ZLATAN VRKLJAN:  Summation to Infinity

10.05.2012 - 10.06.2012

The triptychs, quadriphores and polynomials of Zlatan Vrkljan
It was long since understood how good Zlatan Vrkljan is at drawing and what he can do in painting, but it also has been long quite evident that he neither lives in smug contentment with what has been achieved nor works within the framework of ostentatious skill. All the time neither seeking nor finding consolation or rest in mere cerebral witticisms, mental constructions or conceptual lucubrations, he systematically builds and develops on the premises of the pictorial medium, tests and checks out the effects of stroke and blotch, surrenders to the temptations of nuances and tones.  He has accepted, then, the traditional presuppositions of the craft, but has stretched their laws to the ultimate boundaries in order to compel some stretching of the measure and a surfeit of wondrousness. We could christen his viewpoint an apologia for pure painting and a simultaneous provocation of the logic of the fine arts, the outcome always uncertain. It is not by any means an exaggeration, then, to say that he is still guided by a hankering after the impossible.
With his most recent painting cycle, he systematically fills up the space of Zagreb’s Art Pavilion, a privileged setting indeed for the verification of painterly options and achievements. The set-up itself has the gravity of a moderate composition, a conscious concatenation of elements, not to say an actually programmatic significance. The works are all interconnected by some nearer or further kinships, technical procedures and chromatic affinities, uniform dimensions and identical formats. In this way every composition is handled as an autonomous unit but of necessity placed in a dialogue with the immediately neighbouring as well as the complementarily facing work, and so with the whole of the set.
Painting is in some sense echoed in painting, however much they might in themselves be taciturn and silent, when their echoes multiply, the effect of optical vibration is heard much more intelligibly.    
To get a little closer to the merit of the explication – of that which dwells in the paintings, and of that which those paintings prompt in words – it is best to move with a certain gradualness, and to start with the statement that the most recent works of Zlatan Vrkljan not only resist any mimetic role and representative function, but actually insist on their own plastic autonomy, non-figurativeness, abstractness, purity. By a negation, then, of patent motif, iconographical underpinning or given point of reference, we arrive at a radical affirmation of the properties of the medium, an insistence on craft values and total devotion to painting as expression.
Looked at diachronically, Vrkljan’s procedure takes into consideration many of the gains made by the historical avant-garde and the subsequent “return to the image”, skipping the phase of the rational destruction of the discipline and the self-reflection of the artistic act (to which many have contributed their mite) and addressed the possibilities of a new beginning on the premises of the accumulation of experience. Naturally, his point of origin is no tabula rasa, and does not imply the effacement of acquired knowledges and accumulated virtues, but is closer to the collection and multiplication of the fundamental properties of the means used, the result being thus a tabula plena, or pictura pura. The painter himself has christened his procedure a reverse palimpsest.  So, instead of scraping off the deposited layers, we have the sedimentation of a whole series of pictorial deposits, each of which reverberates on the preceding, but in the complex game of echoes relativises its own determination and to an extent drowns in the hum and vibration of the dominant tones, in the basso continuo of the luminous emanation of the composition. If with a standard palimpsest what is at work is a reduction of the preceding organisation of forms and the action of the establishment of new relations, with the reverse or paradoxical palimpsest we are confronted with a growth of flows and signs that are however densely interwoven and morphologically cancel each other out, so that they contribute to the reduction and pithiness of the semantic effect. From the author’s “interpretative baggage” we shall take one more concept: Occam’s razor, as, if at least temporarily, one of his works is called. This indication instructs us to be aware of working in the narrowest space of strict decisions, in the straits of radical solutions, sharp strokes and cuts that do not allow of any concessions or additional, decorative and redundant tributaries.
It would be an exaggeration to say that the new Vrkljan exhibition is a kind of Discourse on Method, but not inaccurate to lay stress on the methodicalness of the procedure, a systematic concatenation of the basic elements of painting into a work that as synecdochically tells of the intensity of the whole, and as link in the chain shows the extensiveness of the project, the possibility of continuing it ad infinitum. On the other hand, and inversely, there is nothing directed or forced in Vrkljan’s personal style; it flows with organic ebullience, sometimes in instinctive relaxation, sometimes oneirically, latently, with an automatic gesture (that has, of course, previously mastered the discipline, accepted the criterion of the composition).
However much the paintings at this show might be grouped into given numerical or geometrical units, networked into ensembles of polyptychs with three or four members, I do not think it is necessary to insist on the esoterics of the triplicate or the quadruplicate, to weary oneself with discussion of any ideal, perfect and absolute sum. It is true that the tripartite and the quadripartite do magnify the impression of plenitude, but most essential for this painter, I would say, is the dialogue of the parts; in other words, he is led by the need to set up reciprocal echoes and morphological recognitions, in a neighbouring composition going on with, refining and in his way rounding off what was started in the precursor work.
