Sanya Kantarovsky - Disease of the Eyes | Kunsthalle Basel

This Russia-born, New York based artist likes to do his work prone on the ground, with people around to talk to. Stray brush strokes and other little mistakes are usually left in the final painting, to better build up its texture. He mixes oil paint and water, which don’t really mix properly. But, despite these quite zany and antic working methods, the subjects of Sanya Kantarovsky’s paintings and prints are relentlessly despairing.

Let’s talk about Seizure. Like many of the other paintings currently on show at Kunsthalle Basel, it’s new work, from 2018, and is suffused in Klein-ish blues. (The gallerist told me that getting that perfect shade of blue is one of Kantarovsky’s many obsessions.) A mournful man, or the top half of one at least, emerges from a twilit lake. A naked maybe-woman floats face down in the water, though her butt cheeks are breaking the surface.

Installation view

The low light, awkward pose of the man - is he holding her under? - and the electric green of his eyeballs add to the mournful atmosphere. But there’s something unavoidably comic about that plump bum.

The uneasy balance between the serious and the silly carries through to lots of the other paintings on show, here. Documents shows a black-haired witch, carrying off a prone man on her horse, a deeply triumphant expression on her face. (This one’s based on Bulgakov’s classic witch fable The Master and Margarita.) Floater shows a man’s body engulfed in water, pierced by a solid red dot with a hazy halo: a bullet wound? But, according to Kantarovsky, the title’s a deliberate and jokey reference to a common usage of “floater”… that little turd that won’t flush! Darkest is Petrol, an allegory of sexual abuse where a naked child digs a naked man’s grave. Amidst the black despair, the adult’s back and genitals are outlined in cheery Klein blue.

Kantarovsky’s clearly a major talent. Simultaneously lush, creepy and funny, I hope I get to see some more of his paintings in London soon.

Other highlights

Elsewhere in Basel, I saw a fun bee-themed group show at Kunsthaus Baselland, featuring Pep Vidal’s arresting pencil depictions of swarms, and a (wonderful-smelling) Jan Holz installation of honeycomb pieces on a mirrored platform. I saw my first Grünewald - a tiny gangrenous Crucifixion - and the world’s best set of Holbeins at Kunstmuseum Basel’s seriously impressive permanent collection.

I didn’t get to many commercial galleries, but did catch a fun light-themed show, from Markus Aebersold and Chris Handberg, at Balzer Projects. And I was thoroughly creeped out by an over-reverant retrospective of that hack Balthus at Fondation Bayeler.

Sanya Kantarovsky: Disease of the Eyes is at Kunsthalle (Basel). 31 August - 11 November 2018