Gunalan nadarajan: constructing paintings - The works of milenko prvacki
And what is there left now to paint when every thing seems to have been painted already; when every thought and emotion that demanded the gesture of painting seem to have been exhausted or found alternative strategies of representation and expression; when paint itself has become marginal and even redundant to what is yet called, rather tenuously, 'painting'? In recent years, there have been several major exhibitions that have bravely proclaimed that painting is 'still alive', in defiance and in spite of the always-premature announcements of its 'death'; significant examples being, Painting Lab (London, 1999), Colour Me Blind! (Stuttgart, 2000), Trouble Spot: Painting (Antwerp, 2000), Painted Spaces (Melbourne, 2000) and Painting at the Edge of the World (Walker Art Center, 2001). Yves Alain Bois has suggested, "mourning has been the activity of painting throughout this (the 20th) century" and that the so-called 'returns to painting' have historically ranged from the stubbornly indulgent insistence on continuing the practice 'as it was' to radical revaluations of its fundamental methods, philosophies and materials. He has thus called for a "non-pathological mourning" that accepts our "project of working through the end again, rather than evading it through increasingly elaborate mechanisms of defense." While the framing of the history and future of painting in the language of mourning may be conceptually appropriate insofar as it responds to the recurrent declarations of its death(s), it may be more useful instead to understand why painting more than and unlike any other artistic practice has had to perform these endless resuscitations. The problem may well be in the ontological conceptualization of painting rather than in the deficiencies of its discourses and practices. Howard Halle, in his catalogue essay on the works of the photographer Andreas Gursky, suggests, "'painting' is a philosophical enterprise that doesn't always involve paint". In his attempt to understand and highlight the 'painterly' modalities of the photographer, Halle disarticulates 'paint' from 'painting' or at least suspends their supposedly necessary relationship in the practices and discourses defined as 'painting'. The works of Milenko Prvacki have always been paintings even though they have not always stuck to painting to achieve them. This most recent exhibition is an excellent example of his long-term deliberations with and elaborations of the problems of painting.
Faces and Surfaces
From his earliest works Prvacki has shown a deep concern for the problematics of painting even if they were initially inflected by a whole series of social and political concerns. The Nicolae Grigorescu Institute of Fine Art in Bucharest where he received his training was based on strict academy-style pedagogical frameworks that strongly emphasized anatomical studies. It is noteworthy that Prvacki's training included an entire year of studying anatomical structures of bones and another year focused on muscles. This anatomical training had a tremendous influence on the way he perceived and worked with objects and images. He seems to have developed a kind of 'anatomical method' towards constructing objects and images that are most apparent in many of his early works. For example, one of his earliest paintings, Pedestrian, (1974; plate 1) has almost all the different elements that have characterized his later works. The figure of a person, the individual characteristics deliberately obscured (no clothing, no distinctive facial or bodily features), passes along a zebra crossing. The figure is constructed out of a series of haphazard lines created by painted strokes of various tones that reflects one aspect of the artists' anatomical method. This method seems to involve an imaginary splicing up of an object and then reconstituting it all anew through paintings and drawings - and these reconstitutions are themselves providing the objects with a different being through a new set of constituent elements. The use of lines, continues to be one of his most characteristic tools of constructing images. His lines seem like they have haphazardly stroked over surfaces in paintings and drawings usually constructing the figures through their meaningful coincidences at different points. For example, the lines that constitute the pedestrian create a dynamic interplay with the lines of the zebra crossing in a way that makes the movement of the figure seem to be caused by the crossing rather than an intentional act of the pedestrian. For Prvacki, lines become wooden grain, muscles or striations of fur in accordance with the object he constructs. Lines themselves also have a fascinating way of constructing things insofar as they simultaneously produce density and transparency, direction and static vibration. Through these lines Prvacki has also sustained a resistance to 'cover-over' his works as he strongly advocates a certain amount of processual transparency in his works. The art work, for him, should retain the processes of creation not as completed forms but as traces that mark different temporal instances that constitute its making. The making should be apparent in the representation so that the thing and image do not become coincident but parallel presences.
