Posted on 04.07.2018
Marko Dabetić, In Search of Finer Side 0f Pop, 2017
IN SEARCH OF THE FINER SIDE OF POP: Art of Irena Kazazić
by Marko Dabetić
Not so long ago, on a Balkan branch of CNN, I overheard someone call Jeff Koons ‘THE greatest living artist’.
Now, that’s arguable at best, I remember thinking to myself.
But more importantly, it made me think once again of profound, game changing global impact of pop-art on our perception of both the art, it’s subjects and role in our lives, and the artist, and his/her calling.
Up to our waist in second decade of 21st century, we are way beyond 16th century Renaissance notion of artist as an individual of special significance to our existence. Or are we?
It actually seems now that all attacks on this notion were ultimately unsuccessful — ranging from so called historical avant-garde movements of early 20th century, identity and politics debate central to certain movements within post-war Western art, to what for a long time did seem to be the final blow – post-Warhol, Reagan-Thatcher era revision of both art as a commodity and artist as a worker-in-art or a business person who is managed into a status of a star, on a famous premise that everyone is entitled to their very own ‘15 minutes of fame’.
But what happened here can be seen as merely a shift in terminology and wages.
Names did not become insignificant.
Public image of the artist did not become insignificant, either – quite the contrary, it became central to the whole mechanism of becoming a recognized artist.
Art itself might have suffered dubious devaluation to a commodity, but this was not a new dimension to the problem of its true nature by any stretch of imagination – and as far as it was a quality merchandise, it still brought fame, fortune and special status to its maker. Of course, it became increasingly difficult, bordering on impossible, to become Jean Renoir of one’s time – since the golden age of American pop art, artist is likened to any other figure that might be found on magazine covers, any other star – meaning any other brand, a bundle of public image, quality content and careful management.
So, to a member of general public, to a possible consumer, it did not really matter whether you are Madonna, Richard Gere, Ivana Trump, Michael Bolton or Basquiat. It might matter a lot to you, the artist – it certainly meant everything to Basquiat, once he got a good whiff of what’s going on – but you’d ultimately wind up being all alone in this. At the same time, media-induced value of an artist or a public person seemed to inflate in contagious fashion – as Julian Schnabel once put it: ‘I think Mary (Boone) is famous because I’m famous and I’m famous because Leo (Castelli) is famous’. So the professed 15 minutes of fame for everyone – at very least anyone aspiring to be an artist – in fact turned to be a cluster thing after a while.
And that’s what makes being an artist today such a damn tough gig.
Recognition is fleeting, and mostly it comes for all the wrong reasons, plus it never reaches you entirely, only the public double that for a limited time occupies central position in a PR campaign here and there. It remains doubtful if your points are understood or conveyed to right people, or is it just a matter of tricking those who are most likely to buy your art/product into actually doing so. Serious money often comes posthumously, as well as first in-depth attempts at defining your role in a culture you spent your life contributing to.
Or it just might not come, at all. One might find him/herself – in words of titular character from Bruce Robinson’s Withnail & I – ‘a trained actor [artist], reduced to the status of a bum’; a pompous subject to social casework, in for a lifetime of just not belonging anywhere.
This might lead to further abominations – one might in resentment assume often authoritarian and at times even tending on narrow-minded views of a post-70’s artist-cum-activist of one or the other radical orientation, and try to further ruin it for everybody fanatically claiming that art is merely an asset in everyday politics and if it ‘fails’ to be so, it is – irrelevant. This certainly isn’t unheard of.
And so those who decide upon being artists today find themselves in this, by no means enviable, position of being largely denied their opportunity to become era-defining individual – but are also in no way relieved of the need to do so. It might have appeared as logical in Warhol’s time that art simply becomes assembly line work, possibly done entirely by machines and marketed en masse by retail managers or at least randomly attributed to showbiz sort of artist figures groomed into stardom from nothing and not different in any sense from models that appear as brand faces in TV commercials – because it just doesn’t matter so much anymore, does it?
But it’s not the way it went. At least not to an extent that might actually be considered a standard.
Of course, things do get more complicated as we broaden our perspective to include parts of the world that are not, nor have they ever been, trend-dictating centers of global art world or at least decent art market factors. So – not Paris, not New York. Not even Vienna or Venice.
Third world of the art world.
Those who follow.
What of all those countries where major market crashes do not bear a potential to produce opportunity for wider understanding of art as a commodity, if not it’s cultural or aesthetic value – like it was the case in post-Black Monday Reagan-era America in 1987? There, it prompted Hal Foster to retroactively label Warhol’s work as ‘traumatic realism’ a decade later. Would the same be even possible in, say, Leninist-Socialist model of a society?
