Encho Avramov is easily the most annoying person I have ever met. Get him started on something (and that's not hard) and you can't turn him off. The Bulgarian volcano just keeps on spewing out his molten lava. ALL RIGHT, you say, I UNDERSTAND! The volcano is still erupting. AND YOUR POINT IS??? We say---to no avail. YOU ARE GETTING VERY BORING, we cry--and it does us no good. What point is there to a volcano? Does it really care if it's boring us? If you are a volcano you just have to blow, that's all there is to it. And believe me, Encho has got to blow. Even when he's silent and contemplative, you feel the volcano's potential.
I should also say that Encho is one of my very best friends. He has many non-volcanic qualities. He makes me laugh, always, and sometimes I make him laugh too. His eruptions often provoke eruptions of my own. He's an artist, so he's often dreaming and thinking. We argue as much as we agree and I think this is a good thing. He is one of the very best critics of my work- he likes what I like about it, when I like it, and he is always ready to say what is missing or misguided: ("To be perfectly frank, Murray, I must tell you this was very bad" is a sentence I expect to hear after every production).
I confess it was with some trepiditation that I accepted a personal tour last week of Encho's current exhibition at the Smokbrush gallery. I am all too familiar with his diatribes about the corrupting influence of money and power on the social order. I agree with him, but I am not so eager to go see art which bludgeons me with the message, a message I have heard all my life. And this message is indeed part of this exhibition, but it arrives in a most surprising way. Facing you when you enter the gallery is a series of small pictures, variations on a vicious circle of fish swallowing each other in the name of capitalism,socialism, communism, etc (Encho, who has known them all, is an equal ism despiser). The imagery is brutal and scary, and, surprisingly very lively, bright and cheerful, with the fish devouring each other in seas of bright red, gold, blue and glitter. They could almost be tiles in a playroom, or wall paper--in fact I think it would be very powerful to walk into a room entirely covered with this repeated fish pattern, and be completely bombarded with such happy happy brutality.
In the center of the room stands a pyramid literally composed of the almighty dollar, from which hangs a mobile where the different religions dangle like little trinkets from the dollar sign (In God We Trust). Again,this is theme we have heard and seen before---but it's presented with brio and joy that rather wonderfully contradict the punishing thud of the message.
All together the pyramid seems as much celebration as critique.
The paradox of Encho's abiding anger and frustration merging with his enthusiasm and vitality create a unique environment at Smokebrush. All around you is evidence of an artist bent on scourging hyprocrisy and yet the room makes you happy to be there. "Hey, I am fun guy!: says Encho, just before launching into another tirade, hitting you between the eyes.
Encho has sometimes almost made a living as a painter of orthodox religious icons --- he is in fact a master painter in this genre. To the right of the fish is a portrait of Jesus in the classic Icon manner, with yellow disaster tape wrapped around it saying: CAUTION, SOCIALIST. Enough said. (I must admit I have never understood how Christians can oppose universal health care or promote offensive wars; I just don't get it).
This very simple, powerful and masterly picture unites the political with the spiritual--the two strongest impulses at play in Encho's art. The spiritual is finally the most important--the exhibition is called "The Most Essential is Invisible." It's a common enough expression (attributed both to St. Exupery and Helen Keller), and a difficult and paradoxical foundation for a visual artist. Encho plays with work that presents then erases the image-- a relief Buddha shrine tryptich first removes Buddha and then almost all of the shrine leaving only a field of gold; an icon of Mother and Child is succeeded by a companion picture which leaves only a trace of its predecessor's outline. Most ambitious of all is his Last Supper at the end of the room, which subtracts everything but the halos of Jesus and his disciples--but adds a real tablecloth, bread and a goblet of wine. This almost interactive piece (does it encourage or repel audience participation?) both invites communion and implies betrayal (are we true followers or are we Judas?). Very provoking--though I confess that while being invited to acknowledge the power and deeper truth of the invisible, I kept wanting more of the visible which--in an art exhibition--seemed plenty essential to me.
And actually there was plenty more to see--the exhibition is a kind of Encho anthology, showing his work ing in many moods and styles. Everything in the room speaks to Encho'spassionate commitment to a life of art and the spirit. I haven't yet mentioned my second favorite picture, a double photograph portrait of his beautiful daughter, Tinka, in Bulgarian costume. (Tinka, I should disclose, is a former girlfriend of mine, and even though she dumped me when she turned ten we remain on friendly terms).
It wasn't long before the power of the exhibition overwhelmed me. I was overcome with shame after I stol the one real dollar left as an offering on the pyramid. I felt myself to be deeply inessential. I could see no more. I looked deep within myself for the invisible. Encho tried to rescue me. But all was dark.
I sought and received comfort from lovely Holly Parker who curated the show and lit it beautifully:
And at last I begged forgivess of my volcano friend, saint and shark, agent provocateur and clown, and he, holy man that he is, gave it to me. On the condition I blog about him. Which I have now done.
As for my very favorite and hitherto unmentioned picture: it's a small one, over in the far corner. It shows a paintbrush pushing a palette up a hill: a playful portrait of the artist as Sisyphus. You feel he's going to get there. That's my madman--and our madman now, since Betty bought the painting at the opening. I strongly advise you to see this exhibition at Smokebrush before it closes November 27. If you are lucky, the Bulgarian volcano will not be on the premises. Count your blessings. The most essential will be invisible!