Although the intentions and effect of this cycle of Vrkljan are nothing if not painterly, painterly squared and cubed even (in the exclusiveness, self-referentiality, rejection of anything accessory), this cycle is also an apology for drawing, a veritable ecstasy of linear forces and curvilinear strokes. Of course, this is drawing in paint, pushing the flows of colour to exhaustion, fulfilment, letting out jets of chromatic charges, a dripping of a gently controlled orientation, the suggestion of a delicate fabric of subtle filaments and so on. And this true abundance of graphic signs results in a corresponding pictorial effect, the euphoria of the linear dipping most naturally into the magma of the absolute, ending in shaping on the edge of the shapeless, celebrates its own transformation into a new dimension – graphically transcendant – of existence. We have pointed out that Vrkljan does not aim at wiping out the traces, rather the inscription of ever new layers, laying pigment over pigment. It would then be incorrect to say that his paintings are entirely devoid of any formal indications. On the contrary, they are very explicit in recording the originating rhythms, any internal movement, and penetrating the subcutaneous level. In the initial versions (and in part in the final variations) the elliptical outlines of a central core (not to say, motif) of the painting were still manifested with a degree of definedness, and here were also spiral, vertical, swirling movements. Progressing towards the spiritualisation of the cycle, the painter has increasingly eliminated the speech of contour, the syntax of subdivision of the field, and has given himself over only to the interweaving of coloured mainstreams and tributaries, the waves and curves of the nervation that lead towards a sensitive (or sensual) saturation of the composition.
Choice of the fundamental colour of the ground to a great extent determines everything that is going to happen subsequently on that screen of a canvas. Whiteness as starting point will cause an accumulation of subdued, extremely restrained deposits of pigments, a brown background will stimulate the interaction of agglomerations of ochre and yellow, while on a deep blue ground there will be sequences of layers tempered accordingly. This does not mean that the author has set himself some kind of aesthetic determinism or academic normativeness, rather the relations of the parts and the whole conform to chromatic affinities (necessarily counting in the possibility or indeed the obligation of occasional contrast). One of the triptychs is marked by a colourist trinomial: red – white and blue, which is not so much a hommage to our national flag (or to the original French tricolour) as much as a deliberate association with the Three Colours films of Kieslowski, emblematic scenes of existential tension. Conducting his everyday conversation with the surface on the easel, the painter does not put on just colours that please him and arrange them so that one is in harmony with the other, but necessarily conveys to the canvas his own states of mind and mood or rather: his imprints and respites. Can we conclude that Vrkljan, quite indirectly and in correspondence to his medium, is giving the public his own lyrical diary, a seismograph of existential non-indifference?
Because of Vrkljan’s literary learning and his familiarity with myths and archetypes, and the previous painting phases, it is entirely logical that in his particular radical expression he refrains from relying on cultural landmarks and leaning on the crutch of elements outside the picture. Nor would we wish to impose on him the prosthesis of some philosopheme, back him up with precipitate formulations. But since his non-iconic morphology most of all nevertheless recalls the work of Lyrical Abstraction, we might allow ourselves, along with a descriptive analysis, to ascribe to his work an epistemological and ontological meaning close to existentialist derivatives. And that we are not placing him in the limiting portfolio of neo-Informel or cramming him into any trendy cage we shall best show by the statement that we see Vrkljan’s painterly procedure as a synthesis of a number of diachronic patrimonies. So, unlike in classic Informel, he does not at all insist on materiality, rawness and roughness of surface, on the contrary, he cultivates it with delicacy of strokes and smoothes it with Pointillist or Divisionist touches, and in the chromatic concordances achieved it is as if he were respecting the dignity of the pictorial bottom line from late Baroque to post-Impressionist solutions.
And so his paintings have the character of organic harmony, so to say, the nature of an epithelium, a skin, a live membrane on which tones with characteristic dominants resonate (cobalt, silver, violet, blues, yellows, golden). Like the artist himself, we recognise in them with gladness the flickering of the surface with the accents of exposed afterimages or solemn, hymnic pulses of beams of light worthy of the conception of some dematerialised Constantinopolis or perhaps Cosmopolis.
At any rate, the new Zlatan Vrkljan picture cycle is an import creative step in the direction of maximising immanent visual demands, and with its directed catharsis makes a notable contribution to the reaffirmation of the medium that the painter uses and which – both humbly and self-confidently – he serves.
Tonko Maroević
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