Art viewers accustomed to the esoteric conceptual art inculcated by today's MFA programs are thunderstruck by the generous, ambitious, spiritual oil paintings of San Franciscan Nikolai Atanassov. Brilliantly synthesizing abstraction and a fleeting, visionary figuration, he produces gemlike abstract landscapes that also read as battlefields or Last Judgments populated by teeming armies of figures that rise from the canvas and then sink back into its matrix, apparently under the magical gaze of the viewer. Born in Bulgaria, Atanassov studied classical painting techniques in art school and in private lessons with painter Mihail Kamberov before immigrating to the Bay Area a decade ago. His adamantly independent art, which only tangentially reflects his interest in Rembrandt, Vermeer, Turner, Van Gogh and Dali, aspires to the grandest of themes: man’s place in the world and the cosmos — a theme very few artists even consider in this consumerist age of fashionable irony. (How many contemporary artists cite art ancestors earlier than Duchamp?) Not all of the paintings attain these impossibly high goals, unsurprisingly, but the best of them — Mystic Lake v2, Immateriality, Beyond Imaginations, Devil’s Bridge, Celestial Light, and Through to the Light — are astonishing. (Reproductions are almost useless for conveying the effect of these very detailed, painterly images.)
One’s first take on these paintings is of richly colored allover abstraction in the “apocalyptic wallpaper” style of Pollock; DeKooning’s Excavation, with its dynamic, interlocking puzzle pieces, also comes to mind. Atanassov’s shapes, however, irresistibly begin evolving into people — hundreds and thousands of them, and the flat AbEx ground plane tilts back into the steeply tilted floor and high horizon line seen in Bosch and Bruegel; it’s the hovering vertical space of “Last Judgements.” You are transported to an impossible height; the worlds unfolds beneath you; its myriad beings take human shape under your gaze, and dissolve as your attention shifts. Instead of remaining a detached observer; however, we merge with Atanassov’s paintings; we are subsumed into them.
In The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley described the visionary state of mystics as a sensory influx of the world’s totality, usually unseen, into the normally blinkered, practical, self-protective brain. Self and ego vanish under this hallucinatory deluge. The “unremitting strangeness” of the world reveals itself; meaning and being replace space and time as our concerns; objects throb with existence, “from grandeur to deepening grandeur.” Atanassov’s paintings do not depict what the visionary saw: They make you the dazed, ecstatic mystic using a visual language that encompasses creation and dissolution, and in which time and space merge and interpenetrate.
—DeWitt Cheng, Artillery Art MagazIne, March-April, 2009