For instance, there is an entirely new layer of pop art impact on art and theory in countries of former Eastern block, and to deny this would be plain ignorant. It would mean denying apparent effects of, at one time ubiquitous, malformed ideas of social equality, of both the individual and the elite seen as risky or borderline undesirable concepts and false, contrived and controlled prevalence of all things popular in what the State recognizes as national culture. It would be an oversight not to ask oneself in what way could have often misread Marxism underlying life in its entirety for decades in these countries, left platforms for pop art and all it’s subsequent niches to build upon. In the West, it had ubiquitous idea of free entrepreneurship driving the entire Warhol’s philosophy – so often seen as summarized in famous quote: ‘being good at business is most fascinating kind of art’. This alone might have been why it had such an echo in Reagan-era America, and why the emergence of a new kind of a yuppie dealer such as Mary Boone was so inevitable. But what of countries that were stripped of or never actually built upon the idea of free business? How exactly would have democratization of art as a discipline seemingly brought upon by American pop art echoed in these realities?
What happens to the artist, when he/she finds him/herself unrecognized by the State, without proper support and having no real art market – not even one based solely on private business initiative – to turn to?
Life, work and ongoing career of Serb-Slovenian artist Irena Kazazić offer a compelling answer to this question, while standing out as one of the arguably most authentic artistic voices of her time and place.
‘And then, everything was so easy: I was a little kid again, coloring the white space.’
To begin this story, we need to take a leap to a final decade of SFRY in Slovenia – the state that arguably played a key role in disassembling of this federation.
I remember a claim Yugoslavian author, phenomenologist philosopher Ivan Focht made in one of the textbooks I had to go through during my Art History studies – that average delay in Western fashion trends reaching Yugoslavian states is about five years, whereas average delay for contemporary philosophy, art theory and practice is about two decades. This was written in the his Introduction to Aesthetics, published in 1972. – the very year Irena Kazazić was born, and it probably was the least accurate in Slovenia (book itself was published in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina). After all, as early as 1967. Slovenia spearheaded an attempt of placing Yugoslavian art in post-WWII center of global art world, New York. But on average, it was true – and perhaps still isn’t too far from the truth – at least when it comes to art. In many ways, art in ex-Yugoslav republics is still heavily influenced by by Western art before 90s.
Of course, this is a complicated phenomenon – and by no means limited to local givens. It might be that trends in art, at least in academic circles, are still coming to ex-Yugoslav republics with some delay, but on the other hand, more global aspects of crisis of art are here for a long time now. In a way, a question begs to be uttered – what exactly was so novel or important in Western art over past twenty years?
But before we start dealing with the present, we need to go back – to Slovenia basking in SFRY twilight. Still some 15 years to go until the Poster Scandal, a famed Irwin sabotage that took place in 1987, almost simultaneously with the first public demand of Slovene intelligentsia for state independence. In the seventies, Slovenia was still enjoying relatively privileged status within the federation and thriving, on its way to the point when its productivity was, on average, more than double than that of the other Yugoslavian republics.
It was in this state and time, in Ljubljana, that future artist spent her childhood, in a bloc of uniform buildings overlooking the crematory chimneys, a sight that perhaps in an insidious fashion informed her early sense of life and death as well a certain interest in mysticism and philosophy. Her childhood and elementary school days were spent listening to her parent’s records, playing, and absorbing popular culture via usual TV offer in Slovenia, somewhat richer than in the case of the rest of Yugoslavia. Her recollection of these days is perhaps the best way to begin the story of her art:
‘We had about 4 programs the most, and the one I loved was TV Koper-Capodistria, they were entertaining, not just conferences from government sessions in black and white, and a cartoon (1 a day?!), and two good films at most weekly, well, and in the winter holiday beautiful animal documentaries (Survival, was the name of the TV show).
No, Koper Capodistria had a cartoon, or two, about half an hour long, with a short commercial break, I didn’t understand shit, but it was fun. The biggest appeal was Videomix: an about two and a half hours long tv show where playboy-ish looking host played videos of the most hip pop-rock music happening back then. And it was on every Thursday, ‘late’ night for my age circumstances, I was one of the rare kids in my class, to be allowed to stay up and watch TV till 11.30 pm.
So during the music class at school, a group of us kids were bored, and sat together, the four, five of us, playing this game, every Friday, after The Night of the Mighty Videomix, and invented this quiz game, where somebody had to describe a short scene from the video, while the others guess whose the video was.
This was my thing.
Perhaps then I started being more aware of the connection music-painting, I mean in a more focused way: till this day I love to see a good video to a great song.’
As evident from this short excerpt from private correspondence, the usual pop melange of influences originating from media and everyday life impressions partly was the basis for early recognition the inchoate artistic impulses within the artist herself – as was, over the course of her coming-of-age, frequenting the places within the small constellation of Ljubljana’s cultural and social offer at the time: be it Palma or Turist, teen dance halls and disco joints, Cankarjev dom (attending ballet shows), progressive art galleries such as Equrna (founded in 1982.), and Škuc a little later, now defunct KUD France Prešern, or alternative places like Metelkova, multi-purpose art space and squat and K4, gay-friendly disco club open to current alternative music (pioneering LGBT lifestyle in Slovenia’s capital with Roza Disco thematic nights).
