Opening: Friday, September 20, 2019, 8pm
Duration: October 13, 2019
Curator: Sanja Kojić Mladenov
Jelena Bulajić, the author whose career has, in the past several years, marked a significant rise on the global art scene, will present her work at the Museum of Contemporary Art Vojvodina (MSUV) for the first time with a solo exhibit and a recognizable opus comprised of series of thematically unique material, gathered around the idea of revealing and examining structure, movement, and space of materiality.
The author first caught public attention with her monumental canvases painted while she was still a student at the Academy of Arts Novi Sad, mostly portraits of older people, exploring through this thematic framework both construction of monochromatic surfaces and faces - carriers of experience and perseverance, clear expression and emotion. She approaches representation of old age in a systematic and analytical manner, a marginal subject in contemporary society, contrasting trends of eternal beauty and youth, which, through her work and exhibits in prime spaces, she makes visible and significant.
She implemented her first art concepts during her visits to retirement homes in Vrbas and Novi Sad, photographing their residents during mundane routine situations, producing images of existing states of human everyday life and inevitability of life taking place somewhere on the edges, margins of society, beyond the public eye, in created peaceful zones or isolation. Her attention was caught mostly by portraits of the elderly, their faces characterized by wisdom and pristine life beauty, whose layers of experience and perseverance became a field of investigation of this artist. Without the need for hiding or pretense, she began her research with portrait photographs, focusing on revealing vitality, character, and internal life of the elderly, visible in the richness of gesticulation and facial expressions, registering clear look and analysis of the wrinkled skin. She transfers recorded material onto monumental canvases, with expressed desire to magnify the primary content and examine characteristics of its materiality. She pays great attention to the exploration of skin tactility, its relationship to other elements of the face - bones and muscles, but also texture, network of intertwined indentations and bulges, more apparent on macro photographs. Through analysis of the details, she produces complex face studies, which could be separated into segments, offering an almost or completely abstractly constructed structure.
The result of this process are large white canvases with portraits produced on a monochromatic scale derived from black-white relationship, without sharp contrasts and solid blacks, almost transparent images accentuating values and richness of the gray scale. The details become more visible than in reality, and the faces of unknown persons, which the author reveals, bringing them closer to and making them interact with the audience.
Is this about the dialogue with time, memory, or long forgotten close relationships, or perhaps a moment of personal cognition, and coming to terms with the speed and passage of life? To what extent is contemporary society, on one hand prone to negative attitudes, prejudice, and discriminatory behavior towards the elderly, while on the other tends to valorize youth, beauty, strength, and popularity? Is ageism a part of our daily lives but something we avoid talking about, in contrast with constant search for youth elixirs and dreams of immortality?
As the fear of death became one of the dominant social phenomena, the sick and the elderly were sidelined to the margins of society, pushed away and made invisible in the zones of social functioning and the public eye, frequently closed off in infirmaries, retirement homes, hospitals, or private houses, where they often suffer different kinds of intergenerational discrimination or where they choose themselves to comply with social stereotypes and accept a devaluated role.
The power relationship between life and death and their duality, present in contemporary society, are made visible by Jelena Bulajić. She confronts us with it, very openly, honestly, and clearly, with her paintings and photographs. She never eludes the symbols of age, such as: gray hair, wrinkles, medical aids (hearing aids, glasses, etc.), what is more, she accentuates and affirms them with the concept of active aging and care for the elderly population. As Europe is considered "the Old Continent," and the process of aging a natural, socio-demographic process, the author consciously points to the value and importance of its existence, apparent both in the portraits of selected persons and the landscapes that surround us, also carrying the messages of wisdom, history, and passage of time. In this way, nature becomes a new field of research for this artist, especially its primary elements, which she presents, and segments she collects and includes directly in the realization of her work.
Her new research continues to investigate human physiognomy, a face-mapping of sorts, through portraits of different formats of the elderly and young people, in series, in order to, eventually, expand the analysis of tactility of human skin to examining spaces of other, to her, important elements - sky, water, mountains - their structure, transitions, and oscillations. She emphasizes this approach with a combination of materials used to implement her work, which she often collects and produces herself, such as: a mixture of marble dust, ground granite, limestone, kaoline, seashells, lava, etc, which lend her work a specifically personal characteristic and accentuate continually systematic and dedicated artistic approach.
