“Deity of Doubt,” an exhibition by Russian-born artist Konstantin Bessmertny, who is based in Macau and Hong Kong, is a quirky collection of works ranging from small, tarot card-inspired oil paintings to humorous and paradoxical sculptures. Taking inspiration from several periods of art history, the works in “Deity of Doubt” exist in their own conceptualized world, each foretelling some kind of bizarre and hypothetical fate. The show playfully prods viewers to contemplate hypocrisies and humors in their own lives, and offers the mystical and occult as valid forms of information.
Replicating the stylization of tarot cards enables Bessmertny to utilize several devices that reference different points in history: roman numerals, corporate symbols, symbolic pillars and famous historical figures. Surpassing chronological borders, his work exists in a fictive world that links history with fate and outcome, while visually examining the past through the lens of culture and ethics. As a lover of semiotics, and medieval and occultist language, Bessmertny’s small-scale paintings are reminiscent of 15th-century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch, whose works also depict pale, stocky and intentionally unappealing figures. Bessmertny portrays all individuals as foolish and ignorant, regardless of whether they are powerful or ordinary people. The cyclical and cynical nature of Bessmertny’s Wheel Of Fortune (2016), which shows a comical scene of four stumpy businessmen struggling to stay atop the wheel of fortune, is similar to Bosch’s The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things (1500), in that it, too, is painted from an omniscient perspective and serves to ridicule and belittle its subjects. The divisions of capitalism, satirically painted by Bessmertny, mirror the divisions between heaven, earth and hell in Bosch’s work—except that in the former’s painting, one man’s fortune rests on another’s downfall. Like a set of tarot cards, the paintings included in this show inform one another. Viewers are encouraged to look closely at its details to understand Bessmertny’s whimsical yet explicit illustrations, in which he challenges larger doctrines and complexities that hide themselves in simple binaries such as good versus evil.
However, “Deity of Doubt” does not directly focus on religion; instead it functions in an imagined, historical and sociopolitical framework that narrates a commentary about power in contemporary society. The objectification of women, a significant aspect of video-game and commodity culture, is displayed as a corrupt means of entertainment in The Star (La Estrella) (2016) and Justice (Guilty / Not Guilty) (2016). In The Star (La Estrella), a central nude figure crouches seductively amid a backdrop of fantastical illustrations that range from cutouts of historical black-and-white photographs to drawings of constellations in the sky. Playing with scale enables the artist to craft a believable space that is made up of different layers and mediums. Together, it opens up the interpretation of narratives, through which Bessmertny mocks and criticizes the silliness of such systems and structures, lampooning them for being illogical and problematic.
Other pieces in the show are clearly influenced by digital technology. Set in spaces that mimic the surreal backdrop of a video game, Strength (Abstain from Violence, Attain Nirvana) (2016) shows Louis XIV of France fighting fist to fist with a figure in a bunny suit, who is labeled “Peace & Love." The 17th-century monarch and his opponent appear as though they are moving freely as they duel in a celestial cyberspace, which is painted in warm hues of purple, orange and pink. Presented in a post-internet context, the scenes allow Bessmertny’s stories to enter a contemporary realm not bound by time or place.
Also in the exhibition are the artist’s ready-made sculptures. Ambiguous at first glance, they are the result of unconventional pairings of various elements. Queen of Hearts (French Connections) (2016), which features a gold-painted crab on which is attached two small baguettes and a pair of novelty breasts, deliberately mocks French stereotypes. Although Bessmertny’s art objects are displayed on pedestals like precious relics, their titles and compositions subvert the weightiness of their presentation, simultaneously challenging political correctness and standard historical narratives.
The charm and wit of the collection of works in “Deity of Doubt” offers a diverse exploration of Bessmertny’s visual language. His unique cull of references call into question historical and cultural norms in a reimagined context and, as such, invites viewers to consider why our world is the way that it is.