Perhaps equally important, each in it’s own way, were two prolonged visits to United States, almost 20 years apart, spent in Las Vegas and Los Angeles respectively. It was these distant spaces she took important battles to, especially the second time around, in 2011. – issues related to family, turbulent shifts in personal relationships and existential crisis that eventually melded with what seems to have been a sort of undiagnosed somatized depression, were all grappled with amidst overwhelmingly retinal backdrop of Las Vegas and – to an Eastern European person – somewhat disjointed everyday reality of California, and it stands to reason that this must have, to some extent, informed her basic pop art orientation. (This second stay in US incorporated ultimately unsuccessful effort to permanently move to California.)
Even from her first visit to US, aged 18, Irena came back ‘a different little person’. Turmoils of adolescence were behind her and she enrolled in studies of Architecture in Ljubljana – a compromise to her first choice, which was Visual Arts; her interest in scenography acted as a proxy of sorts for her artistic aspirations at this moment. Unsurprisingly, she dropped out and eventually opted for formal education in arts.
However, it was preparatory classes for Architecture school, notably drawing lessons on weekends, that marked the beginning of Irena’s actual artistic training, but it was not until she decided to self-fund her art education (after going through brief studies of Journalism and series of unsatisfactory jobs, including a position with national TV and translating children’s books, teaching English in a primary school, as well as a winter spent as a squatter in Metelkova, which was just founded) that she managed to truly pursue her interest in arts.
On her first year of studies, she writes:
‘The thing is, I was too old to be a student (26) […] I was there to work, not to hang, I already was with somebody, so all their mating games were a distraction to me, I was reluctant to make new close friendships, I just wanted to learn as much as possible in the shortest time ever, to make up for the time lost.’
Initially, Kazazić’s artistic explorations revolved around basic pop art imagery: from oversize Nutella jar painted in warm colors (Nutella, 2001.), with pristine surface and almost realist precision (but retaining pop-art dominance of sign/symbolic over the depicted in the painting), painting of food in oil on a kitchen cloth used for a canvas (Kitchen Painting, 2003.), to ‘borrowed’ shopping carts filled with plaster/clay casts of everyday objects and consumer goods (Feed Me I & II, 2001.). Although these works do show a wide span of interests in the wake of formulation of one’s own direction as an artist, some of the features clearly foreshadow what will later become distinctive elements of Kazazić’s own revision of pop and post-pop; for example, her rendition of Nutella jar radiates a certain seemingly ‘un-pop’ tenderness from its color spectrum, and instead of pseudo-iconic pop reduction to narrative/sign or bleakness of a reflection on consumer fetishes and mundane bliss of brand name foods, it partly invokes a certain feeling of common, human happiness that sometimes can be achieved by simply buying a jar of chocolate.
Irena’s ability to weave this dimension of intense but sophisticated emotionalism into her works without spoiling the edge to this day certainly remains one of her strongest hands. In fact, while most of the art produced within pop or post-pop tradition over last decade seems to drift into overtly politicized treatment of personal or domestic, Kazazić’s art seems to go completely against the grain, adopting almost romantic emotional immediacy instead of just turning everyday objects, people and scenes into pop-iconic items – be it her watercolor or oil portraits, drawings or mixed media, people remain people. In fact, even popular and sometimes long dead people are treated here as friends: in her series of musician portraits form 2013, individual works are rendered into same warm spectrum of colors and named simply by first names – Billie, Miles, Ella, Frank, just as it is the case with series of portraits of long time friends and collaborators that both precede and follow. In works of Irena Kazazić happiness remains inherent to human contact.
Among her early pieces one in particular is a testimony to Kazazić’s (self-confessed) influences: Robert Rauschenberg. Tryptich Dreaming of Fame (2001.), which showcases her utilization of Rauschenberg’s transfer technique, from today’s standpoint seems to be a bit apart from anything she did in years to follow and is probably her most derivative work – but it already shows some of the important sides to her art, least of all her honesty about her heroes – but also a fine sense of balance, control of empty space (which will, as we’ll see further on, constantly evolve over the course of her career, ending up as one of most distinctive sides to her mastery of the emotionally charged image) and fine tuned color, which even in monochrome patches is able to convey a powerful suggestion to spectator’s retinal-emotional system. Here for the first time we have red color, in the way it is going to be used a lot later on in her work – not only signifying what it traditionally does in terms of psychology and psychoanalysis (Kazazić is also a self-confessed avid reader of Freud), passion – but also giving some uncertain idea as to the intensity and scope of this passion.
Color red is also important to certain schools of Western hermeticism (‘all magick is red’), and this influence tends to resurface here and there in Kazazić’s later work – this will be addressed to further depths as we move along (there is a self-portrait 2008. completely immersed in bright red, for example). Red patches on Dreaming of Fame are more of a foreshadowing of this in all probability, but they do stand witness to a power of intuition and its significance in self-development of an artist. They are also imbued with certain cloud-like quality, reminiscent of blood smudges on laboratory test plates, invoking perhaps at the same time famed ‘Dionysian red’ – traditional background of classical depictions of mysteries.