Prvacki's early works, specifically between 1970-1984, namely the series of works entitled Dialogue and Trophy, were some of his most figurative and socio-politically motivated. During his student years, he worked under Corneliu Baba, a very prominent artist of his generation whose works were primarily figurative. Prvacki confesses that Baba had a tremendous influence on his early works especially with regards to his use of figures. While the Pedestrian (1974) reflected some of his painterly concerns and methodological traits, Prvacki asserts that he was also interested in showing the ways in which human intentions are subordinated to spatial and political imperatives well beyond their control. Such socio-political concerns about the disempowerment of individuals in socialist societies, is more readily apparent in his Dialogue works (1975-1979). The earliest of his dialogue works entitled Where we are?, (1975/6; fig.1) shows two seated figures, again with their individual characteristics obscured. This purposive fuzzing over of the characteristics of his figures is not merely a reference to a certain 'facelessness' of individuals that Prvacki was commenting on but rather also reflective of his concern for the problematics of painting than to the figure per se. The painting is compositionally symmetrical, a feature peculiar to many more of his dialogue works, seemingly instantiating a dialogic relationship between the figures. However, the figures themselves are merely looking towards us the viewers rather than engaging in a discussion or dialogue. Prvacki was concerned then about the ways in which socialist societies were frustrating dialogues between people since everyone was extremely cautious about what they were speaking to others and therefore, he says, "talking without saying anything." His other works, a drawing entitled Inaudible Dialogue (1977; fig. 2) and Introduction in Dialogue (1979; fig. 5) were also commentaries on the inability of people to communicate within socialist societies, where dialogue did not necessarily involve one in effectively communicating but in merely deferring it. The symmetrical composition coupled with the boxed structures that appear to trap the 'speakers' in their own spaces further exacerbated sense of the difficulties in engaging in a dialogue. His ideas about these frustrated dialogues were also tempered by his readings of the existentialist writings of Kafka, Camus and Sartre. Sartre's notion of 'Hell is the Other', where the relationship with others is characterized as risk of one's subjectivity, had understandably taken on ominous interpretations in socialist societies. In an interesting gesture of optimism, his work Dialogue with Reciprocal Contentment (1978; fig. 3), veers away from the symmetrical structure and depicts two figures inching their way out of a boxed in structure. The reciprocal contentment of these figures, the artist seems to be indicating, is in their escaping the structural constraints of their dialogue. Prvacki's other works of this period are also littered with socio-political commentary on a number of issues peculiar to socialist societies, specifically Yugoslavia. For example, Hero (1977; fig. 4) presents a figure seated with his legs stretched on a table, as a piece of meat hangs over his head. The almost comical depiction mocks the notion of a hero as a sturdy, almost superhuman figure who stands larger than life over mere mortals by creating a visual parallel between the seated hero and the meat. This concern to mock and disrupt the notion of heroism as he perceived its operations in Yugoslavia was carried out in a series of works he entitled Trophy. It is noteworthy though before embarking on this discussion to highlight the influence of Francis Bacon in his works of this period. Prvacki saw an exhibition of Bacon in Paris in 1977 and this seems to have had quite an impact on his painterly methods and concerns during the period immediately following this encounter. As was noted earlier, the image of the hero paired with that of a piece of meat seems to have to been one of the first works that reflects the influence of Bacon. In fact one of the last works in the Dialogue series, Introduction in Dialogue (1979; fig. 5) seems to be the closest reference to Bacon. In addition to the subtle citation of the latter's painting methods, the references to Bacon are especially evident in the depiction of the figures in suits and one of them with a tie, features characteristic of Bacon's figures. The Trophy paintings that Prvacki worked on subsequently provide further instances of this influence as well as his movement beyond it.
The Trophy paintings extend his socio-political concerns with rituals and symbols of heroism, especially those exemplified by the Yugoslavian leader, Tito. Prvacki sought to comment on the ways in which leaders aspired towards and symbolized their claims to leadership through acts of heroism. One of the most conspicuous ways in which socialist leaders of the Eastern bloc displayed their claims to hero status was through hunting and the trophies earned therefrom. The Trophy paintings were first begun as a means to mockingly comment on these practices. For example, Duck-Trophy (1979; fig. 6) is one of the earliest works of the Trophy series. The painting retains the symmetrical composition of the Dialogue series with the figure of a duck in the middle with various kinds of devices and bullets used in duck hunting placed on either side. A target sign, used for target identification in the viewfinders of guns, somewhat comically centralizes the duck as image. The next major work in the series, Fur-Trophy (1979; fig. 7) continues this critique of heroic rituals of animal sacrifice for personal glory. The large format painting has a fur of a dead animal stretched across the canvas again with the target sign in the middle. While there are the obvious references to Bacon's carcass paintings, it is crucial to note that the artist's fur works are informed also by the careful study of similar works of Rembrandt and Soutine. The painting is especially interesting in that it has, in addition to raising issues of hunting and its relationship to heroism, transformed the animal's fur into a painterly elaboration and construction of surfaces.
