tony godfrey: recent work of milenko prvacki: learning to FLOAT, or Meditating on the table
Looking at and thinking about Milenko Prvacki’s recent paintings three questions repeatedly come to mind:
What are these objects that seem to float across the canvas?
Why does he use such in-between colours, so few primaries?
What is this space, this unidentifiable place he keeps returning to?
It is these questions I will endeavor to – if not answer – refine. And in that process of questioning – in a sense, of talking to the paintings – no doubt some other questions will come up. Despite the large scale and the apparent candour with which he speaks, these are intriguing, but often elusive pictures.
Recently when asked by a group visiting his studio what his work was about, Milenko replied, “Dislocation.” He related this to me as we stood looking at his recent painting Dislocated. Several forms seem to float across its surface: a simplified boat shape, a coloured grid, a shape like a canoe with an outrigger, a vase or maybe a test tube? Assorted abstract shapes float too. The word “dislocated” is spoken below in capitals. I say spoken because it is written much as one would write a word in a foreign language that one is trying to learn and speak: dis – lo – cat – ed.
All the elements seem to have no certain location, to be flowing, or floating across the surface, touching each other when they do, at random.
Twice in his life he has had to learn a new language: firstly when he went to do his masters in Rumania, secondly when he came to Singapore in 1991 and had to learn English – his second language at school in Yugoslavia had been German. This struggle to learn a new vocabulary and grammar found an outlet or metaphor between 1997 and 2009 in an extended series of paintings and drawings (variously called The Ultimante Visual Dictionary, Visual Dictionary and Collection).
Language is about connecting: the first word you learn to say in any language is “thank you” – xie xie, terima kasih, salamat. Not so much to express a particular notion as to show good will, agreeability, to set up a good social relationship. Charles Merewether in his book on Milenko suggests that in the process of gaining a language and making these paintings the past of his life in Yugoslavia (his national identity having by now transformed been transformed via the civil war to Serbian) was made less “real”. “The result,” Merewether writes, “is a form of lexicon that serves as a surrogate for the appearance of memory.” [i] And Milenko himself wrote me that, “I have developed a system to cover up my memories. I am looking for the next step, action, work... We can't stop memories appearing from time to time, but only in context. It must be something that is happening now, though it could be related to the past.”[ii] I am not so sure that the paintings are such an act of deliberate or successful amnesia as he suggests. In art memories return in many forms, invariably transformed, perhaps as nostalgia, longing, trauma, the uncanny or just as an echo so mutated as to be no longer recognizable. I think the richness of this work is to do with the transformation of a vast store of visual memories, some of which, inevitably, carry personal associations, but which more importantly have pictorial meanings available to all.
Dislocation. Before the Nineteenth century most people never strayed more than ten miles from the house they were born in, they were rooted in a village, a kampung, a community, a landscape. Wars, famines or persecution may periodically smash up this inertia, but generally people died in the village in which they were born, or in one adjacent. Milenko has moved from Serbia to Rumania to Singapore, but as anyone who has visited him knows home-making has been important to him. He is not a nomad who is happy to live from a suitcase or yurt. This is something I personally empathize with: having lived in 23 different houses or flats so far, not including two month long stays in Portugal, Spain and Mexico where, not incidentally, I actually enjoyed the sense of being dis-languaged and experiencing my own native language more intensely in my own head, I dream of settling down.
When you are dis-languaged you experience other things more intensely: gestures, moods, tones, body language, visual shapes. If we think again of the boat shape he paints it is basic, like a child’s drawing or pictogram - or like the simplified boat in his 2004 painting Boat.[iii]
But let us return to the more recent painting and look at the other two thirds of painting: the background. Clearly unlike the shapes which have dripped copiously down the canvas, this has been painted on the floor. This surface is a complex of mottled pinks and reds, with occasional extrusions of green. It feels organic like exposed flesh or else like liquid, though maybe water but an oil that things can slide easily across. I am reminded strangely of matmos and the backgrounds in Velazquez. Matmos? It was a liquid mass, sea or lake, with a consciousness in the camp 1968 movie Barbarella. (More seriously we can think of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 Film Solaris where the surface of the oceanic planet around which the astronauts orbit is itself is consciousness. The surface in Milenko’s paintings equally, is not inert. Here we can look to Velazquez: the backgrounds in his portraits seem very mundane, empty even, until we look hard and realize how carefully modulated they are. They work on us a bit like the soundtrack in a good movie does, invisible but moving. Perhaps, also, it is in these backgrounds of Velazquez (or Vermeer) that we can sense the artist’s own personality, what Proust termed air de chanson.
