It is sometimes said that the best paintings are those that constitute a discourse on themselves; that the most eloquent painting is the painting that carries within itself, intrinsically, the trace of its own history – of its past and its becoming.

How else should we approach the paintings of Djina Chemtov? Looking at them, how can we not think that their maker is someone who has looked a great deal and with great intensity at the work of her predecessors? How can we not imagine that we are seeing here the fruits of detailed, passionate observation of the works of Cézanne and Modigliani, of course, but also of Michel Kikoïne and Pinkus Krémègne, to mention only a few? When invited to look at Djina’s works in her Parisian studio, some hanging on the wall, others leaned against it with only their stretcher visible, yet others, on paper, waiting to be taken from their drawer, one gets the ineffable feeling that her painting has deep roots, that it would be easy to find forebears and an unconscious genealogy. 

Of course, there are some simple, even simplistic explanations for this. Six years of study at art school in Sofia, Bulgaria (where she was born) in the 1970s, followed by graduation in 1978. A first year spent drawing from plaster casts; a second devoted to living models; the third, when the young painters could at last learn how to paint in oils. These years of study were of course formative, if only because one spends the rest of one’s life trying to shake them off and bend the rules.

Then there is Djina’s mother, whose own renown as an artist no doubt – and indeed she says as much herself – impelled the daughter to try painting under other skies, further west, in a place where her patronymic was not synonymous with a recognised woman painter. 

Without a doubt, then, Djina’s painting is the work of someone who has studied and looked at painting. Interestingly enough, then, several of her works include figures that are looking – looking at us and looking at the scene at which we too are looking. These solitary men and women, or occasionally couples, sometimes face us, sometimes have their back to us. In classical painting, this kind of figure is called the “admonisher,” a notion theorised in the Renaissance by Leon Battista Alberti. The “admonisher” is the person who looks for us, who conveys to the beholder the feeling he or she is supposed to experience when looking at the picture. European art over the last five hundred years is full of such figures. Ribald Flemish paintings usually contain a ruddy-faced bumpkin, tankard in hand, gesturing or winking to persuade us to join the wassailing. Countless weepers in Entombments or Crucifixions incite us to share Christ’s suffering. Unlike them, however, Djina’s figures are neutral. Their faces are sometimes hidden and it is impossible to know what they are feeling or thinking. Passive, impassive, they encourage us to project whatever we would like to feel. They are like interfaces between us and the picture. An invitation to enter the work, to make us aware that we are facing a painting. A discourse on painting, in sum. 

Another device that implicates the beholder in Djina’s work is the frame. Not the one that surrounds the canvas, which in her case is usually in untreated wood and as neutral as can be, but the frame painted on the canvas. This strip which embeds the landscape, which surrounds the scene, closes the painting, but not always completely.

As we have known since the Renaissance, a painting is a vision of another world. Its frame is its window. Might the situation be different in the case of these painted frames? Could it be that this listel, this cartouche, incites us to project into the work? That it transports us into Djina’s dreamlike world? Clearly, it does direct the beholder’s concentration; it incites us to feast our eyes on the effects of matter, the nervous textures, the rough reliefs, which are made powerfully perceptible with the palm of the hand, the rough yet creamy relief that makes each of her paintings so inimitable. Djina handles her paintings like prints or, more specifically, like counter-proofs. No doubt she learned this method from the years she spent working with monotypes. Thus she will return to each colour proof, add nuances, tone it up, introduce highlighting. The colours are always printed on a dark ground – black or dark blue. The artist then moves towards something light. As she herself readily admits, she does not like working from a white ground. This is the base on which she deploys her tender yet mordant palette: her complex, translucent blues, at times tending towards indigo, at others towards turquoise; her ochres smothering glints of orange and gold; her ranges of green, her palettes of brown. Djina Chemtov’s colour deserves praise, for if good painting lends itself to discourse, handsome painting is ready for the gaze. And Djina’s is conducive to contemplation.

                                                               Laurent Benoist

 

Art is a lonely voyage, like thought. This is what occurs to the traveler who happens upon a room filled with Djina Chemtov's works. One is mindful of the solitude of the artist's enterprise - the solitude of the gaze lost in thought, and of windows. The painting as a window, a window into a window. The painting as the texture and eye of thought. The bright eye of thought that illuminates fields, trees, houses, the endless rooftops of cities. Many of the people in Djina Chemtov's works - although part of the painting - are turned towards the painting itself.but even when they look out, their gaze invites us to look into the world behind them. And soon we are no longer looking at fields, trees, endless rooftops; soon we are pondering the texture of what is depicted. How the painting seems to lean towards the light and greet it, and how it endures against it.That man at the window leaning carefully over the city invites us not to look at, but rather to look into what is before us. It is an invitation to lose ourselves in what is presented to us. The rooftops of Paris, Sofia, Alexandria? No, not the city, not the roofs of the cities, but to lose ourselves in the texture of what is there, the somber texture that greets the flow of light and moves with it persistently. Because there is a persistent unity in these paintings. For no matter how far the artist chooses to travel - how far inwards, how far outwards in theme and content - there is always the return to the same. But there must first be the meanderings of memory, the illusion of differences. This is necessary for there to be a return, for there to be the day - and the light - of the artist's return. To the same window of what is finally a mirror.

And how well Djina Chemtov's persistent craft conveys this. Only long years of lonely endeavor can grant the artist the power and skill to bring such things before us. Look! Trees and houses and a man leaning over the city. Look! But why do we feel compelled to do more than merely look? Why do we want to we want to fall back into the painting? Art is enduring return.

                                                                  John Monahan

 



Your eyes look beyond me to a primal splendor and shine eternity back to me darkly. Your eyes are fulgent night-blue secrets that open like a wish. Your leaning head is the tilt of the earth that sends rivers pouring into the sea. The strands of your hair are the trailing robes of meteos drifting across the galaxy.

You come in the boundary colors of morning and evening. The plains of Troy flicker within you. Above you, dawn brightens over Alexandria.

Your eyes look beyond me to the rays of a dark light and a dream that comes almost to mind in your presence. Substances, accidents gather and dissolve around your gaze. Like snow melting in sunlight. Like leaves blowing in the wind around the Sibyl's secret.

                                                                  John Monahan