In a subsequent series of paintings presenting furs, Prvacki embarks on what must surely be one of the most sophisticated studies of surfaces. In the work, Instruction (1979; plate 2), there are three panels integrated into a single work. Two of the panels depict the fur and another the underside of the skinned animal's body. The third panel, has extended instructions on how to skin the animal handwritten in paint. The work is a very good example of the anatomical method of the artist referred to earlier. Prvacki seems to be initiating an ethical discomfort with the anatomical splicing of the animal by implicating the viewer as voyeur in the animal's appropriation even as he presents the entire thing as a painterly study of surfaces. In a similar vein, Ham-document from Ecka (1980; plate 3), documents two kinds of pork pieces, simultaneously evoking associations with anatomical labeling as well as manuals for butchering. In other works, Trophy-furs (1981; plate 4) and Fur-Trophy (1981; plate 5) the conspicuous similarities between painted canvases and furs of dead animals stretched across are highlighted. The serial presentation of the different furs through a number of drawings and paintings are employed by the artist to indicate the very differences between the furs by using different methods of constructing them as surfaces. The differences between the animals are articulated through the differences in their surface textures and colours; deliberate effects of the ways they were constructed as surfaces by painting rather than as taxidermically correct depictions. The art historian Barbara Stafford points out that the Greek term for colour, chroma, is closely associated with notions of surface insofar as colours were thought to "lie or float on the tops of objects." (Stafford, 286) Prvacki's presentation of the differences between the furs as surfaces constructed out of colours capitalizes on some of these etymological and aesthetic associations. The serial presentation of the different furs as if they were collections which had to be classified in accordance not with their species but as painterly surfaces is also an important conceptual starting point for some of his later works on the visual dictionary insofar as they reflect his concern to create a visual language to construct the world. These early studies of objects through surfaces and depths as constructed entities either through painting or drawing are a useful basis for an understanding of his later work. Prvacki was reflecting in these early works some of his most enduring concerns. What is an object and what is an image of an object? What distinguishes them when the reference points are visual? Is not construction more than simply seeing the world and its entities rather a way of making them appear in particular ways? Is it not then an interesting way to think of the way we make the world not simply as an image but as things?
However, before one moves on to understand and elaborate on the ways in which objects, words and things intersect in his later works, it would be useful to provide a brief excursus of the transition of his works from the fur trophies to trophy landscapes (referred to in the essay in this volume by Jasna Tijardovic Popovic) and most importantly his physical transition from Yugoslavia to Singapore and of how it affected his works. As Popovic's essay comprehensively documents and discusses Prvacki's Trophy landscapes there is no need to elaborate on or duplicate it here. However, it is noteworthy that, in addition to the expressionistic tendencies Popovic notes to operate in these works, the Trophy landscapes were initially concerned with commenting on the way leadership is exemplified not only by hunting trophies but by territorial acquisitions presented as trophy landscapes. The early nineties saw the initial stirrings of what was to become exacerbated as the Balkan crisis later and it is no surprise then that Prvacki's social concerns about territorial expansions crept into his works. Prvacki came to Singapore in 1992 and after some short term commissioned works here he decided to permanently move to Singapore after being offered a job at the LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts in 1994. The transitional phase of his adjustment to Singapore both as socio-cultural space and as a space for creating art was characterized by a continuation of his trophy landscapes with differences in the use of colours (he initially tended to use a range of vibrant colours as opposed to the grays he was used to), forms (tended to be more differentiated and free) and composition (which tended towards multiple and overlapping points of activity). However, towards 1995 new images, specifically images that he identified with his homeland like churches, containers, saws and roofs began appearing in his works as isolated objects and sometimes as serially differentiated objects. These paintings, the Home series (circa 1995-1996), constitute a relatively short but significant phase of his oeuvre. These paintings were primarily large-format with highly nuanced monochromatic surfaces and a variety of objects presented via contrasting hues against these surfaces or in compartments separated from the monochrome background. The striking similarities between Trophy Painting (1995; fig. 8), one of the last works referring to trophy, and Home (1995; plate 11) in terms of some aspects of composition, movement and choice of colours suggests that Prvacki had conceived them as parts of a continuous body of works even if expressing different concerns. The Home series is Prvacki's most nostalgic and therefore made with a strong sense of emotional investment, though such feelings are seldom readily apparent in the works themselves. For example, Home (1995; plate 10) has an essentially monochromatic background spotted with red dashes that create a dynamic movement around a central figure that Prvacki identified as an abstracted image of the church in his hometown, Vojvodina. This image appears in many of his other Home paintings and it is noteworthy that the artist has confessed that it represents one of the most enduring images that trigger memories of home. At the bottom of the painting a portion of the canvas that is painted in extremely light tones presents the same generic image of the church constructed in various ways. This image multiplication is no mere duplication but mnemonic differentiation suggesting that the image proliferates well beyond what it represents. Such differentiations articulate the phenomenological differences between image and object and between memory and its referents.