It is also worth noting that in this early homage to Rauschenberg, although formally present, elements that invoked labels as ‘Neo-Dada’ in relation to most of his work are carefully kept on more abstract territory – pictorial qualities are still the most important thing, even if they are informed with (very carefully controlled) Dadaist-like playfulness. To some point, this may serve as a premise to read Kazazić’s work to this day – elements of ‘low’ culture, pop, controversial subject-matter or subversive use of mixed techniques are present, but employed with measure to preserve what today might be perceived as some of the classical qualities of visual art – harmony, clarity and direct appeal to viewer’s aesthesis, as well as their emotional response.
Around 2001, Kazazić and her partner and artistic collaborator at the time, Matjaž Stražar, turned their shared studio into Atelje M. I. K. S. – a venture that resulted in at least two well received exhibitions: gallery of KUD Miran Jarc – Škocjan in 2002. and KUD France Prešern show in 2004. By the time of the first show, Kazazić’s early work was joined by her breakthrough first series of Shoes (Čevlji, 2001-2009.) – paintings of shoes, almost exclusively female, in which some of already mentioned features of Kazazić’s artistry reach their early peaks; vivid colors and undeniable heavy sentiments led critics to declare largely misunderstood heavy psychological synthesis of these paintings either a clandestine abstraction or kitsch. It was this latter misconception that drew the artist to use them as her graduate work and defiantly title her final work at art school Kitsch.
Genesis of Shoes is quite typical of Kazazić’s future approach to pop or post-pop – at the same time achingly personal but with great potential for wide identification by just any member of the audience, and relying, quite unlike rest of the pop-influenced art of today, on immediate emotional touch which itself relies – again, in an unlikely way – on careful building of pictorial elements; color and content alike are melded into such a peculiar, yet straightforward way that Shoes could have been, and in fact were, mistaken for decorative painting by art scholars not used to rely on their immediate feeling so much as on ‘evil of theory’ while reading the painting. But to an eye less differentiated, it was clear that these, at least in one of multiple levels they could have been experienced in, were actually portraits – not painted as objects or an effigy of some plebeian consumer desire, not even so much as a sort of erotic focal point of Western collective consciousness (though this aspect to Shoes is undeniable): they were in fact portraits of Kazazić’s inner space, heavily synthesized; so, in a way, more akin to an otherwise non-existent background landscape on Mona Lisa, than to Warhol’s Campbell soup paintings or any other pop depiction of mass produced goods before or after him, for that matter.
Artist herself speaks of this series in a way that offers some insight in delicate and intense place it came from:
‘It was the time in my life, where everything was pretty simple. Yes, simple: my boyfriend, painter Matjaž and I lived in a rented studio, that had no bathroom. We ‘showered’ in the morning in the kitchen sink, and after I came from work, I went to my parents’ flat every second day to shover properly before going to school at night.
One of us was always working. There were bills to be paid: rent, scholarship, gas money, and all the rest, like food for a cat that started living at their place, abandoned by their neighbors for not being a cute kitty anymore.
So, this was the period, when he was working: and working like 12 hours per day. I was lonely a lot, being used to the two of us, hanging together constantly, so it was this weekend, and he had to work (for this guy, who was into painting the taverns with the idea to revive them, throughout Slovenia) out of town, and it was cold, and I was listening to this cd we borrowed from the library. Truthfully, I don’t know which Fellini movie soundtrack it was, but it made me so warm, and not alone at all listening to it, that I started drawing the picture from the cover on some old canvas. All of a sudden, the entire mosaic started rolling inside my head […]’
This passage from artist’s personal correspondence in its own way touches perhaps the most vital (and sometimes very obvious) part of Kazazić’s artistic drive – her art is at all times connected to her interpersonal experiences. Much alike some of her musician or other pop heroines (Billie Holliday comes to mind), she does not withdraw from her experience as a human, or a woman – at the very core of her creative persona, this seems to be a sort of imperative. Just as a great song is so often about a deepest experience of another person, another human being – so can be a great painting. Not necessarily and not at all times – but it certainly seems to be a sure way, and for a longest stretch of the history of human dealing in art, as well.
Of course, in a sort of paradoxical way, loneliness of an almost baffling magnitude is integral to this, often people-related, art. That’s why Shoes, albeit built on a completely different pictorial language and giving off entirely different kind of overall emotional radiance, possess the same tinge of quiet, lonely observation as some of Kazazić’s arguably ‘loneliest’ imagery from her second dramatic visit to United States of America, be it animals in San Diego Zoo (All Persons More than a Mile High to Leave the Court, 2011), almost monumentally vacant spaces of her depictions of desert or a heart-wrenching and vivid ‘portrait’ of a balloon cut loose in front of minimal and distant Californian landscape (Let Go, 2011).
And this conjugation of seemingly disparate imagery, visual/psychological content and feelings is another distinct feature of Kazazić’s visual art overall. Just as terrible loneliness and warmth of comfort often are seen and experienced together in Shoes, so are the straits of human experience, such as mature (or maybe it is better to use a different and conveniently suggestive term – adult), erotically charged and somewhat decadent (in its overt neuroticism and sensual intensity) imagery of Shoes IV, somehow having undecipherable common denominator with sentimental, simple and touching loneliness of child’s skittles and soft tiny footwear on Shoes VII (both from original 2002. series). In a way, a spectator might be tempted to conclude that it indeed takes a woman to paint (and before that, of course, encompass as parts of her own experience of the world) both of these.
