Text by: Martina Vovk
Image within the Grid – the Construction of Image in the Work of Miha Štrukelj, ŠKUC Gallery, Ljubljana, Exhibition Catalogue / 53rd Venice Biennial - Slovenian Pavilion, 2009
From its beginning in the second half of the 1990s, the artistic practice of Miha Štrukelj has been linked to the phenomenon of mediatised painting, a contemporary painting movement which draws from the media image, as Peter Weibel describes the phenomenon. Since then, Miha Štrukelj, a member of a younger generation of Slovenian painters, has developed a unique and original approach, in which he places the mediatised image in an extensive and complex thematic, and at the same time also formal and aesthetic context, where the painterly image has undergone a specific metamorphosis: stemmed from technologically sophisticated medical images of the artist's own body, entered a spectacular scenes of war and disaster, and continued through a numb anonymous landscape to reach and follow the lonely human figure in it.
Štrukelj's work is thus based on the image and its deceptive allure; it tests the value of the image's reality, and toys with the referent, which is always positioned far outside the canvas, outside the limited autonomy of the art work. The means and procedures which Štrukelj uses to access, develop and anchor the image are particularly significant: when much simpler, faster and visually efficient ways of (re)presenting an image are available – in the era of the digital image – he uses these only as a starting point for his creative practice, which is based on traditional painting techniques. He translates the digital picture into 'traditional painting' – an established medium whose end has often been predicted – converting its fleetingness into a stretched, fluid time in a remote focused process of creation of an intimate studio work.
Štrukelj's painting in the second half of the 1990s developed from a fascination with images of great humanitarian disasters, human and historic tragedies, such as the Gulf War, the Chernobyl disaster, the bombing of Belgrade and the terrorist attacks on 9/11, which was closely linked to his fascination with technology, and the technological and digital gaze/domination of reality. The media images which were disseminated globally on these occasions, gain a new, expanded dimension in Štrukelj's painting, which critically assesses their true communicative value and message. The images that inhabit the picture planes in the first period of his work come from the world of spectacular, military, catastrophic media images. However, in the media image, the existential catastrophe of war is already relativised, reduced to utter unreliability; it becomes a form of infotainment through media-constructed reality, and in a more cynical deviation of the entertainment industry, becomes the inspiration for both the film spectacle and the design of video games (the Gulf War was the first 'virtual war', where military operations were guided from remote command centres via monitors; it was a new paradigm of modern warfare, happening through images on screens, while its real effects were no less catastrophic – in the final stage, the real screen image of war cannot be discerned from scenes in videogames, such as the Gulf War or Operation Desert Storm – reality and simulacrum are intertwined beyond recognition). So, such media imagery is created in a world where the perception of reality has become loose, as reality, fiction and simulacra are presented at the same time, and bears the burden of its real, but ambivalent message, which Miha Štrukelj transfers into his painting. Igor Zabel wrote about Štrukelj's work at the turn of the millennium: "…what we see on his paintings is not a world where 'nothing is real' and everything is just simulacra; rather, it is an endlessly complex and always changeable network of realities and fiction, of truth and appearance. Štrukelj uses the tension between the real and the fictional on his paintings as a tool to disclose these elusive relations."
Essentially, Štrukelj's work focuses on the dangerous line separating reality and its constructed, fictitious image, where the media image is always a construction of given reality. When viewers are faced with images of the Gulf War, Chernobyl or Afghan terrorist fighters, they are distressed, and spontaneously take an ethical stance, but the position is schizophrenic: in an image conveyed and manipulated by the media, the reference to reality is ambiguous (even if the war is real, it is only an image in the media, already fictitious, a simulation whose meaning is available to be constructed, manipulated and controlled), and in the painterly transformation, pushed to the limit, a seemingly indifferent artistic rendering, it becomes an object of aesthetic pleasure. Štrukelj's paintings are always on this thin line, where reality turns into fiction, the line where human disaster becomes a commercial spectacle through transformation by the media.