Words, Images and Things
The series of works broadly entitled The Ultimate Visual Dictionary constitutes Prvacki's most philosophically sophisticated attempts to dwell upon the problematics of painting. And what does the dictionary say the dictionary is, for is not a dictionary - "that which is said" - from the Latin roots dicere and dict - not simply said and to be neglected but that which "dictates" - that is "commands what is and can be said" in terms of predetermining and prescribing meaning. Despite deriving its "authority" from the voice, that is from 'the spoken word', the dictionary is really a written document and its capacity to dictate meanings to / of words derives from the fact that it has through writing achieved (or at least attempted to achieve) a relatively fixed association between a word and its possible meanings. The dictionary is thus a prescriptive document - it pre-scribes; that is, it "writes-before", any particular use of a word, certain semantic values to that word that predetermine even if not its actual uses at least of the semantic parameters of its usage. And this prescription of meanings to words is almost always arbitrary. For example, there is nothing inherently "chair-like" in the word "chair", that makes it more appropriate a word for that "legged thing one sits on" than let's say, the word "hair. And it seems that words submit better to this arbitrary prescription of meanings to their phonetic (sound) and morphemic (graphic) manifestations than do images. And it is noteworthy here that the history of writing informs us that the first writing systems were 'imagistic' where an analogical and/or very often symbolic relationship was established between a thing and the image used to refer to it. It is interesting that writing has developed towards greater abstraction and greater arbitrariness in its relationship to the things it refers to. It is in the light of this arbitrariness of its referents (reference) that one needs to see the role of the dictionary. The dictionary in its prescription of the semantic parameters of words converts this arbitrary relationship between word and thing into a seemingly necessary one.
A visual dictionary, as that posited and developed by Prvacki then, in some sense is a purposeful contradiction insofar as the semantic ambiguity of the image (though not necessarily to its analogical object of reference) opposes it to the dictionary's project of prescribing relatively unambiguous meanings. The dictionary reflects an intolerance of ambiguity in its constant striving toward disambiguation - whereby the possibilities of a word either in terms of intended meanings or derived meanings are distinguished and clarified to an extent that makes articulations outside these parameters difficult. All things are inherently ambiguous insofar as they do not contain or manifest meanings by / in themselves. As such, the fact that words enjoy lesser ambiguity than images is not a result of some intrinsic differences between them but more a result of specific historical and cultural conditions. Given the cultural tolerance of the ambiguities of the image (and a resulting underdevelopment of visual literacy), a visual dictionary instantiates a critical revaluation of our relationship not just to images but also to words and to things in the world.
Collection, classification and a sense of control (even if fictive) seem to be paramount motivations in compiling dictionaries. Walter Benjamin suggests that there is an active impulse in humans to collect (what he calls, in German, sammeln) which serves to order our experiences since collection implies a selective ordering through valuation and choice. The dictionary collects words and its 'current' meanings and orders them alphabetically. However, the alphabet does not offer itself as a better system of classification as opposed to other thematic orders. One of the arguments posed in lexicographical circles is that the alphabetical order is neutral and therefore more objective than other systems. The question here is not why it is deemed more neutral but why neutrality is an issue at all. Neutrality or some semblance of it seems crucial to the objectivity and therefore authority of the dictionary. However, such neutrality and objectivity mystify and distort the fact that the dictionary is a cultural and political construction of meaning. The value of a visual dictionary is that it does not and cannot purport to be a value-free document collected and classified through objective categories. In fact, its worth is exactly in providing images that retain the tension between subjective investment and its systematic classification.