Shoes paintings were also the first works that brought money to the artist – independent gallery Hest 35 sold two pieces from the series instantly, resulting in short-lived collaboration, but a long lasting encouragement, necessary for the struggles in years to come. Though described by Kazazić herself primarily as a lesson in how things work in the network of galleries – an experience that will soon inform her decision to manage herself as an artist, she does not deny the positive impact that this early breakthrough had on her career in arts.
Back to School
After disbandment of M. I. K. S. in 2005, both Kazazić’s artistic expression and personal life seem to have entered another round of trials and re-calibrations. More socially active, but apparently more anxious and plagued by personal turmoils, she tries to reinvent her pictorial language. Driving forces behind Shoes were no longer at play, and though she did not quite abandon painting them until 2009, she admittedly ‘did not have patience to them (properly) ever again’.
First gleam of creative rebirth after this personal crisis materialized into a series of ‘postcards’ – dubbed so more to signify their relation to emotional and spiritual places artist was currently in, rather than physical travel. Sanity (2007.) is representative of this period: twisted and tortured, blot-ridden but at the same time elegant figuration applied to what seems to be an animal torso, countered (or indeed complemented by?) fuzzy, abstract and emotionally charged patches of color, which itself is a statement, not unlike what can be experienced from soft color fields found on canvases of Mark Rothko.
And then, to put it in alchemist terms, shit solidified.
Series of portraits produced 2007-2009. gives off an air of immense intensity, accompanied with what seems as an aberration in Kazazić’s view of line and color. Paste-thick, heavy paint, introduction of darker colors (sometimes even black, used in a borderline blunt kind of way), expressions on the faces of familiar people ranging from distant or profound tristesse, to daring, downright menacing or ‘demonic’, introduction of bright red as a flat backdrop for a figure (Irena and Petra, both from 2008.), sometimes oozing or trickling into its lines (and sometimes diabolically filling the white of the eyes) and sickly, menacing, glowing but dirty yellow (which in Eerie from 2007. also fills the mouth of artists depiction of herself, as suggested by title, which is actually a sort of a morbid pun on the way her name is pronounced in her native language). Color once widely believed to have foreshadowed Van Gogh’s lapse of sanity, is here countered in part by heavy employment of large surfaces of deep violet (arguably the color indicative of suicidal states), as seen in Duša or Ursula (both from 2008.) or blue (which at least in English needs no interpretation). Ursula in particular is an interesting ‘read’, assuming that colors in portraits often speak more than, or even independently of artist’s conscious intentions. It is the only one that has all of the colors from this period which, albeit dominated by violet, are still tempting the informed viewer to decipher artist’s mental and emotional status as well as the intended meaning.
Even the most innocent portrait in the series, depicting a child (artist’s niece, Satja, 2008) has a certain unease to it; in fact it might serve as a perfect flipside for Shoes VII – as though the same unconscious pool into which artist previously tapped to create nostalgic but ultimately warm and calm microcosm of a snapshot of a child’s world in Shoes piece, now produced wide-eyed awe, inescapably enclosed between veils of menacing yellow and uncomfortably odd violet.
It was not until 2009’s Tomaž, that Kazazić’s tunnel was, seemingly in somewhat abrupt fashion, illuminated with what will be a precursor to her trademark white space/light. Still somewhat reluctant to use it boldly and in large areas as she will in her later work and exploring arabesque-like floral patterns – or perhaps they are more akin to vintage wallpaper designs? – to fill it in and enfold the central figure of a portrait, but definitely securing in it a foothold for a new territory within continuity of her pictorial expression.
A few of the other pieces from this, arguably transitional phase, offer some insight in evolution of Kazazić’s use of these or similar elements, like Jaka 1/II and Zen (both from 2010.), both of which showcase figuration, painted collage-like fragments and abstract treatment of empty space in the background used in different ratios, with the latter showing use of off-white instead of blank space.
Heaven or Las Vegas
It would seem that a trip to United States of America is bound to be sort of a pilgrimage for an artist working in or leaning on tradition of American pop-art. In case of Irena Kazazić, it admittedly worked in similar way. Though probably New York could be considered a pop artist Mecca, it turned out that cultural environments of Los Angeles and Las Vegas respectively were just as good as ritual grounds for breaking out of a rut and reinventing one’s artistic expression and personality.
So, summer of 2011. saw Irena’s arrival in US – still plagued by issues related to intense mental life of an artist as well as exhaustion and pressing need to escape the perceived confines of her Slovenian whereabouts, her visit was meant to be anything but a road-trip style venture into reinventing herself and her art. But as life would have it, it turned out to be exactly that.
