Text by: Igor Španjol
THE GRID AS A CONTEXTUAL SYMBOL, ŠKUC GALLERY, Exhibition Catalogue, Ljubljana, 2007
Almost every generation of artists in Slovenia has tried to find a new vital visual language for their period, which would make sense within the current view of the role of art in society. The possibilities for such a new language have necessarily arisen by inventing new procedures or forms, but by re-examining or re-assessing existing tradition. At first glance this may seem contradictory, as these explorations should have sought to establish an alternative to the inherently strong Slovenian modernist tradition. However, the point was not to return to worn-out models, but to make established artistic practices actual in a new context.
Thus the major representatives of the new Slovenian painting who emerged in the 1990s searched for initiatives and models in the practice and theory of previous decades. Despite working in specific contemporary social, cultural, technological and economic context parallels came be made between contemporary painting in the last decade, and the critical and analytical painting strategies of the artists developed in the first half and the middle of the 1970s.
I’m not only referring to artists whose work can be labelled hyper-realistic or belonging to a similar painting genre and who confronted the viewer with the contemporary world of the mass media, technical production and reproduction of spectacular image, advertising boards and seducing glamour. To understand the recent situation, when during discussions on the crisis or even the death of painting, the latter was revived, the experience of the Slovenian painters is telling, as they embraced the American modernist tradition and introduced issues and approaches based on it. American models then acquired a specific meaning in the Western-European context within the framework of so-called fundamental and analytical painting. What essentially separates painting from the cold logic of minimalist abstraction and the dominant approaches of the 1960s is the critical insight into tradition and analytical examination introduced by conceptualism. An impersonal colour field of painting was replaced by openness, where direct interventions into visual elements are marked by personal sensibility and individual imagination.
We could say that the production of Miha Štrukelj, one of the key Slovenian painters in the new millennium, is similarly distinguished by an examination of the key modernistic process: the gradual reduction of the illusion of a painting until it becomes equal to its medium. The grid, which used to be a means of representation, becomes the true content of the painting. This fundamental constitutive element of the modernist artwork is freed from its representational and transfer function, and the visible grid structure plays an important part in separating the depicted and the real worlds. However, this does not imply that the paintings do not entail knowable reality and are only autonomous, pure visual structures.
But more than urban skylines and media landscapes, Štrukelj’s paintings show the process of disappearing motifs and a strategic approach to the abstract layering of colour. While the grid is seemingly used as a potential framework, it actually develops a digital system of full and clear surfaces, where disappearing fields are added up and multiplied until they become a transparent monochrome structure. Thus the artist intricately deconstructs the understanding of the grid as the principle element of belief in the scientific organisation of fiction and one of the most prominent modernist myths.
Štrukelj is well aware how digital media and machines have radically changed our experience of space and time, ways of communicating and functioning, the experience of a subject, and the notion of a painting or art. The domination of place gave way to dislocation, a kind of global networking, where traditional geopolitical definitions of culture, identity and subjectivity have worn out. Consequently, places, »non-places«, houses, cities, and similar concepts have become immensely unstable. In these circumstances Štrukelj opts for a seemingly contradictory position. On the one hand, his paintings and the places they depict are victims of applied digital logic and a radical deconstructivist approach, while on the other hand, the affinity with the grid can be understood as the need to classify and systematically control social and creative chaos, where the visual elements are firm, clear and concrete.
Research into optical and perceptual mechanisms thus contradictorily coincides with the radically changing status of the image, where the grid constellation introduces an open multilayered structure with a tension between visual fragments. Essentially, we are dealing with a re-assessment of the painting tradition and a re-attempt to eliminate the separation between media art and painting by referring to the conceptual potential of mass digital production, universal modernistic form, and classic painting methods and materials.
Naturally, this body of work can only be defined within the wide context between social reality and the everyday life of an individual. In the basic motif of the grid, Štrukelj sees a universal order, as well as a particular truth, a continual changing and disappearing of the contemporary world, where almost nothing is constant. The recurring black-and-white grid structure transforms urban motifs into a rhythmically repeated decorative pattern. In exploring its potential, Štrukelj uses the already mediated, modified and industrially reproduced photographic form. At the same time, he brings particular types of abstraction, seriality, repetition and minimalism to their historical starting-points. With the elongation of the painting’s composition over the whole surface of the gallery wall, the wall becomes a constitutive, as it were, a sculptural part of the grid image, signifying a new dimension in the interplay of proximity and distance, constructing and disappearing opens it.
This is why, within the heteronomous and complex painting constellation in Slovenia in recent years, Miha Štrukelj’s work is exceptional, even if we consider it within the context of artists of the same generation or with a similar style. This means that we could provisionally and rather roughly divide contemporary Slovene painting into two dominant and frequently interweaving orientations: the mediated painting that uses public and, as a rule, figurative imagery, introducing the new technological possibilities of reproduction, and the slightly more abstract tradition of painting that explores personal spaces, intimate formats and the changed role of established manual techniques. For the consideration of the mentioned works, this division proves to be unsuitable, for we can place Štrukelj’s production somewhere in between, at best. If this works are critical, they are so indirectly, by explicating and demonstrating the techniques and relations of the contemporary world, and thus, actually examining social and power relations.