More linear, often collaged, and frequently black and white, her drawings typically distill imagery derived from the paintings into more intimate moments of reflection. The new drawings enhance the concept of the paintings in communication with each other. They represent mementos and characters from the experiences depicted in the paintings.
With Olympia and The Dead Matador, Gueorguieva tackled the dark, irrational, sometimes violent or confrontational content lurking beneath the surface of her earlier, more abstract, work. Gueorguieva describes these two paintings as “cleansed,” 2 featuring an aesthetic that only contains the most necessary, even primal, elements.
With the provocative image of a vagina—on one hand shameless and direct, and on the other as a landscape acted upon—Gueorguieva metaphorically unpacks the baggage associated with images of women. She chooses to present this vagina directly, as one element among many equally dramatic or interesting. In addition to Manet’s Olympia, there are historical precedents for much of the imagery in Gueorguieva’s Olympia. The most significant is Gustave Courbet’s 1866 painting L’Origine du Monde or Origin of the World. Not only is this 19th-century image formally connected—Courbet depicts the lower torso of a nude spread-legged woman, with the focal point on the genitalia, cropped from upper thigh to just above the breasts—but here Courbet’s sensuousness in both subject matter and application of paint connects to Gueorguieva’s own erotic and formal painterly process. In the essay “Courbet’s Real Allegory: Rereading The Painter’s Studio,” art historian Linda Nochlin discusses how, in 19th-century painting, the female nude serves as “the contested site of vanguard versus conservative practices.” 3 She suggests that Courbet, in his more “excessively eroticized” nudes, of which L’Origine du Monde is one, invites us to read the “transgressive content of the work as a metaphor for the transgressive formal practices involved.”4 Nochlin observes that the “tender” brushwork vanishes into the “receptive” flesh of the canvas, a phenomenon Gueorguieva explores as she seeks to understand and conceptualize how a woman paints a woman.
Through her work, Gueorguieva directly confronts the modernist discourse of painterly transgressiveness. As many feminist scholars have noted, there exists a fraught relationship with painting and feminism. In an essay on contemporary painter Jenny Saville, art historian Alison Rowley tracks this relationship to “two bodies: the body of the painter and the feminine body.”5 Rowley argues that Saville’s practice of painting large-scale nudes in foreshortened views rearticulates modernism’s “discourse of the body of the painter.” She goes on to state that the “represented body is no longer the supine female object body but the active female creative body examined in the practice of the woman’s body.”6 Thus, in Gueorguieva’s own Olympia, she, the active creative artist, represents her version of woman’s body, removing it from the tired discourse of modernism and making it her own.
With The Dead Matador, Gueorguieva continues to push this painterly transgressiveness. The matador character grimaces in a mask-like distortion of maleness, representing another confrontational image. Historically, the matador symbolizes virility with the enactment of a confident, violent male subjugating, then killing the bull—in essence subjugating nature. Pablo Picasso has repeatedly worked with images of the matador, but focuses on the virility and tension in the intertwined movement of the fight. Goya too completed a series of images of bullfights, La Tauromaquia of 1816, but his focus lies more in the subtle relationships between bull, man, and audience; and the exhaustion of the death struggle. With bared teeth and semi-erect penis, Gueorguieva’s matador also contrasts with Manet’s intellectual representation of the male. Unlike Manet’s cool, noble figure, Gueorguieva presents a very physical rendering of an eviscerated man, one holding on in desperation to the signifiers of maleness.
Other characters and situations in The Dead Matador and Olympia relate to concepts of feminist and masculinist discourses, in particular, the nature and culture dichotomy. Traditionally, the emotional, body-centered attributes commonly associated with the feminine are juxtaposed with the masculinized rationality and control prized by our culture. Ideas surrounding “nature,” like the feminine, have often been viewed by patriarchal society as uncontrollable and threatening; in contrast to the superiority of the intellect, expressed through representations of “culture.” In this binary discourse, woman is seen as property, as land, as nature. Gueorguieva critiques this masculinist ideology and reconceptualizes these hierarchical distinctions with work that subtly references images of nature, the body, and physicality with images of culture, the mind, and language—showing both as equally vulnerable to powerful forces of destruction. Olympia and The Dead Matador themselves represent oppositions, with the nightscape of Olympia referring to the shadowy twilight world of the female body, while the bright daylight of The Dead Matador alludes to the realm of the male intellect. However, both are in transition—attacked, vulnerable, crumbling, unstable. Yet, both also contain small moments of calm and stillness, representing moments of hope and renewal amidst the chaos and decay.
Both paintings contain references to the city and its pending destruction. Gueorguieva describes it as “the hubris of order falling on its face.” In Olympia, Gueorguieva places another striking element—the scarred, leafless tree—as the lone representation of the natural world drowning in a torrent of urban decay. The tree blocks the onslaught and gives shelter to the top right corner of the canvas, creating a place of respite among the chaos. In childhood stories, the tree represents an ancient marker of time and endurance, as well as the comfort and safety sometimes found in nature. Gueorguieva’s tree shelters a solitary character, overwhelmed by the surrounding melee and vomiting in despair. Two mutated female bodies are additional witnesses, standing in for those who mutely endure the ravages of the world. The Dead Matador also represents this decay of civilization. As the matador dies, the aftermath of the carnival lies beneath him. Gueorguieva convincingly conveys both the beauty and the excess of society with this violent, decadent dance between life and death.
In embracing these contradictions in both form and content, Gueorguieva chooses not merely to illustrate the forces that produce disorder, chaos, and destruction, but to reveal these actions as playful absurdist truths, disrupting our sense of order and common sense. She presents the artist as a force of unreason, one who can reveal the dark and monstrous undercurrents beneath society’s glittery façade. In Olympia, the green dog-armed man symbolizes this desire. This character acts as a self-portrait, reflecting the artist’s presence and providing her with an avenue of expression. A mutant, half man, half animal, the creature has one dog/arm digging furiously at a tree’s roots, madly searching for truth, while the other dog/arm drools heavily as it frantically barks up at the tree. The barking dog, as the only active presence in the painting, represents Gueorguieva’s consciousness and awareness. This mutant character symbolizes the artist’s ongoing struggle to find and present moments of truth and clarity with passion, intelligence, energy, and profound grace.