Not to delve too deep into intricacies of a position of an artist coming from ‘post-colonial’ East European background, possibly feeling ‘a tourist in one’s own culture’ by the turn of the century, due to progression of consumerism in countries once firmly formatted to Socialist values and social protocols (still sitting, historically viewed, uncomfortably close to 19th century national idealism, but slowly – and often in a completely backwards fashion – adopting industry and market realities of the West, and thus gradually seeing their cultural identities deteriorate and subsequently more often than not reducing their national cultural policies to an unjustly distributed minimum of support to or even interest in their own contemporary art), it is safe to say that dense, directed and hyper-retinal backdrop of Las Vegas could have nested a potential for her possible personal experience of ‘the desert of the real’ to find a temporary habitat in consensual reality.
Irena Kazazić did not feel at home in Slovenia. So, needing a break from accumulated cognitive noise and cluttered social relations back in Ljubljana, she briefly considered permanently moving to US. And beyond taking photos of animals in San Diego Zoo which will later serve as image sources for some of her finest work up to date, it was not until after she abandoned this idea about immigration that she started working again.
However, when she did start again, it was obvious that a substantial shift in her pictorial language is underway. Though building upon the last years’ use of elements of collage or collage-like painted structures (Jaka 1/II, 2010 or the earlier example, Sunčan from 2009.) and interjections of textual parts or found pages (Master of the River, 2010), only slightly reminiscent of her early ‘Robert Rauschenberg tribute band’ triptych Dreaming of Fame I-III (see All Persons More than a Mile High to Leave the Court, previously titled simply San Diego Zoo, with cut-outs from Denis the Menace newspaper comic – an element that will resurface later in 2015’s Anxieties and Oli the Cat), her 2011. work is definitely a landmark on her way to what will become her current, mature and authentic visual expression. Radical use of white/blank space, partly originating from technical realities of her return to watercolor, but also admittedly inspired by series of mind maps / posters she did some time before her trip to United States, which was first evident on 2009’s Tomaž (this time completely omitting the floral patterns – although they are to resurface again and again onward in her work) or 2010’s Talk to Me, now comes to a full prominence in series of heavily stylized, semi-abstract and harrowing desolate landscapes (both of real deserts and possibly ‘the desert of the real’), portraits of lone girls immersed in books or paintings of animals – actual and artificial alike (Pink Flamingos, Dogs Beach and Henderson, the latter being focused on a personified figure of a porcelain bunny from someone’s garden in Los Angeles, emerging from a lush, seemingly Japanese-influenced branch heavy with tiny red flowers). Among the best in this series and most striking in her entire opus undoubtedly is Whittier – a pristine, perfectly outlined depiction of a child with a dog, set against pure white backdrop that seems to be their whole world, binding us as viewers inescapably to the experience of the captured moment.
A counterpart to this enlightened minimalism are Kazazić’s Vegas paintings (Travel Journal, series of 22 watercolors), done in the final month of her stay in US: Lucky Lemmings and Sign Crazed, are packed with shapes and colors, former to the point where it touches the intensity and density of Dubuffet’s urban motives or brutality and at the same time child-like naivity somewhat akin to Basquiat’s.
This was in every way imaginable a clear break with previous phase of dark, heavy oil portraits, which in a way incited interpretations that place them on the tenebrous flipside of the Dionysian in her experience – which undeniably was both an important aspect to Kazazić’s artistic drive up to that point and a reason for her collapse into exhaustion and troubled states of social anxiety fueled resignation and subsequent need for relocation. If we’re to stick to this classical paradigm, her paintings from 2011. and mostly ever since are more rooted in what would be more akin to Nietzschean notion of Apollonian in arts – contemplative and dream-like, and certainly less agonist or convulsive.
This is not to say that she refrained from experimenting or producing works that seemingly do not fit to what outsider’s point of view might shape into phases or stages of her development as an artist. Quite the contrary – within every one of these periods of often overlapping phases there are some ‘odd’ pieces to be found (one that instantly comes to mind is 2011’s Angst, which roughly at the time Kazazić’s oeuvre opened up so dramatically to aforementioned contemplative subtlety of large white fields and affectionately treated subjects shows violet-lit frozen moment of strangulation immersed in pitch black background with emotional intensity not dissimilar to that of darker fringes of Expressionism) – and as of the time of her return to Slovenia in 2011. up until the beginning of the second half of 2010’s these diverging tendencies can be observed in most of her work. Though she will keep her basic course of employing masterfully controlled white/empty space to contain brightly and sometimes heavily colored imagery, there will always be an occasional watercolor entirely filled with floral patterns or a portrait immersed in monochrome backdrop, as well as occasional use of oil and acrylic as materials or recurrence of collage or an imitation of it.
Is the cage you love
The home you also hate?
Let us briefly skip back to the beginning now, to Warhol’s ‘traumatic realism’, as it was dubbed in mid-90s; even without insisting on psychological implications (in fact, perhaps it is for the best if we completely ignore them) that term itself invokes, it is clear that it was coined to mark entirely new kind of real in art. Furthermore, in his 1996. book The Return of the Real, Hal Foster goes as far as to claim that discovery of this kind of real, which bypasses (and possibly surpasses) the representational real of painting prior to postwar shifts in art theory ‘may be definitive in contemporary art’. In any way, even after the return to painting and figuration of the 80s took place, there was of course no possibility that ‘return’ will mean exactly that – as some of the classical philosophy suggests, there is no possibility of falling in the same river twice. Therefore, the real in visual arts after pop art as Andy Warhol with his contemporaries practiced it will have suffered substantial alterations to its nature – just as at one point on another, not unrelated plane, it had with Baudrillard’s introduction of simulacra. In this new lap of its metamorphosis, it was again bound to become more than just what painting represents – and not in any way we have witnessed before, since this is by no stretch of imagination a new process. It is in fact old as the painting/art itself.
