Art

A Storm of Art Brut from the Balkans

An exhibition of ecstatic, mystical work at the Halle Saint Pierre in Paris questions what is visionary, anti-pop, art brut, or art brutish.

Joca Geringer, “Untitled” (2013), 42 x 30 cm, pencil on paper, (private collection, image courtesy Halle Saint Pierre)

PARIS — A particularly fervent place to go in Paris for obscure, obsessive, and excessive inclinations is the Halle Saint Pierre. Established in 1986 to assert the wonders of contemporary folk arts’ shrouded secrets, their current show Turbulences dans les Balkans (Turbulence in the Balkans) features 26 imaginative art brut artists from the peripheral art scene of the Balkans: the cultural area that stretches from the Serbian-Bulgarian border to the Black Sea in Eastern and Southeastern Europe. The show is curated by Martine Lusardy, head of the Halle Saint Pierre, with the help of Nina Krstic of the Museum of Naïve and Marginal Art in Jagodina, Serbia.

In Art Brut, political content is usually subordinated to a sequestered superstructure – an attitude that stages artists as intense but somewhat dim. I have long worried that such insulated art encourages artists and viewers alike to retreat into themselves and their segregated identities, amounting to an obsessional apolitical narcissism that is typically encouraged in consumerist society. Indeed, some of the unfathomable art on view here looks like the kind of self-obsessed artwork used on the covers of overindulgent, noodling, progressive rock concept albums from the early 1970s. But there is a lot of fluidity, hybridity, intersectionality and transgression on display here too, that, in the Balkan context, criticizes both the callousness of the Soviet regime that once dominated the region (during the Cold War, most of the countries in the Balkans were ruled by Soviet-supported communist governments), and the superficiality of American materialism and its cultural pop desolation that awaited it.

There are a few naïve artists included, like Sava Sekulić and Matija Staničić, whose work is characterized by childlike simplicity of execution. But appreciatively, Turbulences dans les Balkans focuses mostly on the beguiling, immoderate whirlpools of the marginalized whose phantasmagorical approach to life disenfranchises them, as so happened to Vojislav Jakić. However, to really get into the premise of this exhibition you must allow yourself to be seduced (or at least to be intrinsically intertwined) by the mythologizing belief that these non-artists/artists are in direct contact with their eerie imaginations in a way professional artists cannot be. (Which is a fallacy.) Granted, this constructed permission allows each self-taught (a.k.a. visionary) artist to communicate a sense of representational incorrectness based on their ‘authentic’ sensitivity and non-conventional cultural contemplation, as we will see with the bitterly obsessive memento mori work of Jakić. So it is worth it to put to the side that these non-artists’ ‘naïve’ psychic complexities carry with them a whiff of élite mystical fabulism. I can accept that.

Dragan Milivojević, “Untitled” (undated) 29.5×18.5cm, ink on paper (image courtesy Halle Saint Pierre)

The noise of turbulence is the metaphor that has been chosen for these outsider images that productively break down the difference between foreground and background. For example, Joca Geringer’s uncanny drawing “Untitled” (2013) is a stoner’s delight: a free-flowing wonderment of recombinant spaces and faces hiding and emerging out of a hectic cosmic mind-meld. It is ripe with delirium and will look familiar to anyone who has experimented with drawing and weed while in high school. Jovanović Ljubiša Kene’s and Dragan Milivojević’s “Untitled” drawings are also outstanding in a sly surrealist vein. They remind us that much Balkan Art Brut is not that brut – as it doesn’t stray far from that of the Belgrade Surrealist Circle (arguably one of the most vibrant early-surrealist strongholds in Europe as detailed in “When the Margin Cries: Surrealism in Yugoslavia” by Sanja Bahun-Radunovic). Active from 1922–1932, the surrealist movement in Yugoslavia yielded a generation of poets and numerous individual and collective makers of cadaver exquis (exquisite corpses), automatic texts, collages, decalcomanias, assemblages, photographs, and bizarre theoretical propositions published in the almanac Nemoguće-L’impossible (The Impossible) and the magazine Nadrealizam danas i ovde (Surrealism Here & Now). These publications, like art brut, examined the possibilities of acting spontaneously and irrationally when making art. So, even as some of the work here, such as Kene’s tempestuous drawing and Bojan Đorđević’s (a.k.a. Omča) drawn “Bestiary” (2014), are contextualized as nonacademic and un-art-educated, they conceptually are not that much different from the collage-based non-natural images of the Belgrade Surrealists Circle.

Jovanović Ljubiša Kene, “Untitled” (2010), 70 x 50 cm, ink on paper (image courtesy Halle Saint Pierre)
Bojan Đorđević (a.k.a. Omča), “Bestiary” (2014), 21 x 15 cm (image courtesy Halle Saint Pierre)

Fresher is Aleksandar Denic’s incredibly cryptic, complex and detailed drawing “Landing at Normandy” (2004) which at first glance looks like an automatized abstract network, but is in fact a representational osmotic membrane made up of tiny invading soldiers. It could easily be hung with Henri Michaux’s mescaline drawings as they share an obsessive, out-of-control, vibrational quality. I also took a shine to Vojkan Morar’s chimerical painting “Angel Portrait” (2014) and Igor Simonovic’s gnarly “Self-Portrait” (2013) because they have similar overall visionary qualities that problematize fore, middle, and background. “Angel Portrait” portrays in minute particulars a swarm of long-legged naked yellow women surrounded by their beatific winged-sisters who appear to take flight. But step back and you will see something like open sunflowers.

