Trophy Paintings

Eugene Tan

The paintings of Milenko Prvacki engage with the re-invention of painting's language, and his Trophy Paintings are, in a sense, the culmination of his sustained engagement. It is a mode of engagement that is evident in the earliest paintings by Prvacki, made while he was still at art school in Bucharest, Romania in the 1970s, and continued through to his more recent series of works, such as The Ultimate Visual Dictionary (1999 - 2000) and Construction Site (2001 - 2003), which were made - or more accurately, 'constructed' - after his re-location to Singapore. The chronological development of Prvacki's works is well documented and analysed.(1) What this essay will examine instead is Prvacki's distinct engagement with the deconstruction and re-invention of painting's visual language.

Prvacki's engagement with painting occurs within the realm of abstraction. From its originating moment in the 1930s, the discourse of abstraction has itself undergone tumultuous transformation. For early abstract painters such as Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky, abstraction was imbued with a spiritual or immaterial dimension. They sought, through their paintings, to represent a perspective of the natural, real and physical world through non-representational shapes and forms, which they felt were better able to convey these experiences and sensations. The Abstract Expressionists of the 1940s and 50s also sought to represent the immaterial through their paintings, in these instances, their own personal and subjective tendencies became the subject of their work. Artists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, among others, similarly saw the use of abstract or non-representational forms as the most effective way of conveying their innermost sensibilities and tendencies. The 1960sand 1970s, however, witnesed the beginning of the end of painting as a form of representation. Influenced by structuralist and post-structuralist semiotic theories which challenged the nature of meaning and representation, minimalist painters such as Frank Stella and Robert Ryman began engaging with abstraction not as a mode of representation, but instead as way of highlighting the construction of meaning in their paintings. Through their paintings, the minimalist painters drew attention to the physical and material characteristics of painting and particularly to the context in which their paintings were shown, thereby emphasising the processes in which their paintings acquired 'meaning'. Abstraction in their works shifted away from being an attempt to represent the natural and physical world to a questioning of the viability of the notion of representation per se.

The paintings of Prvacki can be perceived as a continuation of this engagement with painting, and in particular, closely related to the work of the American 'synthetic abstractionists' from the 1980s. As opposed to the minimalist painters who re-examined painting's processes, artists such as David Reed, Fabian Marcaccio, Jonathan Lasker and Stephen Ellis sought instead to re-examine painting by deconstructing the visual representative language of painting. Abstraction is used in their paintings not as a mode of representation, but instead to highlight how the visuality of images are constructed. In the same way, Prvacki's paintings utilise abstraction as a device to reveal the construction of the finished painting. Drawing from a set, or 'dictionary', of visual styles and elements which he uses regularly, Prvacki combines these elements to form the visual language of the larger paintings. This 'dictionary' of diverse painting styles and methods are a group of paintings, each measuring thirty by thirty centimetres, and which form part of Prvacki's aptly titled Construction Site series. These painting have, in turn, been developed from his Ultimate Visual Dictionary series. These paintings function as a kind of index from which he draws to construct the overall visual language found in his larger paintings. They are the 'bricks' which are used to construct, in a metaphorical as well as physical sense, Prvacki's paintings. This is because the notion of construction in Prvacki's paintings is further highlighted by yet another aspect of his practice, namely his physical processes of painting. Apart from the construction of the visual language of paintings, Prvacki also builds up the layers of paint in his paintings in a very physical and tactile manner. These processes are then revealed in the final manifestation of the painting through the traces left by the construction of the numerous paint layers.

Prvacki's paintings also question representation in painting in yet another way, namely through an examination of the way in which abstract forms can acquire meaning. The figurative elements utilised by Prvacki in his paintings, such as in Fabrika (2004), Structure (2004) and Boat (2004), are at the same time highly ambiguous in nature. Visually, these lines, shapes and forms oscillate between representation and non-representation, thereby defying identification and categorization. These figurative elements challenge the notion of representation by highlighting the fact that all forms, shapes and colours, be they explicitly representational or not, can be perceived as forms of representation, and furthermore that the reverse relationship is true. What Prvacki's abstract paintings therefore highlight is the problematic relationship between abstraction and representation in painting.

The Trophy Paintings of Prvacki therefore signify, both metaphorically and symbolically, his re-invention of the visual language of painting in his own unique and distinct way. Prvacki's paintings re-evaluate painting's essences and renews its representative paradigm. This is achieved in two ways. The first, in turn, occurs through the highlighting of the two modes in which his paintings have been 'constructed'. The first being the way the physical building of the paint layers in the paintings is emphasised, while the second lies in the way the paintings' visual language have been 'constructed' through the use of the various visual devices and elements that make up his 'ultimate visual dictionary'. The second way in which Prvacki's paintings renew painting, as has been examined, is by engaging with the representative nature of figuration. Through abstraction, his engagement with figuration questions the ambiguous and precarious nature of representation. In addition, Prvacki's paintings also re-invent painting's representative role and function through a mediation between the experience of their underlying premise with the sensual experience of painting. It is this acknowledgement and embrace of painting's evocative and seductive nature coupled with his re-evaluation of painting that make Prvacki's paintings distinctive and significant.

(1) See Milenko Prvacki: Construction Site, exh. cat. (Singapore: Earl Lu Gallery, LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts, 2002). See, in particular, Gunalan Nadarajan, 'Constructing Paintings: The Works of Milenko Prvacki', pp. 13 - 33.