However, Štrukelj's painting cannot be defined at the level content and themes only, even if it does examine the extensive issue of the status and nature of images in a time of digital manipulation, as it at the same time fully explores the formal and aesthetic possibilities of the traditional medium of painting. It is the inclusion of the mediatised image in painting, which the history of art assesses according to completely different criteria, values and practices inherited from Modernism, that gives Štrukelj's articulation of the image full and convincing value and sense. The artist translates the photographic referent, media image or anonymous photograph found by accident into a painting with the help of a grid, which can be seen as an element of traditional painting composition and an open reference to the tradition of academic painting. However, in the transfer to canvas, the original photographic image loses part of its already reduced consistency, as it clearly alludes to its original, drastically insecure and relativised, virtual nature by emphasising 'pixelised' graininess and rectangular fields, which remain white or covered in monochrome paint. If it is seemingly possible to link Štrukelj's obsessively realistic transfer of the media referent to the canvas with the photorealism of the 1960s and 1970s, the transformed role of the digital image in its media, social and historical context, as argued by Zabel, does not permit a naive imitation of past painting movements. The painting grid has thus become a key tool in the artist's work, which, linked to the nature of the digital image, assumes a symbolic dimension. Because it is deliberately left visible, it is constituted as a controversial allusion to a mathematical, scientifically objective paradigm, which also guarantees the objectivity of the presented image. However, as already noted, this image is essentially relative in terms of values – first, by being highly manipulated and controlled through media dissemination, and then transformed from a sensory and clear presentation of reality into an stimulating fascination with a aesthetically pleasing image through artistic re-evaluation. The grid, once a basic painting aid enabling the mimetic reproduction of reality, becomes a symbol for situating the image in the multi-layered thematic context which it assumes in the digital era. Its role as a geometrical and objective guarantee of the 'correct visual perspective' becomes less and less significant and is degraded to the role of an aesthetic element, while its role in constructing perception is reduced more or less to the composition of the visual field.
In these conditions, the possibility of a true insight into the situation, into the reality of image and its primary connection to the real, existential experience has become completely relativised, and impossible. It is true that the subject who is gazing, the painter or the viewer, establishes their pictorial field through a technologicalised gaze enabled by sophisticated technological camera lenses, but the ontological core is already unsteady, perhaps even lost. Štrukelj's paintings record this uncertainty of committed existential experience, which cannot be realised through a digitally generated and virtual image, as an interruption occurs in the process, an error in the generation and communication of the image (experience, knowledge, learning, etc.). It is manifested in the form of empty, white or monochromatic fields (in colour fields, the hues are 'unnatural'), and the dissolution of the image through the grid matrix. The grid, the starting point for creating an image, a mediator between the virtual image and its painterly transformation, whose geometrical objectivity is the only guarantee of the higher, objective order, at the same time deconstructs, controls and dematerialises the image by revealing and denouncing the basic composition of a painterly vision and eventually also any attempt to constitute a subject or give sense to the subject's gaze as an ontological guarantee of subjective perceptive ability.
In the development of Štrukelj's work, this fundamental problematic nature of any mediation of an image, including in painting, which is most recognisably manifested through an obsession with the symbolic and formative element of the grid, is also applied to other themes. Sometime after 2003, the images of disaster and catastrophe begin to give way to urban landscape motifs, scenes from cities, anonymous and seemingly arbitrary details of cityscapes, rarely inhabited with the human figure; and Štrukelj's canvases begin to depict crossroads, bridges and buildings in the big cities of the first world, establishing a different, parallel cartography of contemporary reality. However, even with these motifs, the painterly perception and presentation of seen reality is still essential – when the image descends into the depths of the developed urban environment, its perspective narrows and focuses on isolated, selected scenes, which do not enable any comprehensive or panoramic view of the surroundings or even the recognition of specific spatial and temporal coordinates. The atmosphere which permeates the urban landscapes on canvases is perhaps closest to impersonal anxiety. It seems that this is what the real nature of these empty, prosaic city non-places most resembles when no-one is looking, when it lives outside any consciousness, inaccessible to any experience consciously seeking to make sense of it. Uncertainty of cognition and doubt in the reality of perception manifested through images of spectacularly tragic scenes of humanitarian disasters is transformed into a more intimate, yet still unidentified presence at the core of impersonal, almost fantastically fascinating, yet void urban topography.
