Croatian artist examines power with wit |
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Croatian artist Mladen Stilinovic 'Bag People' (foreground) and Exploitation of the Dead.'

It’s one thing to be an artist in the 2013 Carnegie International, but to have a whole gallery to oneself, well, that’s pretty special.

Such is the case with Croatian artist Mladen Stilinovic, whose work is on view in Gallery One in the Scaife Galleries.

“It’s kind of a mini-retrospective,” says Dan Byers, co-curator of the 2013 Carnegie International, of the display, which includes hundreds of paintings, drawings, texts, found objects and photographs by the artist, now in his 70s, that span a 40-plus year career.

Born in 1947, in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now Serbia), Stilinovic lives and works in Zagreb, Croatia. Since the 1970s, he has practiced a “quixotic interrogation of power,” says Byers or, as the artist calls it, “the language of politics.”

But it’s not just Yugoslavian socialism that is the target of this uniquely talented artist, it’s politics and culture in general. “He’s very interested in the co-mingling of politics, art, historical ideology, humor and the place of the worker and artist in everyday life,” Byers says.

Thus, the works on display touch upon capitalism, world culture (especially pitting Eastern and Western cultures against each other) and contemporary globalism, and much of it with a wry sense of humor that has truly become Stilinovic’s signature.

Take, for example, the installation “Dictionary—Pain” in which Stilinovic presents all 523 pages of an English dictionary in which he has painted out every definition and replaced it with the word “pain.”

“Some of them sound ridiculous, but you can imagine what kind of pain that would be,” says Byers, pointing to the word kangaroo. “Kangaroo pain, that’s a very specific kind of pain.”

In “Bag—People,” a photographic installation of dozens of photographs displayed on top of a tall, narrow table that runs through the center of one gallery at just below eye level, Stilinovic makes social commentary on the banality of everyday life, again with humor.

Each photograph focuses on someone walking on their way to work, and especially their lunch, which is packed in ubiquitous plastic bags.

Byers says the presence of the bags becomes a formal gesture, emblematic of whole global systems of consumption, waste and labor. As if marching in two rows down the narrow table, the whole installation becomes a playful gesture, that is at once humorous and onerous. “It’s an incredible, almost kinetic, sculpture in the way that you walk along it and see all the different images,” Byers says.

Another installation, “Exploitation of the Dead,” is 129 mixed-media works in an intricate montage of art history, explicitly political and religious symbolism, everyday objects and collaged photography that, according to Byers, “mines the graveyard of 20th-century symbolism.”

Begun in the 1990s, the title of the series is tongue-in-cheek.

“The dead in this case is dead symbolism, dead politics, dead ideologies,” Byers says. “He’s looking at (Russian painter and art theoretician Kazimir) Malevich (1879-1935), and Suprematism and early 20th-century abstraction as the absolute, pure form as a means to utopia. … For him, there is a pleasure and abstraction and representation at the expense of this kind of graveyard of symbolism of the 20th century.”

Stilinovic has exhibited extensively in Croatia and abroad, including in the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003. His work is held in the collections of the Centre Pompidou, Paris, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and he has been the subject of several publications and catalogues.

“He is very influential in Eastern Europe,” Byers says, and, yet, this is the first major survey of the artist’s work to be displayed in North America. To that end, the display also includes the artist’s manifesto, titled “In Praise of Laziness.”

“It’s all about laziness as a means of productivity, as a means of making art, the relationship between the East and the West, and the importance of the kind of dumb, bored time that we all experience,” Byers says.

The relationship between East and West is especially important for the artist and how it relates to this international exhibit as a whole, Byers says. That is why one of the first pieces visitors will come to is a handmade banner that reads “An Artist Who Cannot Speak English Is No Artist.”

“English is the dominant language in the world, and especially the art world,” Byers says. “Frankly, you can’t participate in the international art world if you don’t speak English.

“There’s humor to this, but it also has a serious angle, which is that you don’t have access to this unless you have the privilege of a certain kind of language.”

Byers says making that point is important, “especially in an international exhibit.”

“In all of the interactions I have with artists and curators and people all over the world, I don’t speak Chinese, I don’t speak Croatian. I speak English, and that’s a privilege,” Byers says. “And pointing that out, I think, is important, especially in an exhibition of international contemporary art, sort of seeing the terms in which this world exists.”

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at [email protected].

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