Similarly if we look at the Dialogue paintings of Milenko’s early career which, as Merewether contends, were highly influenced by Bacon, we see that, as in Bacon, much of the emotional weight is carried by the background and its color modulations. If the figures or form give the melody then the background gives it orchestration or stimmung – atmosphere or mood. Or, if we want to continue such musical metaphors or comparisons, and think of music as a set of layers (it is literally so in studio recording with overdubbings) then the background is like the bass or continuo.
This shifting, floating sense of consciousness is echoed by his colours, which often seem to slide away from or between the primaries. It is also in such modulated colours that we can sense the ‘air de chanson’. Are these backgrounds, these spaces, we may ask, liminal, dusk or dawn when the primaries fade away and sleep merges into consciousness, or we slowly wake? I think so.
It may be useful to think also of geology and rock formation. In geological time the layers of the earth (strata) shift and slide across each other.[iv] The images in his drawings and paintings are like that too, laid one over one other, sliding over or occasionally meshing. This layering, this space in which things float, can be seen as a metaphor for our consciousness and subconscious, for memory and how we garner information and store it – and how it later, transformed, re-emerges. (Likewise, his interest in the early 2000s in making sculptures and constructions is, I guess, related to this – complex forms in a garden, belonging and yet not belonging to their allotted site. Geologically speaking, they were erratics – rocks or boulders formed in one region but carried in or on a glacier to a region where the stones are of another type.) So, if we think of different strata and forms as representing different types of life or experience, within this we can approach the various motifs: for instance, the sheets of paper with grids filled with numbers recall the scoresheets for “yamb” a dice and number game he plays with his wife Delia when he returns home - to relax.
One form recurs more than ever, even to the point of becoming another ground: the table for a table is at once a thing and a place – it is what we set things upon.
The table is both a thing and a metaphor: there is, he claims, no one table he has a particular fondness. A table is a good, accessible motif for his painting: we all know what it is. We could all draw one as a child, just as we could draw boats and birds.
What is a table?
It is an everyday thing, where we[v] sit as children, to learn, to eat, to write. A table is a device that gives us a platform or surface to put things upon. It is where we meet, to eat, to discuss, to negotiate – we talk of gathering round a table. As a philosophy student I was often enjoined to consider the table: would the table, I was asked, still be a table if no-one was looking at it: was there some table-ness that made it more of a table than another table? Tables matter: notoriously, the arguments between North Vietnam, South Vietnam, the Vietcong and the USA took months to begin in 1968/9 because of the disagreements about the shape of the negotiating table.[vi]
In that foundation of European culture, The Bible, tables appear regularly: It can be a promise: “Ye might eat and drink at my table in my kingdom.” Christ promises his disciples. Luke, 22.30 A sanctuary: “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” Psalms, 23. 5 It is part of the simplest room: “Let us make a little chamber… and let us set for him there a bed, and a table, and a stool, and a candlestick…” 2 Kings 4.20 (Preparing a room for Elisha.)
In Bill Viola’s seminal 1983 work Room for St John of the Cross all we see inside a small cell is a table and set on it some water and a TV monitor. A table is such a basic thing. In a rather less exalted 1992 work by the English artist Sarah Lucas Two fried eggs and a kebab she used it as a metaphor for a person, (the eggs for the breaats, the kebab for genitals and a photograph of these for the face).
Prvacki recounts how he often thinks of the table his teacher in Rumania Corneliu Baba painted in his 1969 Still life with chess table.[vii] Baba had been influenced by Spanish painting Goya and Velazquez – not the normal socialist realist painting. He talks of wanting to rethink still life in terms of the table. We have with recent scholarship understood how still life painting from Juan Sánchez Cotán and Juan de Zurbarán to Cezanne and Braque is not just decorative but a philosophical discourse on the world, objects in the world and our belonging in the world.[viii]
A table is what things are set upon: in Velazquez Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus or La Mulata in Dublin pots, vases, a garlic and a strip of folded paper. Such a provisional arrangement echoes the discussion in the background between Jesus and his disciples, a ploy repeated in his painting in London’s National Gallery Christ in house of Martha.
Milenko recently uncovered an old painting from 1997 entitled Table and realized how long he has brooded over this theme. In it a shape, simultaneously both anthropomorphic and architectural, seems to have come to rest on a precisely drawn table – the only definite object in an uncertain landscape.[ix]
We go to, we sit at a table, we pause and look down upon it. This action of go to, sit down, pause, look down and meditate is a good equivalent of how we should experience these recent paintings. It also reflects how they are made: “I don’t like Chinese painting much,” he says, “but I like the way they work horizontally, so now I do everything on the floor. I do not correct mistakes. There is no cover up.” Things float back and by, old images recur, albeit changed.
If we consider, as he requests us to, his 2014 painting Group portrait with table as a still life we can understand that a still life can have some of the scale of a history or colour field painting. A head shape moves as if in Muybridge-like sequence to the table: a ship and a tao shape (a form somehow commensurate with the table) come to rest there. A strip with jagged edges, something he sees as very South-East Asian floats in the wider space, a blue-green expanse, part-covered with broad beige strokes on the right.