These works present a somewhat different, more intimate and personal view of the living environment, a parallel topography of lived reality, which offers itself 'to be viewed' as the only really present material reality that can be experienced. The painterly vision of this reality is still limited. The subject of such a gaze could be merely a disillusioned, inhibited flâneur, whose perception can realise only scraps of reality, and it is not certain that even they have entered his conscience. The perception of reality happens as a multi-dimensional, concurrent and parallel co-existence of innumerable parts of consciousness and conscious experience, while the uniform guarantee of purpose is irreversibly lost.
With regard to form, the articulation of this position of the subject manifests itself as a decomposition of the visual field into an almost abstract, monochromatic field, where the basic grid and mimetic shreds of reality intertwine beyond recognition. Seemingly coincidental frames of architectural frameworks, large built constructions, disintegrate into some kind of illusory, phantasmagorical image, where no solid core can be recognised any longer. The grid, based on rationalist mathematical calculations, meets the de-constructed image, and together they are processed into an abstract, fantastical landscape. In the extreme version, the grid dominates the organisation of the surface and appears as a completely autonomous visual element, revealing its physical, processual nature in the creation of a work of art, which can also be defined by non-painting aids – masking tape, which remains on the canvas as a note of the deliberate process of work, and gain equal material and communicative value. In this scenario, Štrukelj daringly flirts with the modernistic tautology of the painting surface, but reaches it through a digression which inserts into the painting disillusion with the act of painting as committed existential experience. Numerical notes on the 'blind fields' originating from the principle of the grid matrix constitute some sort of internal arithmetical logic, which cannot be reduced to a straight mathematical equation; they reveal an obsessive desire to structure and categorise the pictorial surface, which becomes a metaphor for organising and categorising the experience of visual perception in general. However, this experience cannot even superficially be given arithmetical sense; in the unresolved area among the blind fields, remnants of another, painterly order continue to emerge. Each excludes the other, while complementing each other in an impossible balance.
In the medium of drawing, the fundamental design principle develops independently, but the grid structure again assumes the symbolic and thematic role of objective organiser of the visual field. By degrading and dissipating the mimetic value, the drawing morphs into a fragile, detailed, transparent abstract landscape. Here, the sensory-physical reference is finally resolved, as the drawings reach an abstract cartography outside real space and time coordinates. A detailed examination of carefully calculated relations meets fragile, barely discernible drawing – a unique deduction of a geometric and lyrical abstraction. When this drawing is transferred from its usual supporting medium, paper, onto a wall, the fragile two-dimensional image acquires a spatial dimension, while dematerialising the wall with a grid structure, a constitutive element of any architecture. With the inconspicuous intervention of the drawing, the grid expands into space and metonymically transports the dubious principle of construction and control to firm reality.
At the opposite end of Štrukelj's creative process, completely different works begin to emerge at the same time as the deconstruction of the painting surface described above. They gradually and reluctantly begin to feature the silhouette of the human figure, which have been excluded from the painter's visual field. In a series of drawings on tracing paper, the human figure is dark, while the surroundings dissolve into the milky white through a process of layering. Although the human figures emerge in an environment inhabited by other people, which shows the social and anthropological determination of the context, they remain completely isolated. They are placed at the centre of their aloneness, and we feel almost intimately close to them; however this closeness remains unexpressed, only a lyrical echo of a void atmosphere.
The second principle which Štrukelj employs to construct a visual image binds his work together – from the extreme deconstruction of the pictorial surface, which is established by the fully explored arbitrariness and autonomy of the grid structure, he arrives at fragile images of the human silhouette. The second principle is not a contradiction, nor the presentation of a solution, but more of an intimate relationship which represents the insecure status of an image as the perceptive guarantee of existence and from the opposite point of view.
Zabel, I.: Miha Štrukelj, in: Vitamin P (New Perspectives in Painting). Phaidon Press, New York, 2002, p. 314.
Zabel, I.: Miha Štukelj. In: Blood & Honey, The Future is in the Balkans (r. k.). Klosterneuburg, Vienna, Sammlung Essl, 2003.