Over the last 15 years, the Moscow-based conceptual artist David Ter-Oganyan has made semi-abstract formal paintings, drawings and objects that discreetly comment on political issues. The exhibition “Black Geometry” consisted of nine untitled white canvases (all 2009) about 3 feet high, each with an irregular black shape painted in acrylic at its center. Some contours are marked with straight lines, others are irregular, and most intriguing are those with edges that are so rough as to almost appear to have been hacked or chewed. Both ordered and eccentric, the shapes are anchored to the surface yet maintain a sense of mobility.
The sources for these odd silhouettes are the borders of African countries. Ter-Oganyan was fascinated by their arbitrary shapes, many of them drawn during colonial conflicts. These apparently cerebral, abstract works, then, allude to concrete borders based on realpolitik as well as geography. His new series contrasts with more blunt works from just three years ago, such as This is Not a Bomb (2006), which consists of two Coca-Cola bottles taped together with an ordinary wind-up alarm clock attached. If that work declared that terrorism was an American-made corporate fiction, the current works seem as concerned with painterliness as with social statements. Within the sharp edges, the artist lets his brush cover the canvas in free painterly strokes that leave visible the canvas’s weave, thus combining precise geometry and a vigorous touch. Each shape stretches almost to the canvas’s edge, creating a satisfying figure/ground tension.
Ter-Oganyan’s political engagement follows the practices of his father, the artist-provocateur Avdey Ter-Oganyan, who was prosecuted in 1998 for his notorious performance of chopping up Orthodox icons, and later obtained refugee status in the Czech Republic. In contrast, David has taken up an object-based practice that makes cautious jibes rather than frontal attacks.
Photo: David Ter-Oganyan: From the series “Black Geometry,” 2009, acrylic on canvas, 39 3/8 inches square; at Marat Guelman.