The collection replaces origin with classification - for the time and original moment of the work is erased since the collection reinstitutes a new temporal and spatial context for meaningful engagements with these artefacts. Susan Stewart, in her On Longing: Narratives of The Miniature, The Gigantic, The Souvenir and the Collection suggests that collections exemplify an "impulse to remove objects from their contexts of origin and production and to replace those contexts with the context of the collection". Every collection thus enacts a replacement of the narrative of production with the narrative of collection and the replacement of the narrative of history with the narrative of the individual collector. Jacques Derrida presents an excellent account of the archive (a concept intrinsically related to the notion of collection) in his Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. He argues that an archontic function is operational in the institutionalization of an archive and conceives its operations to be topo-nomological - meaning that the archive needs to be "deposited somewhere" (topologically) in some "stable substrate" as well as be "at the disposition of a legitimate hermeneutic authority" (with nomological legitimacy) to prescribe its meanings within this "consignation". And it is thus that he claims that "every archive...is at once institutive and conservative." Georges Bataille argued, "the dictionary represents an illusion of totality, of an immobile order of things, of harmony. It seems to exhaust the universe and the lexicon." The dictionary's authority derives from its purported comprehensiveness, that is the dictionary needs to be complete in its collection and classification of words and their meanings (both possible and actual) so much so that it cannot be surprised. However, the task of a dictionary, whether textual or visual, is really never complete for use of a word or image precedes its documentation in a dictionary format. Therefore, though a dictionary can prescribe, it cannot entirely preempt the particular uses (and slippages) of a word or image. This means that a dictionary is 'always-already' outdated. There is therefore no 'ultimate' dictionary as every dictionary insofar as it is bound between covers closes itself from the world in which that language it tabulates is actually and potentially used. The 'new', whether in terms of novel usage of an old word or in terms of a fresh coinage, perpetually problematizes and thereby postpones the 'ultimate' dictionary. The challenge of a dictionary thus is not so much to be comprehensive (as it is at best a fiction) but more so to show the complex operations of any language that defy easy closure of meaning and interpretation. It is the task of a (responsible?) dictionary to encourage a non-fetishistic relationship to meaning that opens the space for different interpretations.
Prvacki's paintings and the images from The Ultimate Visual Dictionary systematically explore the different permutations, articulations and slippages of a (his) visual language in a manner that is non-prescriptive and that retains a semantic ambiguity that empowers the viewer even as it elicits empathy. This retention of ambiguity is subversive of the prescriptivism of the dictionary and is more reflective of the dynamics of usage that actually determines the semantic operations of any language. The ways a language is used constantly negotiates and even exploits this essential ambiguity of things to proliferate different meanings and interpretations. Prvacki's images are though seemingly distinct entities, really porous and fluid. His images change over time - objects framed as one thing in one of his paintings are in another work, framed with minor modifications, as a different thing; now a saw, later the roof of a house. His images are non-specific, for the same image is both stone, fruit and sea-scooter. The distinctions that are deemed so crucial to the word-dictionary are openly transgressed in this visual dictionary where nothing is stable - where everything flows into and mutates with everything else. Every category is leaky.
Moreover, Prvacki's visual dictionary does not pretend to be a neutral and objective account or classification of images. His grandfather's saw, a ring of fire used in circuses, a pattern drawing, mangrove roots, animal fur, a scissor grip, bull's horn are some examples of images he has employed. Though drawn from various points in his life with varying emotional and intellectual values associated to them, these images are cross-fertilized through his use. He draws out certain visual parallels or thematic continuities between them and allows them to feed into each other. The resulting visual permutations reflect dynamic tensions between the subjective valuations and critical analysis that constructed them without subordinating one to the logic of the other.
Finally in de-scribing his works as "The Ultimate Visual Dictionary" and more importantly in repeating this gesture Prvacki subverts the notion of 'ultimacy", for the 'ultimate' is non-repeatable; repetition makes every earlier and later gesture 'penultimate', i.e. "that-before-the-ultimate". In fact, 'ultimacy' with its connotations of completion and finality is far from what he strives toward in painting. It is more accurate to characterise his works as necessarily penultimate gestures in the critical exploration of the possibilities of visual language. Prvacki has continuously incorporated new images into his works in addition to rejuvenating and mutating earlier ones. This constant attempt to explore rather than to confidently declare completion helps him not just to update but also to perpetually reinvent his visual dictionary.
In his later elaborations of the visual dictionary, however, some of the drawn and painted objects have been realised as three-dimensional objects installed directly onto the wall and even the paintings have increasingly incorporated the very materials that the objects are constituted by (e.g., sand, bitumen and soil, etc.). His exhibition entitled Collection (1999; fig. 11), consisted of objective realizations of his painted and drawn images where the objects themselves were fabricated to mimic his images. In a classic inversion of the representational paradigm where the image was made to mimic objects in the world, Prvacki has made the objective world conform to an image; an image which even if derivative from some objective reference has through the visual permutations become an image per se. It is almost as if the drive to visualize the objective world has led to a return to that objective world as the best visualization of itself. The ultimate image of an object after all must be the object itself. Or is it?
