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Rice Song by Ana Tzarev: She thinks of her work as ‘postcards for future generations.’

A few months ago, a mystery began blossoming on the streets of New York. All around town, on hundreds of hoardings, bus shelters, phone kiosks and half a dozen billboards in high-traffic areas, a simple white-on-black phrase teased passersby: “See The World Through Ana’s Eyes.” What did it mean? The sheer omnipresence of the ads suggested it was the work of a movie studio, but no forthcoming releases seemed related. Workers in offices near the billboards quizzed each other and came up blank. Amateur sleuths went online to share theories, to no avail.

Then, late last month, the stark ads were replaced with reproductions of paintings composed of bursting, wild colours, and a new tag line: “See the world through Ana Tzarev’s eyes.” Oh, well then: Mystery solved.

Wait – Ana who?

Ana Tzarev is a 72-year-old painter, and though almost nobody has heard of her, she is about to become the first person in New York – indeed, perhaps in the history of the art world – to have her work carry a price tag of a million dollars without first ever having sold a single piece of art.

The last solo artist to splash his work so flagrantly around town was the Canadian photographer Gregory Colbert, who threw up billboards of his ethereal man-and-animal-communing pictures to promote his Nomadic Museum project in the spring of 2005. But that venture wasn’t designed to sell work, at least not directly: Colbert used it to interest collectors, who were invited back to his small East Village studio for actual sales.

Tzarev is a retail animal. Born Marija Guina in Croatia, she married a fellow by the name of Robert Chandler and moved with him to New Zealand in the mid-fifties, where she raised a family and began studying dress design.

The couple opened a series of luxury department stores, where Tzarev served as creative director.

In 1987, they sold the chain and retired to Monaco and Thailand, where Marija Chandler began painting and adopted her mother’s name as an artistic pseudonym. With the proceeds from the sale of the business, their sons Richard and Christopher Chandler founded Sovereign Global Investment, where operations in emerging markets made them both billionaires.

Using a multimillion-dollar loan from Richard for start-up costs, the Ana Tzarev Gallery throws open its doors today on a prime spot along West 57th Street. The same building houses dealers including Marian Goodman, who handles Gerhard Richter, Tacita Dean and Jeff Wall. Tiffany’s and Louis Vuitton are a stone’s throw away.

The 14,000-square-feet space, which goes all the way through to 56th Street, was recently renovated for an estimated $3-to-$4-million by the architect James Harb, who has also done work for galleries, restaurants, Barney’s New York and Fendi. The gallery faces the street with a two-storey glass front, through which pedestrians can see Tzarev’s large-scale work, including a 2-by-4-metre canvas titled Annunciation, which hangs above the reception desk on the main floor. The work depicts two floating rust-coloured figures, holding masks away from their faces, against a vibrant blue background. (At $700,000 [U.S.], it is the most expensive single-canvas work in the gallery, other multipanel works are more.) Tzarev loves colours that pop: hot pinks, electric blues, surreal summertime greens.

Most of the 57 paintings in the opening show, entitled A Journey of Discovery, were executed over the last few years, and offer what Tzarev calls “postcards” from her travels around the world. There are women in African villages devastated by AIDS, a Japanese silk trader Tzarev used to patronize when she bought material for Chandler House, and Dogon dancers she saw perform on a trip to Africa.

Tzarev, who has had no formal training, cites inspiration and influence by 17th- and 18th-century Japanese woodblock print artists such as Katsushika Hokusai, Ogata Korin and Kitagawa Utamaro, but the influence of African artists and Impressionists such as Matisse is also evident.

“Ana’s work is a little more traditional, which is one of the reasons we chose this neighbourhood,” acknowledged Reed McMillan, the gallery’s executive director.

“This is just not the work you’d find in Chelsea.”

Indeed, Tzarev flouts the identity crisis that painting underwent with the advent of photography in the middle of the 19th century, seeing art as a legitimate outlet for the same sorts of stories offered on nature- and anthropology-oriented cable channels. In a published introduction to her work, she writes that the same hunger for knowledge that led Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus and Edmund Hillary to open up the world leads her “to paint more distant people and their customs, and through doing this I hope to make them familiar, not only to me, but to all who search for and delight in the differences of our combined human family.”

In an e-mail from Phuket, Thailand, Tzarev wrote to me: “Because of my travels, I developed great respect for old diverse cultures and through my art I tried to preserve them for posterity. They are postcards for future generations.”

The appearance on the scene of Tzarev has the potential to upend many art-world conventions: that artists are best introduced to the public when they are young; that they must be part of a creative community; and that the value of art stems in part from a body of critical analysis that grows around the work.

Tzarev, a canny marketer, has already self-published a series of lavish coffee-table books of her art. A monograph is planned, and a text was commissioned from the British art historian Edward Lucie-Smith, who references Warhol, Bacon, Gauguin, Pissarro and Cézanne, and compares Tzarev’s work to that of van Gogh and the German expressionists known as Die Brucke.

He writes, in part: “Ana Tzarev is a dynamic and visionary painter because she has a constant desire to get it all down, to recreate what she encounters in her own visual language. Contemporary painters have rather lost this gift, which was possessed in full measure by the Post-Impressionists and early Modernists. Her work reverts in spirit to an earlier and more heroic time.”

True enough, but the critics who are not on Tzarev’s payroll have yet to weigh in.

Simon Houpt
Globe and Mail

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