When it comes to reality in the art of Irena Kazazić, one way of defining it would be to say that it starts with augmented real of pop art, but instead of ‘reproductions of public opinion’ it offers uncompromisingly intimist vision of the same reality. Seemingly not at all interested in public and definitely not addressing the issue of industrial reproduction (which itself was forced into another lap of evolution with widespread use of digital image), her understanding of the art and its products steers away from any kind of open-ended Marxist insistence on equal value of works of art and all other products of human industriousness. It is clear that she knows that art is the Art. This is not to say that her work is determined in any way to deny the fact of art being also a commodity. It instead proposes the recognition of rudimentary fact that art becomes the commodity – after the artist is done with it.
In 2011, Kazazić took her real, after tempering it in American ‘deserts of the real’ back home, to Ljubljana, Slovenia.
From this point on, her body of work diverged into several series, expanding its thematic scope and technical diversity to a degree unprecedented in her career. Watercolors and portraits of familiar people are now joined by series of depictions of food, bondage acts, portraits of musicians, studies of animals or plants (both real and dubiously metaphorical of perhaps a world parallel to human/anthropocentric) and recreations of memorable scenes from the movies, as well as portraits of people from broadened social circle of Internet-based social networking (latter, being a realm of contemporary life where distinction between actual and representation is inherently blurred, undeniably can be seen informing a new layer of artist’s personal experience). From the present standpoint, looking back, diachrony becomes synchrony: entirety of this diverse spectacle of images and memories, coupled with artistic journeys, shifts and phases is flattened and equalized into one, only, singular albeit ongoing real. The Real of Irena Kazazić. A home away from home?
Cast in trickly and vivid watercolors, mixed media and oil, world underlying this personalized reality never seems to lack in stimuli that fuel the inner workings of Kazazić’s creativity. Indeed, some of the most powerful pieces in her career as a visual artist came about as it expanded over the last half a decade. From elegant and lightweight Ms Summer (2015, having its double in Ms Summer II, where figure of female from Kenneth Anger’s Puce Mary is found thrown upside down in a rising blob of mud-like accumulation of golden leaves, reminiscent on one hand of Byzantine icons or frescoes or, depending on the viewer, perhaps chryselephantine asociated with divinity in Ancient Greece – with gold at least in one earlier instance in Kazazić’s work standing for pain – see Gold – Pain, from 2010.) to harrowing and over-the-top graphic oil Disposable (sometimes referred to as Sensei to Sensei, as a tribute of sorts to artist’s penchant for contemporary Japanese cinema, which she admitted to have experienced at one point as a psychodramatic theater which helped her through a difficult period in her life) or resplendent pop-piece Overcome (both from 2016.), to numerous exquisite watercolors depicting food and almost never-ending sequence of portraits that bask in her signature light of whiteness-meeting-colors, that even to a layman probably never fail to convey at least the part of the complex psychological and emotional synthesis that made these images possible in the first place, Irena’s work of recent years does live up to nothing short of magical – at least in the sense that magic can be seen as a culture of experiencing reality. This definition, being inherently complemental to the nature of art itself, somehow seems to offer a key to what Kazazić’s art is all about.
In an interview from 1985 with Benjamin Buchloh, Andy Warhol refused the persistent attempts by the interviewer to force him into pledging allegiance to leftist perspective on the new real in art – perspective rooted in favoring industrial reproduction over painting and equalizing artwork with just about any mass produced item found in everyday life. Warhol even refused to agree to the proposed idea that painting is dead (equal to any other act of productive work done by people or machines) or at very least obsolete and uninteresting after the rise of conceptualism, minimalism and ultimately pop art in postwar America.
In a fashion similar to her hero, Kazazić refuses to take sides or to let ideologies into her work.
In some of her latest pieces, for instance, there is an evident tendency to adopt serialization and/or repetitive imagery – but in a way that late Warhol would approve of: instead of using printing machinery, individual images from the series are all done by hand, thus to some point defeating the industrial serialization fetish within leftist/Marxist approach to pop and everything that followed – in a way restoring rather than destroying the ‘obsolete’ or ‘anachronistic’ aspects to both the work of art and the artist.