Aleksandar Denic, “Landing at Normandy” (2004), 100 x 70 cm, pencil on paper (image courtesy Halle Saint Pierre)
Igor Simonovic, “Self-Portrait” (2013), 80 x 60 cm, mixed media (image courtesy Halle Saint Pierre)
Vojkan Morar, “Angel Portrait” (2014), 50 x 40 cm, oil on canvas (image courtesy Halle Saint Pierre)

Such works open us up to the inner life of obsessive delirium. But fortuitously, the works’ embellished picturing also has the means to broach atavistic and folkloric meanings, given its deliverance from the common codes of pop representation. Particularly, Geringer’s and Denic’s virtuoso field work reminds us of what the 19th century mystic, artist and poet William Blake said about seeing the universe in a single grain of sand. Whether or not you want to categorize such work as visionary, anti-pop, art brut, or art brutish; its vibrating visual noise invites a wider view on life that includes spiritual, ecstatic or mystical attributes we ascribe to both the ancestral past and the subjective realm of the individual.

Like Blake, many of the artists of Turbulences dans les Balkans integrate their idiosyncratic visionary imagination (a psychological process) into their fastidious mark making. The overall production quality that Joškin Šiljan, Geringer, Morar, Denic and Simonovic share with Vojislav Jakić is that of maniac accruing. They all are obsessionals that pile on labor-intensive miniature detailing, often distributed with an almost equal-compositional intensity over the entire picture plane. That is how Jakić’s and Denic’s fanciful art collapses foreground and background, thereby inviting the viewer to look into something as opposed to looking at something. In that sense, Jakić’s and Denic’s work requires slow active visionary participation on the part of the willing viewer. Something improbable but increasingly necessary as counter-point to our impetuous click-bait culture. Jakić’s and Geringer’s and Denic’s eerily lingering visionary art may even be said to include the political function of strengthening society’s powers of imagination by countering clean, fast, obvious, pop simplification with veils of visual commotion.

Joškin Šiljan, “Who are you? (#2349)” (2010), 266 x 152 cm, oil on canvas (image courtesy Halle Saint Pierre)
Vojislav Jakić, “Untitled” (2002), 50 x 70 cm, mixed media on cardboard (image courtesy Halle Saint Pierre)

I can also see this noisy inclination exhibited as a networked frenzy of quasi-abstract lines punctuated with roaming eyes in Šiljan’s nonchalant painting “Who are you? #2349” (2010). Indeed, this painting’s tribal look is instructive: recalling that the preliterate prehistoric precedent of these art brut artists is to be found in ancestral divinatory activities of the seer/soothsayer often found among nomadic tribal cultures all across the globe. This seers’ intuitive vision was regarded as a way towards spiritual comprehension useful for guiding decisions of the tribe’s movements in relationship to weather and migrations of animals from which the tribe depended on for their continued existence. These super-star seers often would do something like ‘read’ the abstract ashes of the campfire; seeing in them meaningful patterns and signs. Such shamanism remains a part of the religious life of some Northwest American Indians and still is among Tibetan Buddhists (the indigenous expression of Bon shamanism and Tibetan Buddhist practices are historically interwoven, and current Tibetan Buddhism is a synthesis of the two traditions). Rituals of divination are found throughout sub-Saharan African cultures, from west, central, and east Africa and the Sudan to South Africa and Madagascar where people have developed ways to ‘read’ visual noise to help them deal with affliction, social conflict, and the seemingly arbitrary destructive forces of nature.

The non-artists/artists in Turbulences dans les Balkans reconnect us with this deeply creative use of visual nihilism, where grappling with excess is recognized as part of the indestructible transcendent force in all homo sapiens. It is this transcendental insubordination that suggests an exalted state of mind that is divinatory; a means by which to understand and respond to the current many faces of uncertainty. With this context in mind, Turbulences dans les Balkans is a socially corrective tour de force of emotional subconscious conviction. Abundantly displayed in its art-of-noise haze is an intense appetite for atavistic ability. Given visual arts’ pre-linguistic potential of unchaining common graphical codes, the visionary non-art/art in Turbulences dans les Balkans disturbs our norms too by deepening acknowledgement and appreciation of the needed indefiniteness within visualization. Much of the work leads viewers to grapple with the manner in which ancestral divinational excess functioned as a conduit to supplementary psychic realms. Another nonlinear blow to the pop essentialism that is so much a part of the best contemporary art.

Turbulences dans les Balkans (Turbulence in the Balkans) continues at Halle Saint Pierre (2, rue Ronsard, XVIIIe arrondissement, Paris) through July 31.

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