Veš slikar svoj dolg (V.S.S.D., Painter Do You Know Your Duty) was the name of a tandem of artists Janez Jordan and Alen Ožbolt; remaining individually anonymous, they conceived V.S.S.D. as an independent entity (also expressing themselves in the first person singular in interviews and texts), as an “expanded subject” transcending with its collective anonymous work the “autopoetics” prevalent in art at the time, particularly in painting. The two artists began working together in 1983 producing street graffiti; their first public presentation came in 1986 with the now iconic exhibition at the Škuc Gallery Veš slikar svoj dolg (Painter Do You Know Your Duty), a title they subsequently adopted as their name. V.S.S.D. was active between 1985 and 1995, when the collaboration came to an end and V.S.S.D. ceased to exist as an artistic subject.

V.S.S.D. presented a new, radically different approach to the concept of a work of art from the outset. This was evident on many levels: in the unconventional take on the media of painting and sculpture, clearly leaving behind the long-lasting modernist considerations related to the limits of a medium and its autonomy; in the artwork being determined by the place and time of its presentation; in the art work/act being an intense, total perceptional and bodily experience; and especially in the relation between image and nature. A V.S.S.D. work was a total work of art, Gesamtkunstwerk, also described as a total environment, or later more often as a spatial painting. In it, V.S.S.D. took over the entire exhibition space as the field of the creative act, staging a spectacular scene in a vast array of diverse techniques and materials (paintings on a variety of supports, sand, clay, wax, broken glass, pigments, wrought iron, cast metal, cotton wool, cobwebs, spray paint, fire…), a space saturated with an unpredictable “iconography” that the viewers entered as a metaphorical borderline space between nature and image, or the natural environment and its deliberate simulation, reality and illusion, mirror image and the distortion of the image.

This kind of expression was centrally marked by anamorphosis, a deceptive, distorted, evasive image that can, under certain conditions, nonetheless be seen as correct, true, real, communicative. However, there is a twist in V.S.S.D.’s use of anamorphosis: there actually is no point of view that would bring together the chaotic, decentered “spatial painting” and give it a definable meaning. The image is a conglomerate of myriad effects, perspectives and impressions breaking up and rearranging the view from the combinations of countless meanings without some central point that could bestow a pacifying sense to the whole. V.S.S.D. gave its works and projects enigmatic, ambiguous titles, and wrote accompanying texts to the exhibitions that were not interpretations of the works, but autonomous material, albeit interdependent with the artworks. The special place occupied by text, its extraordinary significance in V.S.S.D.’s oeuvre, is also specific of the artist, as is the nature of the texts: highly unusual, verbally saturated, overflowing, like some blasphemous catechisms about art and last things (a selection of them was published in The Word of a Painting (Book): (Selected) Words, Statements, Texts 1984–1995).

This concept of a work of art coincided with the postmodernist paradigm of art and all that it entailed (decentering of the subject, failure of great ideas and master narratives, the simulacrum theory). In terms of its innovative expansion of an artwork to encompass the exhibition space, it was an early manifestation of the global phenomenon of spatial or installation art in our region.

The most outstanding projects/exhibitions V.S.S.D. presented in its slightly over a decade of work include V.S.S.D. II (1987/88, Škuc Gallery), The Painting of a Painting (1990/91), Sand in Your Eyes (1991), The Anatomy (Anamorphosis) of Flame (1991/92), Red Sea (Red Planet) (1992/93), It is Completed. The Future is Something Redundant (1993, Vienna), Look into the Eyes (1993, Aperto, Venice Biennale), Look into the Chaos (1991/92), Reading Room (1994), (Thou, Thine) Thee. White-Eye (1994), (About) the Soul (1994), and the final V.S.S.D. project, The Painting of a Painting II (1995, Venice Biennale). In these and other projects, V.S.S.D. developed a complex, ramified, heterogeneous structure of content and form, most frequently cyclically returning to the basic issues broached at the outset, approaching them from a different angle or reevaluating, reaffirming or abandoning them. This was not a linear progress based on the logic of development or progression; rather, it was a rhizomatic growth, an entanglement allowing temporal transitions, the past in place of the future, nature in place of the image, meaning invested in an image that conceals more than it reveals (absence in the visible, desire in the object) – interpretation of this work is interminable, since virtually every single V.S.S.D. work stems from some past pre-image and has the potential to grow into countless future ones. V.S.S.D. once said: “Back to the past, back to the self. The search (for the self) is a (self) appropriation. Where are my memories, where are – eloquent images. There is no reason for me to have a feeling of permanence: everything moves – is movable, changeable and transitory. The future does not exist.”

Trying to compose a taxonomy of V.S.S.D.’s images seems beside the point, even our chronological classification is but a makeshift aid hoping to convey how densely interwoven V.S.S.D.’s works, forms and issues are. Any attempt to discern the inner structure, the origin of the “motifs” or formal qualities that would, at least apparently, explain this production, can be misleading, since no one view is final (much less “true”, “correct” or “real,” regardless of the impression of the high drama or fatefulness it may give); it is always multiplied in an endless permutation of mirror images, illusions, ornaments, bravura in drawing, a surfeit of motifs, an abundance of materials which eventually wanes to a fragile, ephemeral drawing in sand… Probably the most radical and final gesture of anamorphic fusion of image and nature was accomplished by V.S.S.D. in 1990 with Burning Painting: the burning of a painting transformed it into an elusive play of flames, even though this act meant its destruction.

In the relatively short time of its work, V.S.S.D. created an exceptionally complex, heteronomous and dramatically fascinating universe of the image, elevating it in spectacular scenes to the status of an all-encompassing, total painterly-sculptural-artistic experience, and addressing through this production the (still) central issues of contemporary art: form, the gaze, the body, and matter.

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Alen Ožbolt