The Painting of Milenko Prvacki in its Context

Jasna Tijardovic Popovic

The subject of much postmodern 1980s art was a dislocated journey through images of modernism and the more distant past, a search for the dwelling place of the imaginary. The terms associated with postmodernism -dislocated focus, periphery, petty narcissism, "light" aesthetics- reveal the eclectic character of an art movement that spread as a wildfire around the world in the early 80s. Almost immediately following this "Big Bang" of new images and ideas, elements and interpretations, postmodern aesthetics entered other facets of the culture: architecture, comics, literature, literary theory, criticism, film, theatre, music, mass media culture. Images produced at that time in the visual arts were both fiercely material and transparently narrative -a declarative affirmation of the eternal transience of life and traces of human existence. The paintings of this period never depended upon some idealistic role model, and never proclaimed any new program or agenda.

The art of the 80s pertaining to these novel images and ideas emerged suddenly and in all of its heterogeneity on the cultural scene of the former Yugoslavia. This was a euphoric, swift, intensive and controversial performance, involving the spectrum of artistic media. The circumstances of the abrupt evolution from the "stingy" 70s to the unpredictable 80s were complex, yet arguably over-determined by the new European aesthetic paradigm. Textual forms were being invented that eluded the grasp of traditional art-historical criticism. The nature, course and strategies of postmodern aesthetics were being written by philosophers, writers, sociologists and individuals outside of art altogether.

Within the cultural space of Serbia, two scenes distinguished themselves in this regard: Belgrade and Vojvodina. One of the most distinctive characteristics of this art period was a belief in the authenticity of each and every art environment based on its specific features. In the case of Serbia, this genius loci - the peculiar cultural heritage of a local town, city, region, republic, or country- is of course not so easy to define. Jasa Denegri, one of the most lucid chroniclers, critics and theoreticians of Yugoslav art, highlights a central paradox of Serbian art in the 80s (1). On the one hand, continuity was of the essence: the relevance of any artwork was gauged by its lineage, that is to say, the extent to which it addressed historical antecedents within its practice. It goes without saying that such antecedents were themselves tied to wider orientations around the world. Serbian art was not so far apart from progressive European and global modernist trends; on the contrary, critics interpreted the aesthetic achievements of the 80s and 90s as being "on the path of continuity of the open, flexible and European-oriented artistic thought pioneered by early-twentieth century Serbian modernists." (2)

On the other hand, the moment had also come to unequivocally abandon certain practices and languages of the previous decade that were characterized by the dematerialization of art objects and the radical criticism of art and cultural institutions. What the new artistic generation did inherit from the 70s, however, was its seriousness of purpose in its effort to reinvent the art scene and give birth to a new and different production form. Only a firm and persistent striving towards total communication with the world -an objective propagated by the art of the 1970s- could provide the fulcrum necessary to the dissemination of the new images.

The two halves of the decade offered distinct stages in this emergence of new images, each with its own set of elements and concepts, crossroads and goals. These corresponded to the growth and maturation of the 80s style: once the initial collective excitement of this orientation towards producing new images reached a peak, individual methods and languages started becoming clearer. Thematic surveys began to show differentiated threads and sensibilities among the new generation. The cultural scene of Vojvodina underwent the same evolution as that of Belgrade. Both were cultural centers that participated in the very first artistic productions of the period. The generation that created the "new figuration" of the 60s, as well to an extent as the 1968 conceptual artists whose work was dubbed "new art praxis" by critics in the 70s, displayed an inquisitive attitude towards the orientation of the euphoric young 80s generation: either postmodern irony, cynical introspection or voluntary distance. (3)

What made the 80s so distinctive was its expressionistic orientation. A majority of the young artists graduated from the fine arts academies, that is to say centers where romantic sensitivity and defiance were prevailing notions. New graphic elements appeared in painting, forms rich in figurations, narrations, expressions, allegories and graphics. It is also telling that painting (together with sculpture later in the decade) was the dominant art form of the period -non-material media creations such as photography, video, film, music, as well as installations of a different kind were not seen as equally successful. The work of this "trans-avant-garde" often was a modern borrowing of traditional imagery, using devices such as quotation, eclecticism, mannerism, erudition, or anachronism. The general characteristic of the movement was the simultaneous application of traditional symbolism and expressionism. Several new territories were also explored in painting and sculpture, trends later labeled neo-informal, neo-pop, neo-geo art. Myth, as part and parcel of a playful and erotic subconscious played an important part in the period, a vehicle for the new ideas of the time.

Also during the decade, the Vojvodina art scene strengthened its links with other art centers in Yugoslavia through its own net of institutions, media, galleries and artists. That connection had been lost in the early 70s, when alternative conceptual practices were developing. Many of the conceptual artists of Vojvodina were philosophy, linguistics or philology graduates. The antagonism of the self-centered art establishment of Belgrade toward these "non-artistic intruders" working in media other than painting softened in the 80s, helping the Vojvodina art scene to regain its compactness and confidence once again.