Brickyards and Beehives
This exhibition, Construction Site, is an extension of his previous works insofar as it focuses on a particular aspect of this exploration of representation, specifically, construction. The exhibition consists of recently completed paintings and a number of sculptural installations that deliberate on some of the issues dealt with in the paintings. The act of construction is quintessentially creative in that it brings forth and systematically builds up something that would have otherwise remained unrealized. In this exhibition, Prvacki employs the notion of construction, with explicit references to the physical acts of building associated with architecture, through a series of paintings, drawings, object-sketches and large sculptural objects. He seeks to transform the exhibition spaces into one large construction site where various processes historically associated with building like bricklaying, carpentry, metalwork, mudpacking and weaving are employed in constructing a variety of objects, paintings and drawings. In making these works transparent exemplars of the very processes, philosophies and materials of construction, Prvacki seeks to articulate a renewed fascination with / for the creative act as not just one of re-presentation but of active construction.
In his The Four Elements of Architecture, architect and historian Gottfried Semper, argues that architecture has historically evolved from and responded to four different industrial arts, namely ceramics, carpentry, masonry and weaving. He argued that the central hearth derived its forms from the heat and fire associated with ceramics and metalwork, while the enclosure drew on the fundamentals of weaving, the roof from skills of carpentry and the terrace or mound from masonry. In fact, he is most famous for his speculation that weaving and wickerwork were crucial skills for the primary architectural gesture of enclosure, namely the wall. He pointed out that the "German word Wand (wall)…acknowledges its origin. The terms Wand and Gewand (dress) derive from a single root. They indicate the woven material that formed the wall." According to him, the first enclosures were hanging carpets, in all their decorative splendour, that constituted the spatial boundaries of a dwelling. He claimed thus that the painted and glazed walls one associates with ancient architecture were in fact derivatives of the textures and colours of these early carpets that were later replaced by the stone wall. In a slightly problematic extension of this argument he even goes so far as to say that "(H)anging carpets remained the true walls, the visible boundaries of space. The often solid walls behind them were necessary for reasons that had nothing to do with the creation of space; they were needed for security, for supporting a load, for their permamence, and so on." It is important to note from Semper's argument that he conceived of architecture as a primarily artistic act of constituting spaces where the pragmatic needs of dwelling are not unimportant but incorporated via its aesthetic articulation. It is not surprising then that Semper draws on the historical association of architecture with dressing (Bekleidung) to present a strong argument for the polychromatic painted surface (in contradistinction to the monochromatic, primarily white, surface characterizing modernist architecture propagated mainly by Loos and Le Corbusier). He notes that the ancient buildings in continuity with the colourful hanging carpets had initially painted their walls in elaborate colours. However, "antique polychromy lost its historical basis once the wall's material and construction recovered their high artistic value with the Romans. No longer were material and construction features subordinate features hidden behind a partition wall (Scheerwand), merely serving; they began to create form or at least to influence it." In accordance with Semper's argument, the historical relationship between architecture and painting may be much more fundamental than one has been led to believe in more recent times. The painted surface simulates and refers to its historical association with the wall even as it recovers its own complex historical association with weaving. It may well have been that painting has obscured or forgotten its relationship to architecture through its own refusal to acknowledge its historical debt to weaving. The relegation of weaving to decorative arts in contradistinction to modernist notions of art, embodied most concretely by painting, seems to have further exacerbated this historical schism between painting and weaving and therefore with architecture.
Prvacki's works for the Construction Site exhibition exemplify, complicate and extend the associations between painting and architecture. In his most ambitious work ever Prvacki has created three large outdoor sculptures that look like three large beehives. Each of these large 'beehives' is a deliberation on the various industrial, material and technical developments associated with the history of construction. The sculptures have various levels that are constituted by materials like bricks, wicker, cement, concrete and wood. Semper's argument about how architecture has been historically associated with the industrial arts of ceramics, carpentry, masonry and weaving is instantiated as levels in each of these constructions. In a recent book, The Beehive Metaphor, Juan Antonio Ramirez, examines the beehive as a central metaphor in the architectural works and ideas of Gaudi (especially his Palacio Guell), Mies van der Rohe, Peter Behrens, Bruno Taut and Le Corbusier. The intricate structure of the beehives coupled with their enunciation of complex social behaviours in its building and inhabitation, Ramirez argues has served to fire the architectural imagination of the twentieth century. Prvacki draws not only on this metaphorical role of the beehive in architectural history but also the rich personal associations that the beehive has for him. He comes from a family of beekeepers, where the beehive and all its attendant activities were commonplace. The beehive as a memory had been triggered by the sight of a brickyard during his trip to Rajasthan, India in 2000. The formal similarities between the brickyard and the beehive had become a strong impetus for his extensive explorations of the history of construction. The sheer size of the three beehive sculptures, coupled with the meticulous detail that has gone into the production of each layer as well as the complex methods the artist has explored to draw them together in a seamless yet readily apparent manner make them palpable references to the history of construction. It is noteworthy that one of the paintings in the Construction Site series, Beehive (2001; fig. 13) depicts two beehive-like structures that are constructed in manners that both simulate and obscure the relationship to the original object. While one simulates the beehive through what seem like the interlaced structure of weaving the other simulates the form by a skeletal frame. The relationship of the images to the original or real thing does not seem to matter as the viewer shuttles between visual visual cues and the title languishing in an indecisive reckoning with the painting.
