Žarko Vrezec: Pages from a Diary 2012-2014

18 March, 2014

Ljubljana, Hest Gallery/Galerija Hest
12. – 27. 3. 2014

When I started writing critiques, abstract art (preferably of minimalist or of American expressionist variety) was all the rage in Slovenia and representational art of any kind was frowned upon. Nowadays, the situation is very much different: artists who want to ingratiate themselves with trend-setting galleries and curators are making videos or installations or both while most others are trying out all kinds of representational styles. And although the fact that there is nothing better to match the colour of your couch than a carefully selected abstract painting is widely recognized, abstract art is mostly pushed to the background – though this is actually good news since it is being practiced only by people who really want to make it and is therefore much better than decades ago.

Also, it is much more independent. Artists, of course, know their history but the days of slavish copying are long gone. Therefore, contemporary Slovene abstract art finally has a character of its own; it could be described as rather quiet and introspective, at least at first glance, and there are few painters who are quieter and more introspective than Žarko Vrezec.

mixed media

a page from a diary, mixed media, 16 x 14 cm

The “page from a diary” that is reproduced here (it is signed but, typically, bears no date or title) seems to prove the opposite – black and red and yellow are undoubtedly dramatic colours, rich with associations. However, until now such accents have been more of an exception than the rule in the artist’s opus. Actually, for quite a while his most typical colour was gray or, rather, seemingly inexhaustible shades of gray, including the pigeon variety which is supposed to be the most tedious colour in the universe: it was almost like Vrezec was bent on proving the opposite. This might – or might not – have been one of his reasons for employing it, but I think the main one was that he wanted to lead the spectators’ attention away from colours and their impact.

Some dramatic accents have always been present in Vrezec’s works, not only in the big ones (of which he made quite a few, although this may sound surprising given his recent output) but in his small ones as well. Grand drama is not to his taste, though – Le bon Dieu est dans le detail could well be considered to be his most important motto. As an artist, Vrezec grew up in the period I already mentioned, in the period when action painting was considered one of the supreme expressions of painterly endeavor; therefore, he knows its techniques well and he does employ at least some of them, though not in the way we are accustomed to. Grand gesture is absent from his work; additionally, the blueprint of his recent works is always the same, a colour field symmetrically interrupted by a vertical stripe of different colours. This design was pioneered by Olga Rozanova but is best known from works of the New York School artists; in Vrezec’s case it represents another self-imposed limitation. His goal is clear: since the basic layout of his paintings is known in advance – like, e.g., the basic outline of a page in a book – the viewer, like a reader, accepts it automatically, concentrating instead on what is going on on “the page”.

The comparison is not as farfetched as it may seem, and not just because of the title of the artist’s most recent series. Not only are measurements of his works standard (16 x 14 cm) and reminiscent of an average book page size but he also, some years ago, assembled his small works in what can best be described as a bookcase with paintings instead of books. This could certainly be repeated with his recent works; while they do not seem to be out of place on a gallery wall they certainly feel much more at home in one’s hands, being studied and wondered about and, above all, contemplated – again, like a book.

While Vrezec’s paintings in Hest Gallery repeat the usual formulas they also introduce some innovations, pointing in various directions. On the one hand, colours are much more assertive and generally much warmer; quick brush strokes are concentrated around the stripe, leaving paintings’ outer regions (almost) empty. On the other hand, outlines of the stripe are much more stressed (they were always there, of course, but at least one of their edges was always shaped organically while now all of them are strictly straight) and often, small metallic-looking rectangles are added (actually, those are fragments of Vrezec’s older works and not metallic at all). The narrative of the artist’s recent paintings is thus different from his older one; the leading theme is a conflict, though the author refuses to define what sort of a conflict he is imagining. The title of the whole series gives us at least the first clue but the final interpretation is still left to those willing to contemplate his works.