Adding to this effect is Kazazić’s custom to omit or multiply certain parts of the images, thus further nuancing the individuality of every piece in the series and moving further away from consumerist logic of industrial serialization, which implies that every buyer gets the same product – although (broadly speaking) ontologically it is of course impossible to do the same artistic item twice, it is undeniable that this is not obvious to the general public, therefore to the member of it every piece produced (or rather, reproduced) by industrial serialization is just the same as the next one. In her recent work, Kazazić shows undisputable awareness that this problematic, inherent to pop art, does not apply at all to what she does. Indeed, she could not make this more clear than she did in her series Princess Pippilotta from 2017. – in which viewer is subject not only to the chromatic variations and slight differences in images due to the manual method of reproduction (or rather: re-creation), but also to changes in form and content that inevitably bear symbolic meanings referential to the ever-present personal basis of her work: like, for example, monkeys multiplying or disappearing from Pippi’s back. However, while one might argue that a certain vaguely feminist aspect could be read into this, only thing that is certain about possible message here is that there are as many possible interpretations to this as there could be proverbial monkey’s on one’s back.
This isn’t to say that Kazazić produces only ‘high’ art. Beginning in 2013, when her work Zen found its way to consumer items and fashion accessories by Ljubljana-based designer Nelizabeta, she expanded her framework for collaboration to fashion and applied arts. This led to another notable cooperation – in 2015. and 2016. motifs from her watercolors were used on designer clothes by Jelena and Svetlana Proković, under their brand name JSP. They collaborated again the same year when Kazazić (this time in a role of curator) secured a spot for them in Ulična galerija (stands for Street Gallery – a project she was involved with at the time, centered on showcasing contemporary art on billboard panels), alongside other names she saw important to Ljubljana’s current art scene, notably the graffiti artist Rone84, renegade urban photographers Robert Marin and Matjaž Rušt (who also ended up as models for two of her recent Portraits of Time pieces, series itself dedicated to artist’s important collaborators or inspiring figures of the moment) or her one-time ally in M. I. K. S, painter Matjaž Stražar, to name only a few. Her watercolors were used for book and album covers (Creepyatria, 2013, a collection of short stories by Tereza Vuk and 2015’s femNOISE EP #1, an all-female compilation of extreme noise music issued by 93DOT93, Serbian netlabel specializing in obscure and ‘difficult’ music). Following year also saw JSP production of jewelry based on Kazazić’s drawings of flamingos.
As of 2017. she engages in self-managed direct sale of both her art and applied art items. But, whereas she never ignores possible ways to use marketing tools or consumer items to promote her art, she fundamentally remains a visual artist by calling.
In similar way, while showing vital interest in activist and humanitarian work or civil initiatives, Kazazić in general steers away from addressing them at any point in her work – a thing she admittedly considers ‘attempt at stealing other people’s misery’. In rare cases when she does, such as her Deobjectified (Feminism Is Hot) or Wars’re Us series (both from 2016.), she keeps it on a level which can be considered either (or both) universal or (and) very personal.
Finally, one minor and perhaps in the beginning mostly technical feature of her work has found a thematic outlet in her recent work: recycling. Whilst recycled bits of discarded or old works have been seen to find their way to newer pieces throughout her career, she has recently begun possibly ongoing series titled We Recycle Your Dreams, which utilizes digital processing of some of her earlier work and prints; it is also worth noting that her 2015. piece Teen Crush is now partially reused in a watercolor that marks the beginning of her brand new Portraits of Time series. Bearing a signature number 1/XIII, it is the only piece from this series that isn’t (at least in terms of what is possible for viewer to decipher from its imagery) a portrait of a person. Of the portrait series itself, Kazazić wrote at one point:
‘I chose 11 (plus myself) people from my artistic environment […] and painted the Portraits of Time series. Of time… I was obsessed with the ‘time question’, pretty much the same as the NSK state (of time).’
Though it never assumed a form of a full-blown manifest, this semi-virtual cohort of sorts, depicted in carefully controlled (albeit at times employed in somewhat hysterical fashion) explosions of color, evidently symbolizes Kazazić’s vision of possible future – and thus a slight movement from ubiquitous, ‘thee’ Now – towards what might be an entirely new dimension of her artistic vision – an open-ended world, in which Change at least can be conceptualized, if even the prospects of bringing it about are still unclear. In relation to her absolutely hellish and beyond-hope world of dark portraits cca. 2008, as well as the pristine and undeniably sensualist romanticism of her post-US work, this new series is nothing short of a paradigm shift, signaling that Irena’s potential towards self-transformation through art – and by extension, her ability to redefine her art and push it further to an unexplored territory – is anything but drained out.
This period of continual expansion of artistic scopes is paralleled by intensified curve of her pictorial language evolution – while white uncompromisingly remains unspoiled, intact white of the paper itself, colors seem to get increasingly thicker, more aggressive and saturated, her trademark elusive emotional subtlety taking a turn towards explosive and vigorous, an orgy of line and color taking place, undauntedly pressing the clarity into shocking and hallucinatory vividness of altered states of consciousness, adrenaline rush or panic, as though the artist herself expects her subjects to burst or pop out from the flat, blank space that holds them, and take over our culture.
And perhaps that’s what we’ve secretly wished for all along.
‘Avoiding the sterility of ‘old methods’, I like to unite different artistic techniques and media. Photos, drawings, oil spreading or graffiti spraying, at the end it all turns out the same.’
‘We all want to leave something behind us, some kind of memento, that we were here. That we inhabited this place, if only just for a moment.’