In yet another reference to the various materials that have been instrumental in the history of construction, Prvacki has created an indoor installation of seven large sculptural pieces. For this installation, the artist has identified seven materials used in the construction industry and built individual corridor-like structures with them. There are structures made out of zinc plates patched together to create a shiny cladding; two finely finished wooden blocks pieced together; plywood sheets layered one over the other; a concrete block; a fiberglass mould; a metal frame construction with glass panels; and a skeletal metal frame construction. The fact that the corridor-like structure is derived from a recurring image of a saw in one of Prvacki's paintings as well as from construction he saw during a trip to Rajasthan, India is noteworthy. As was indicated earlier the distinctions between created images as well as between images and actual things are constantly transgressed and complicated in Prvacki's works. Just like his grandfather's saw in one painting becomes an image of home or a church in another, there is no surprise in these images that have been transformed and revised in painting becoming actual objects. The transition from a thing to its image and then from the image in a painted form to its creation as a thing complicates the differences between representation and reality in ways that makes their disarticulation almost superfluous.
In addition to these sculptures, this exhibition features some of his largest paintings to date. These paintings explore notions of construction by creating painted spaces that explore issues in painting as in architecture. The large-format paintings (300cm x 400cm) are especially important in highlighting the tensions between painting and architecture in Prvacki's works. For example, Brickyard (2001; plate 61), de-picts a brickyard which Prvacki saw in India. Unlike previous paintings of similar titles (and this practice of having similar titles is itself a subterfuge of representation) this painting does not maintain the formal similarities to the brickyard with its enclosed circular structure. The references to the brickyard here are by way of the structural qualities, specifically the serial and concentric lining of bricks as well as by the scattered flashes and ring of fire. This association between fire and architecture is an archaic one insofar as some of the earliest theorizations of the origins of architecture make reference to the role of fire. Both of the foundational texts on the history of architecture, De architectura by Vitruvius and De re aedificatoria by Alberti, have conceptualized the role of fire in the origins of architecture as crucial though with some slight differences. Vitruvius conceives fire as fundamental to the very congregation of individuals into social groups and thus forming the basis for fixed dwelling. Alberti, however, sees the development of the roof and wall as the earliest gestures that constituted architecture, even though he does acknowledge the role of fire in providing the basis for sedentary social life and therefore of constructed dwellings. Luis Fernandez-Galiano in his Fire and Memory: On Architecture and Energy, argues that the "thermal space of the bonfire is no less architectural than the visual space of the hut." While by this it could be postulated that the role of fire in the development of architecture is fundamental, it would be useful to note that fire is also constitutive of architecture in a different way. Fire also effects the transformation of materials to make them suitable for architectural purposes. Fernandez-Galiano states this architectural relationship to the energy implied in fire thus: "Architecture can be understood as a material organization that regulates and brings order to energy flows; and simultaneously and inseparably, as an energetic organization that stabilizes and maintains material forms." The constant juxtapositions of fire with buildings and structures found in Prvacki's paintings serve as interesting reminders of the structural and functional continuities between fire and architecture. While it is noteworthy that the fire references in his paintings derive from a variety of sources, like the ring of fire is a circus he remembers, and the bush-like clumps of fire are bush fires he witnessed on his trip to Kakadu in Australia, Prvacki's paintings free-associate these images that rhizomatically connects up to these multiple histories and meanings.