This is a mental space, one where words, images and objects may float through and together, but one that cannot be described adequately in language.
Another jagged line recurs in Departure, a painting with a gentle grey-blue ground (or should we say “sea”) along with images of a ship, a porpoise, the lower half of a woman’s torso and assorted gestures that seem to be forming into shapes. (The sometime similitude of painterly gesture and gesture is important. The shapes are made from memory with paint.) Throughout my life, like may others, I have written letters but not sent them: I was not sure if they had the right tone of voice or else by writing them I had fulfilled what I needed to do: work something out for myself. They are, often, in fact, letters to myself. But I haven’t written a real letter for many years, though I do send postcards.
He writes me, ‘Unsent letter is my body of work, comprising a series of large-scale paintings, drawings and mixed-media work on paper. It was generated by reflecting and observing habits developing today while using new technology and ways of communication in contrast to the “old”, traditional way of writing letters, postcards is neglected and forgotten. People are practicing today speedy, instant and simplified exchange of information, sharing their emotions, news, and ideas in dry and standardised forms of communications using digital technology. My paintings aim to remind the viewer of contrasting aspect of archiving, documenting and expressing personal thinking, feelings, events, happenings, needs and desire against the very common daily use of computers, SMS texting or Skype, that are fast and efficient but lack a “personal touch”. ‘In my paintings and drawing I recreate the objects, shapes and marks, as “telegraphic” evidence of human traces that are embodied, hidden in daily avalanche of messages.
‘My works explore this “invisible” world of unseen, unspoken words and signs.
‘I have started it in 18th Street Art Centre Residency last year in Santa Monica.’[x]
It is a lament made by many in culture who suspect ease and speed has been gained by the new “connected world” of “facebook friending” and virtuality – but much lost. Yes, it is easier and cheaper to send an image of flowers by email than deliver a bunch of flowers personally, but it carries no scent. The new connected world seems disconnected from the physical world.
How do deal with such a rapidly changing world, practically and morally? Do we rail against it, ignore it or work with it? How do we hold on to what we believe important from the past. Where do we go? What do we pursue?
Hunting is a common metaphor for what artists do, so given that, firstly, Milenko had early in life made many paintings about hunting and, secondly, that he had a mittel-europa[xi] fondness for red meat I asked him whether he had hunted himself and whether in his year doing national service in the Yugoslav army he had been a good shot. His answer was very forthright: “Hi my dear friend,you are wrong: I never hunted. Even in the army I never used a gun. I never shot! All my work is against it and I would never ever use it, so God is my witness. No aggression ever – only sometimes against idiots (ha, ha) but even then, very kindly.”[xii] This is Buddhist like and gives a clue to the paintings: they are large and ambitious but not aggressive or ego-dominated. They are about a sense of accepting and belonging in a world that is various and all too often contradictory and discombobulated. “Only connect”[xiii] the epigraph to E M Forster’s 1910 novel Howard’s End has been a leit-motif of modernism: the need to reconnect after colonialism, the enlightenment, the industrial revolution etc. had disconnected all the supposed links of an organic, holistic society. Milenko is more contemporary in his relativism and realism: learn to live with the disconnects, learn to float, bear witness in painting and drawing to what matters and must be preserved. ___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
[i] Charles Merewether, After memory, the art of Milenko Prvacki, Singapore, 2013, p. 111. [ii] Email from artist 31.1.15. [iii] Illustrated Merewether p. 163. One may add that there is no better place in the world to observe what today’s ships look like than Singapore! [iv] The Danish painter Per Kirkeby who trained as a geologist is an interesting comparison here. [v] Perhaps we should say Europeans: the Chinese use tables slightly differently. [vi] http://www.clemson.edu/caah/history/FacultyPages/EdMoise/viet9.html [vii] reproduced in Merewether, op. cit. p. 19. [viii] See for example, Willian B. Jordan, Spanish still life in the golden age, Fort Worth, 1985; Svetlana Alpers The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century, Chicago, 1983 and Norman Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked : Four Essays on Still Life Painting. Cambridge, MA, 1990. [ix] We should also mention how in Goya’s 1799 etching The sleep of reason produces monsters we have an image of the table neglected, the pen discareded, the writer collapsed on the table asleep. The table is the emblem not just of the writer but of conscience. [x] Email from artist 31.1.15. [xi] Serbia is not traditionally considered part of Mittel Europa or Central Europe but Vojvodina the norther semi-autonomus part of Serbia which he comes from is, having been ruled by the Hapsburgs and having a large Hungarian minority population. [xii] Email from artist 30.1.15. [xiii] “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.” From E.M. Forster, Howard’s End Ch. 22.