Eteri Chkadua-Tuite, a 25-year-old painter from Soviet Georgia, knows at least one difference between Americans and Georgians: the way they express their emotions. Georgians, she says, “show it in their eyes and their brows,” but not Americans: “My husband is an American, and you can never tell what he wants by his expression. With Georgians you can tell every little moment.”

Chkadua-Tuite is concerned–even preoccupied–with expressions. Her paintings are usually crammed with people and activity–figures praying or hunting or marching. Though the colors are drab–sepias, greenish browns, pale yellows–the canvases are luminous. And what draws you in most are the faces: amused or distressed or dead serious, each face is exquisitely drawn, subtle and telling, a little masterpiece of line and color.

Since her marriage three years ago to a Chicagoan, Chkadua-Tuite has divided her time between Chicago and her hometown of Tbilisi. In both cities she spends her time observing people–on trains, in the streets, in stores. Then she tries to paint what she sees. Her first one-woman show is on display this month at the Maya Polsky Gallery on Superior.

Chkadua-Tuite started painting when she was five and began studying in a private studio at 14. At 16, she was admitted to the Tbilisi Art Academy, one of five applicants admitted out of several hundred. For a while she continued to paint what she always had, in the way, she says, contemporary Soviet artists are encouraged to paint: quick (she sometimes finished in 15 minutes), impressionistic portraits, based more on her emotions at the moment than on careful study of the subject.

But a few years into the program (which took her seven years to complete), she got tired of her irrational, slapdash approach. So she began to sketch before starting to paint. Gradually, her work became more detailed and realistic. Eventually she got to the point where she couldn’t paint without a detailed preliminary sketch that laid out precise lines and shadows. Her obsession with detail meant she had to study real faces closely to duplicate them in her paintings.

She met her husband, Kevin Tuite, during her study at the Art Academy and during his nine-month term in Tbilisi as a part of a University of Chicago graduate program in linguistics. Glasnost–along with the fact that Kevin Tuite had become popular among Georgians during his stay there–made it easy for the two to marry and for Chkadua-Tuite to leave Tbilisi. Now both a Soviet citizen and a permanent resident of the U.S., she has no problem traveling in and out of Georgia.

But getting her paintings out of the Soviet Union was another story: because they were considered government property, Chkadua-Tuite and her father had to convince the government to let them buy the paintings back. “You have to make lots of documents, and the first, main document is you have to say to the government, ‘This painting is worthless,'” she says. The paintings she got back cost her father about a month’s salary.

So far, almost all of the faces in her paintings are Georgian, those she knows best. But she has used other Soviet faces; Communists, for example, was painted after a political demonstration last April in Georgia in which several demonstrators were killed. “I had never before made a political statement,” says Chkadua-Tuite, “but this made me think. I tried to think about faces, who killed these people, and who ordered it.”

And she’s beginning to understand Americans, she says. At first, Americans seemed arrogant, or “too nice.” But, she says, “I don’t want to understand people by their words, what they say. I want to understand much more deeply.”

The more she paints, the more complex her work becomes: more faces, more to see in the faces, more going on behind the faces. She often spends months on a painting now; the last time her work was exhibited (at a group show in Chicago in January), she was at the gallery the afternoon the show opened, putting finishing touches on a painting.

Her technique has invited comparisons from many observers–including Chicagoan Ed Paschke, who wrote a note for this show’s catalog–to Flemish and Dutch painting from the 15th and 16th centuries. Part of the reason is her plump, round faces and bodies, which seem to belong to a different century. Then there’s the weathered wood she uses to frame her paintings, some of it from the woodpile in her father’s backyard. Chkadua-Tuite also attributes the resemblance to her time-consuming method of applying color–layer by layer, detail by detail.

But in general she dislikes the comparison; she prefers people to consider, as she does, what’s going on behind the faces in her work. Next to some of the paintings in the exhibit, she has posted an explanation of what was going through her mind when she conceived the painting. In one note she explains that a self-portrait titled Attitude, which shows her surrounded by people with inquisitive expressions, is a reaction to the constant comparisons to the old northern European painters: “I definitely don’t want them to look like someone else’s work, but it seems they do. I painted while looking for answers.”

Chkadua-Tuite’s work is on exhibit through May 30 at the Maya Polsky Gallery, 311 W. Superior. The gallery is open 10 to 5, Tuesday through Saturday. For more information call 440-0501.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.