Milenko Prvacki, an active participant in the post-modern wave of the 80s, distinguished himself by an expressionistic mannerist style. "After a first, relatively short period (1975/76) of softened nostalgic figuration, his cycles Dialogue, Beds, Hunt and especially Trophy (1977-1980) reveal a changed attitude and new intensity, and certain allusions to the painting of Francis Bacon." (4) Those were times when painting chose not to declare anything, but instead throve on pure ideational and emotional charge. It was a pluralistic decade, when "the various artists, in their dissimilar modes, were working with the rawest substance of imagination, what Roland Barthes had called "image repertoire" - those atoms or molecules of belief or memories, vested in images (syntagms), which are the very substance of imagination. For these artists the drawing paper or the canvas or the wall itself is only a "tabula rasa" - a receptacle or arena, not (as it was for the Abstract Expressionists) for action and the visceral gesture that is the joyous and tragic affirmation of existence, but rather a stage for the proclamation of the imagination. Like so many artists of 1970s, these artists have produced an art that exists only in the object and on the retina, but which also inheres in the mind." (5)

That is the source of Prvacki's works, on a cycle of themes creating a frame of research; those are the parameters within which he developed an imaginative process with utter devotion. Prvacki naively reveals a certain affinity with associational abstraction when inscribing titles such as Trophy Landscape on the painting itself, thus placing the painted surface into a radically new position: writing as drawing, identical to the spirit and method of the painted base, and a surprising gesture that falls short of idealizing the object of perception.

In his Novelties in the Painting of Vojvodina 1973-1993, Milos Arsic describes the evolution of Prvacki's work thus:
"In the 1980s, painter Milenko Prvacki accepts the challenge of "new painting" and produces a series of paintings under the mutual title Islands, Trophy Landscape and Trophy Island, featuring neo-expressionistic organization and powerful, often uncontrolled gesticulation. However, he opts for an extremely reserved color scheme, which is quite unusual. Namely, he treats color as a substance (the materials of these imaginary islands) rather than the means of illusion. After all, the challenge of imaginary landscapes isn't about brutal "copying" with "dirty" means of description, but rather about an exciting, extremely subjective artistic activity with unpredictable results. Most of Prvacki's paintings (until the last years of the decade) have the elements of a brutal attack on the natural order and a conditionally radical reductionism, all the while emphasizing segments of the landscape that only the painter finds to be important. The works are painted with a bitter color deprived of any illusory function (recognizing is not knowing). The autonomous colorful "condition" -the full affirmation of substance- develops easily solvable metaphors for islands: alienation, loneliness, restlessness. In Trophy Landscapes (end of 80s, early 90s), islands are still the guiding metaphor, but an abrupt and unexpected shift in painting procedure occurs. Passages of rich color eliminate the abrupt dissection of the earlier works, and introduce carefulness, gradations and rationality; while "dirty" and "brutal" elements give way to the enjoyment of the very painting act and to pleasant, genuinely beautiful depictions of a 'new optmism'." (6)

These pictures are set in an enclosed baroque stage consisting of colorful lines and variously entangled intersecting "figures". Prvacki treats the painting surface as an arena for emphatic gestural expression, a capsule emitting energy as well as a place for a dedicated discursive research, writing, enumeration and filing. Prvacki's works seem to address culture.

Milenko Prvacki remains faithful to the point of reference of his artistic activity: visual, cultural and spiritual imagery from the plains of Vojvodina plain. Prvacki's gradational approach to picture-making is very interesting because it reveals the successive fusions and layers of memorizing and summarizing of previous visual and artistic patterns that are intrinsic to his approach -as well as the universalism that gives these paintings a special charm. Prvacki's exceptional talent in weaving quotations from the entire history of art and culture into his works in such a natural, non-intrusive and sophisticated manner reaches new heights in his artistic production of the 90s. Prvacki records the local baroque tradition of the Vojvodina plain in brilliant, sublimated fashion, with seismograph-like preciseness, particularly so in his drawings and installations of his The Ultimate Visual Dictionary and Collection series (specifically, The New Visual Dictionary (1999; fig. 22,23) and Collection (1999; fig. 24). These works serve as axiomatically precise metaphors for everyday life and spiritual zeal in the expansive and fascinating plains of Vojvodina; metaphors for a specific topography and local experience of a defined region presented in the best possible way in a sophisticated universal language.

The New Visual Dictionary represents an imaginary universe whose parts are independent stories that together constitute an exciting constellation of visual, material and narrative elements. This work functions both as an ode to civilization and a pantheistic submersion. But more specifically, Prvacki condenses the experience of modernism together with a clear message of rejection of its strictness and artificiality. His works, especially those created in the last years of the century, contain elements of the post-modern pastiche, combining for example "hardcore" modernistic métier and recognizable conceptualist procedures. But this is always achieved in a unique, lucid, delicate, indirect, non-explicit way: always as the background of an original, witty story, as the inconspicuous frame of an everyday, earthly, non-hierarchical, horizontally arranged world. These are the empathetic traces of memories from a region in which Prvacki was born, lived and worked. However, some distant tones in his last works, specifically Brick Yard (2000; 2001; plate 58), conjure up an Anselm Kiefer-like world. For the first time and most suddenly, Prvacki presents the universe's other principle of organization -the spiritual/vertical. For the first time, the beauty of the image and of the painting act are compensated for, or complemented by, an evocation of the sublime and a newly contemplative journey.

(1) Jesa Denegri, "The 80s: Period of postmodern pluralism," in The 80s: Themes in Serbian Art, 1980-1990 (Biblioteka Svetovi, Novi Sad, 1997.).
(2) Lidija Merenik, Beograd: The 80s, New phenomena in the art of painting and sculpture 1979-1989 (Prometej, Novi Sad, 1995.), p. 12. Also, Jesa Denegri, ibid, p. 20.
(3) Lidija Merenik, ibid, p. 14.
(4) Milos Arsic, Novelties in the art of painting in Vojvodina 1973-1993 (Gallery of Contemporary Fine Arts, Novi Sad, December 1994.), p. 14 and 15.
(5) Howard N. Fox, "The New Imagery/Le Nuove Imagini," in Drawings: The Pluralist Decade, 39th Venice Biennale 1980, United State Pavilion, 1 June - 30 September 1980, (Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia), translation: Zoran Popovic, p. 86.
(6) Milos Arsic, ibid, p. 23 and 24.