TARWUK, "MRTISKLAAAH_SEVER_agon.I11" (2017-2020), oil on canvas, 48 x 60 inches (all images courtesy Martos Gallery)

Collaborative duo TARWUK are carving out their own world of sensuality and pain. Their latest exhibition at Martos Gallery, Bijeg u noć (“Escape into the night” in Croatian), conjures their memories of war-torn southeastern Europe in scenes of complex darkness, capturing the feeling of emergence after disaster. Their sketches, sculptures, and paintings all seem to take place within the same apocalyptic universe, and not a single soul or surface is spared from the destruction.

TARWUK, “KLOSKLAS_R.H.regiG;yffidj” (2019), steel, resin clay, polyurethane foam, plaster, BQE relics, plastic, wire, acrylic paint, 24 x 12 x 14 inches

Ivana Vukšić and Bruno Pogačnik Tremow both grew up in the Balkans during the Croatian War of Independence (1991-1995). Now based in New York City, their shared experiences inform their dystopian worldview. In life-size figurative sculptures, disfigured humanoids are composed of various junk materials — pieces of wire and rope, human and coyote teeth, and scrap metal from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Through expression and posture, these works create a subtle narrative. At opposite corners of the gallery, a tall motherly figure clutches its offspring and directs its gaze toward a towering skeleton with a sculpted human face. The head of the latter, mounted on a long aluminum beam, is bent downward and to the left, conveying a coy sense of shame. 

Throughout the main gallery, a set of large landscape paintings juxtapose metamorphic rocks and mountains in earth tones against hazy black skies. In one surreal still life, enigmatically titled “MRTISKLAAAH_evsovtrm.Da.811” (2020), the artists employ chiaroscuro shading to illuminate slithering white globs on a flat expanse, resembling a table or an ocean floor. Nearby, another series of small sculptures contains dismembered heads and hands, frayed with loose wiring and metal shards. These miniature works are scattered across a table at the front end of the gallery, like pieces of debris or discarded machinery. What initially seems like a haphazard curatorial choice provides thematic consistency, as circular symbols painted on the sculptures match two swirling, colorful paintings placed on the wall directly behind them.

TARWUK impart the solace of companionship among the cracks and crags of their mythical wasteland. Two travelers in “MRTISKLAAAH_OnaruONRC.98” (2019) skirt along a thin ledge, climbing toward a glowing light in the distance. Streaks of black and white acrylic paint cut across the entire composition, making bodies and terrain blend together. A solemn reminder that all terrestrial life shares a mortal binding to the earth, this fluidity also reflects the plight of the refugee, constantly caught between states of abandon and redemption. 

TARWUK: Bijeg u noć continues through January 23, 2021 at Martos Gallery (41 Elizabeth Street, Chinatown, Manhattan)

Billie Anania is an editor, critic, and journalist in New York City whose work focuses on political economy in the cultural industries and the history of art in global liberation movements.