Yet another interesting enunciation of the relationships between painting and architecture is in the way these large paintings create a sense of spatial immersion even while retaining a sense of their presence as paintings. For example, when confronted by one of these paintings constructed through an interlacing and complication of spatial coordinates and cues, one gets a sense of being engulfed and immersed in it. The fact that the paintings are almost wall-size without quite covering it enhances this feeling of immersion even as they betray the illusion. For example, Staircases (2001; plate 64) presents an almost Piranesian environment of staircases leading up to and from nowhere such that the viewer is caught in a continuously truncated spatial experience that immerses by confusing. Most apparently, Prvacki alludes to the connection between painting and architecture by constructing the background of his paintings as woven structures. Almost all the paintings in the Construction Site series, especially the large format ones, have backgrounds that mimic the structure of woven fabric. Upon this fabricated ground further elements are layered and interwoven in ways that sometimes present it as mere ground and at other times draws it into the weave of these elements. Semper has argued that ancient Greeks painted their walls in an attempt to conceal the structural support of the wall. By painting these walls they become reconstituted as aesthetically and socially relevant aspects of lived space instead of remaining as constant reminders of their mere instrumentality. Semper claimed, "the denial of reality is necessary if form is to emerge as a meaningful symbol, as an autonomous creation of man". Thus, the reclamation of the wall as meaningful experience rather than as mere materiality depends according to him on the denial of its material aspects. The painted wall is however different from the painting as wall. It is suggested that Prvacki's paintings, in simulating the woven fabric, reenacts what Semper sees as the historical role of painting as surrogate textile. However, there is one big difference - Prvacki's paintings also function as surrogate walls insofar as they simulate the structural and spatial experiences of the wall. And by becoming "almost-wall", his paintings remind us of the historical disarticulation of painting from the wall to the easel and the frame.
Until the fifteenth century paintings were still circumscribed within the iconic tradition of divine representations and as such the notion of seeing paintings as planar imitations of the visible had not happened. It was in that century of the Baroque that the notion of a frame-window became popular. Paintings were framed as windows through which the visible came to presence. This was especially the case in fresco and manuscript illumination where the frame was painted upon the work of art. It was during this period too that the frame-window seemed to naturalize as a representational convention. In these early days when the frame had still not adequately defined its relationship to painting as such, there was a great degree of seepage between the repesentational space of the painting, its frame and the setting that supported the framed painting. There were many paintings that had 'leaky frames' which let through the representational scenes of the paintings to invade the space that surrounded it. There was constant play at the borders / limits of the spaces the frame demarcated - that is, between the representation space and presentation space. The Classical and Neoclassical period saw a certain consolidation of the frame's limits around the painting. The frame started becoming a straightforward border between the work and the rest. The illusions of the representational space of painting were explicitly conceded in both the production and aesthetic reception of paintings. It is very often considered to be the key period that enacted the circumscription and closure of the representational field from the rest of the world. It is useful to think of this closure of the frame as also in a way consolidating the divide between art and reality. Jacques Derrida in his essay, "Living On: Border Lines" writes of the difficulties of sustaining borders between texts and the world as such in contemporary culture. In this text he states, "all those boundaries that form the running border of what used to be called a text, of what we once thought this word could identify, i.e., the supposed end and beginning of a work, the unity of a corpus, the title, the margins, the signatures, the referential realm outside the frame, and so forth" have all been subject to a sort of "overrun (debordement) that spoils all these boundaries and divisions and forces us to extend the accredited concept, dominant notion of a 'text'." The text is "henceforth no longer a finished corpus of writing, some content enclosed in a book or its margins, but a differential network, a fabric of traces referring endlessly to something other than itself, to other differential traces." What he says of the text is also true of painting with reference to its frames and borders. Prvacki's paintings, insofar as they straddle between "becoming-wall" and "becoming-painting" without being neither provide a useful way of rethinking the ontology of painting. As was stated earlier, painting is a means to make sense of and (re)construct the world and this does not necessarily have to be a result of working with paint or within conventions recognized as painting. The most radical response to the continual announcements of the death(s) of painting, may be to, as Prvacki's paintings do, go beyond the frame(s) of painting.
Gunalan Nadarajan is an art theorist, curator and writer who has written and lectured extensively on contemporary art, architecture and cyberculture both locally and internationally, including a book, Ambulations in 2000. He is also corresponding editor to Contemporary and contributing writer to Flash Art and Moscow Art Magazine. He has curated several major exhibitions including Topographies (1998), Ambulations (1999), Cyberarts: Intersections of Art and Technology (2001). He is involved in several ongoing research and curatorial projects in contemporary painting, curatorial strategies, architecture, art and biology, robotic arts, net interfaces, and gaming.
Gunalan is the Dean, Faculty of Visual Arts, LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts, Singapore.