It’s not often that you get the chance to see a solo show in a commercial art gallery that exhibits such diversity, originality or skill as is seen in Alexander Ponomarev’s
Sea Stories at Calvert 22. The artist’s past life as a nautical engineer has provided him with a theme that is as rich in its variation, nuances and allusions as it is unusual as a subject matter in contemporary art practice.
The ocean has a strong history in art but Man’s relationship with it has changed drastically due to the advancement of technology. This relationship is elegantly mapped by Ponomarev. It is adopted not only as the actual subject but dually, as a way in which to tease out themes such as illusion, reality and historical or personal narratives. Almost all media are employed to accomplish this end, from video to drawing to installation and photography: all of them skilful; all of them quirky; all of them successful.
Immediately the viewer is confronted with Base, a monumental cylindrical installation filled with water and home to a wooden submarine that repeatedly travels its length back and forth only to be mechanically lifted from its submersion at either end. Its aesthetic crudity is partnered with technological sophistication. The harshness of the rusted iron and jutting out spikes that hold the taut wires is magnificently married with the ethereal nature of the water that it contains. The water itself represents these jarring contradictions. It is visually as light as a feather and its delicate dripping gives no clue to the reality of its intimidating mass and potential for destruction – particularly for those submerged in a metal tube beneath its enormous pressure. This artwork, that is art and science, aesthetics and mechanisation, injects boys’ toys with meaning and with elegance.
If you’ve got a thing for maps – which I do – Cutting of the Atlantic is a lovely collection to behold. Three large naval charts, providing an aerial mapping of the ocean’s terrain, are overlaid with profile landscapes softly drawn, counteracting beautifully with the rigidity of the diagrammatic images that form the background.
Downstairs Ponomarev reveals to us a very different side to his practice. We step from the monumental to the miniscule with Deep Water Graphics, a collection of tiny polystyrene cups decorated with ink. Their mode of display in this exhibition is extremely effective, each sitting in what appears as a floating clear Perspex box, top-lit like some minute ceramic in an ethnographic museum. They are dramatic as a collective and delicate as individuals, their tranquillity rudely (and deliberately) interrupted by the audios of the Heliotropism video work: sounds of hammering in the hollow submarine, or the shouts of Russian sailors.
Ponomarev’s work is devoid of the cheerless earnestness that weighs down so much contemporary art practice. It is playful but it is profound. This artist has adopted the role of the polymath, plying his plethora of skills through the vehicle of one theme. It is a theme that can carry the burden of many allusions and tangents; it depends on how far the viewer is willing to go. Regardless of how far that is for you, this artist is worth seeing if only for the chance to see an artist who knows who he is and what his art is. And in today’s art world, that’s always worth seeing.