The mid-1970s saw the emergence in Ljubljana of an alternative view of painting and sculpture, a different vision vis-à-vis the existence and progress of the visual arts, expressed not in individual artistic attempts but as a shared endeavor in the form of exhibitions at student cafeterias, artists’ studios and elsewhere. A circle of artists formed, meeting at vernissages and showings of new works, and through friendly talks and discussions. Artists that were relatively young at the time came to the spontaneous decision not to compete with institutionalized art or seek a place within it, but to find or create ways of presenting independent production outside the institutional framework instead.
(Perhaps typically of a small society like Slovenia, there was one leading line of canonized artists that dominated the scene, leaving little room for alternatives, with places in its groups more or less filled. Writing on art was codified and, as far as emerging progressive artists who kept in constant touch with international developments were concerned, too romanticized and sorely lacking in any firm theoretical basis.)
In the late 1970s, the ŠKUC Gallery was established, thanks above all to the efforts of Taja Brejc; three years later, the Equrna Gallery opened, founded by artists from this progressive circle and run by Taja Brejc. Personally, I did not join the Equrna Gallery, preferring to work through the ŠKUC Gallery, where I felt less defined as subscribing to a specific orientation and freer in my expression both in terms of writing and exhibiting. Our resources were meager: we worked with photocopying, Xerox, and handmade catalogues, and socialized incessantly through a variety of activities from music and visual events to panel discussions. New people kept joining us, bringing their individualist concepts to the table, making these activities ever richer and more diverse.
The thing that stands out most in my memory of the first V.S.S.D. exhibition at the ŠKUC Gallery is the various writings on the walls of the exhibition rooms. They were thoughts about life, death, the past, the present, the future, the past in the future. But the statements were cut off mid-thought and thrown into the space defined by the idea of a total work of art. It was as if the works of art were completing the sentences, as if they transited from the verbal to the non-verbal, getting lost in the cave of the black-painted room that housed the works, light, and on occasion, fire. The works were highly varied, from images of phantasmagoria, montages of the past into the present, to baked casts, wax/candles and paintings. The paintings were determined on the one hand by the processes of pouring, the formats, the paint-soaked cotton, and on the other, circular-motion imaginings. Lead, sand, baked sand, molten lead and tin. A number of forms were thus presented at the V.S.S.D. exhibitions, some of them known from arte povera, minimalism, painting as material, etc., and others, completely new and inventive. Some works were finished, others seemed provisional, as a metaphor for a painting or something rejected from the thought process. One definite V.S.S.D. invention was the spatial painting, which was neither an installation nor a painting confined within a frame. It usually consisted of an image in the sand on the floor in the middle of a room, made by hand with a characteristic pattern and covered with a layer of pigment, and continuing with other works/paintings on the walls. In my view, the prototype of a spatial painting in its pure form is Sand in Your Eyes shown in Equrna in 1991, reflecting a true fascination with the mystery of making.
I was also impressed by the youth of the two V.S.S.D. artists, who gave the impression of having lived through everything they were communicating to us, all this past, the days of yore they were evoking. I have experienced such erudition, that of a young old soul, only with certain poets (notably Rimbaud) and early Bob Dylan. After the first V.S.S.D. exhibitions we collaborated quite a lot: here, the themed issue of Problemi (Vol. XXVI, No. 9, 1988) entitled Podoba Kristal (Image Chrystal) needs to be mentioned, as it brought a philosophical interpretation of V.S.S.D.’s work to the fore. For that occasion, a group of artists, writers, and artist-writers assembled to address the relevant topics in art at the time. Also at that time, the IRWIN group was working at its creative zenith, although in relation to V.S.S.D. it is better to mention the production of Marko Kovačič. Generally speaking, artists dedicated a great deal of attention to various painting derivatives and the issues of a time that seemed watershed. A new society had not yet formed, while the old one liberated itself – and us with it – in an overt analysis and anticipation of possible futures.
Is it still true? My 1989 analysis of V.S.S.D.’s work attempted to convey the main characteristics of this artist’s work, thinking and writing, with words meant to evoke his directness and his precipitous entry into the world of art and its sacred realms. I don’t know whether this is still true, but I know it exists. Here goes:
Over the past twenty years the painting surface and the conception of pictorial space have seen considerable changes. From the pictorial field as the exaltation of critique and two-dimensionality, through its expulsion in various kinds of New Image painting, to the analysis of the scopic field, the negative method of theoretical modernism was on its way out.
The Unmaking of the Surface
Painting should always come back to being painting, precisely in order not to lose its ability to influence what is going on around it. It should come back to being painting because its mode of existence consists not in a collapsing into or onto itself, but in an open vibrating of a membrane, a continuous excitation between the state of affairs and the position of a subject, where the material and the spiritual only represent two aspects of the same order.
Viewing the painting The Unmaking of the Surface (1989, 100 × 100 cm) creates the impression of a kind of peace of the surface being shattered and the gaze unlocked precisely by means of the surface. It is asking a riddle.
A newly-found depth in the painting – here, not as the perspectival illusion with a focal point and a point of view, but depth produced by the unlimited pictorial screen and the finiteness of the surface of the pictorial plane. Paint distributed as a pulse in all directions with a hand touching its own edges. After the end of utopia, utopia. Liberated by the realization of the illusory nature of disillusion, paintings free themselves of painting as bias or as moral imperative. Instead, they become dependences and possibilities. Painting becomes a territory that does not command, but appears through the concept of the image, from the infinite depth of a flat surface. This makes it even more responsive on the one hand, and on the other, true to its orientation, wherever it goes. With V.S.S.D. it goes into space, fire, sand, photography, the object, and back out of it. It is constituted by the formulation of the painting surface and the specific status and concept of the image. Issues of beauty and the sublime are of secondary importance here, and a byproduct rather than something else. The painter has had to cling to that fragment of the real in his gesture that incessantly gravitates toward nothing, toward disappearance, in order to have the opportunity to establish a relation with the Other. Because from the depth history gazes, as do the unknown memories of strangers. Over and over, the past makes the painter a future seen.
Translated by Tamara Soban