With her works, she analyzes the relationship between the portrait and the subject, the art work and the model in contemporary social context, sometimes combining the medium of photography and video in order to emphasize subject wholes. She uses repetition of key elements, work in series, repeating the same motif or portrait, and develops their interrelationship. She positions her artwork as a sequence, or more often, a dialogue of portraits and/or isolated detail (images of natural structures, tactile surfaces, dark canvases filled with layers of matter...), similar or different sizes, in specific contrast relations - lightness and darkness, fullness and emptiness, life and death, presented as wholes, a unity of opposites constituting the area of her research. In this manner, she expands her painting opus with spatial explorations, creating unique situations in exhibition spaces, mostly white cubes, with a combination of different but affiliated formal and elements related to content, constructing a world of solid natural relationships.
With her art practice, Jelena Bulajić investigates the field of human and social relations, particularly position of sensitive and marginal groups, simultaneously dealing with art form and visual artistic elements. She evolves in the direction of accepting, not rejecting differences, reconciliation and networking, not continuation of the struggle between opposite sexes, attitudes and dualities. With her activities on local and global art scene, she contributes to their diversity and points to the possibilities and significance of mutual connection, dialogue, and growth.
dr Sanja Kojić Mladenov
„It is only between the reality of things and the
imagination that the spark of the work of art is
kindled“. Peter Zumthor
June afternoon sun. Solid, long shadows. Reflections on flickering water of the large European river and flat surface of large abandoned port holds of former powerful economic trades. Thick greenery of high tree tops on the left bank, and concrete, asphalt, and brick on the right. Antipodes - yin and yang. There are no boats, no pedestrians, no workers in the port. But there is frozen, or, to be more exact, trapped, metaphysical atmosphere of ominous tension in an unexpected silence and absence of visible life, brought on by the humidity and intensity of the sun. Have paintings by Girgio de Chirico or Edward Hopper evolved in such ambivalent moments, which concealed one reality but also gave birth to another? An unusual and unexpected one, also implemented by this artist?
Only ten-minutes by foot away from the central Belgrade square, traffic jams, and the noise of a cluster of coffee shops, the artist transformed a long port storage into a creative, protected space, an art studio, where the daylight hardly ever enters, but ideas swarm. Where concepts are born. Works completed. Plans are made. In this white cube - her universe resembling NewYork lofts with high ceilings, clear walls, and glaring silence - large white portrait paintings are leisurely placed, leaned and turned against the wall. Another large, or to be more exact, huge white portrait appears, but also a whole new series of smaller paintings, darker and dark, with different iconography, mood, meaning, and technique. She's assisted by a tall, easily movable scaffolding.
There is something healthy, energetic, in this isolated, silenced, and modernized loft, through which she moves easily, as if floating, with certainty and content. Thick dark hair, braided, effectively transfers her movements and inner strength, bolstered by her daily runs through Ada. She prepares and brings coffee, and later jars with incredible variety of material with which she works, in synchronized and functional motion.
The joy of youth, which sees before itself a future filled with creativity, is juxtaposed and completely negates the awkward routine of her daily obligations. She enjoys creation, the promise nestled in thinking and preparing for work, but also the long process to which she fully commits herself, without rushing to complete a particular whole, to put an end to its completion: therein lies the "magic strength of an ending."
She is not interested in the result being the "illustration of an idea," but in gradually and systematically devoting herself to a new beginning, to slowly preparing and introducing all the obtained, countless elements, ingredients, and details, which comprise the entirety of an art piece. There is no decoration here - rather, each component represents a fundamental factor of the whole. And this is why "the artistic creation is a - structure."
Clear structure and crystal clarity of her paintings and drawings have very early - since she was 21 - been recognized both locally and globally. Their logical harmony, rhythm, clean sound, fullness, and respect for each move, resonate - "just like Bach's chorales and masses do." However, skill and knowledge suffice only if they instigate in audiences curiosity for further discoveries, empathy, and understanding - which may be arbitrary, but go beyond mere information.
Discovering differences as a search for essence, penetrating the substance - beyond the visible and familiar, are an important aspect of her drawings. Despite her statement that she dislikes doing portraits, the choice of older and elderly people as her subject are internpreted as a call for true contact and contemplation: on the one hand, the world is obsessively trapped by the call for youth, health, beauty, smile, beautification, and success. On the other, she counterbalances these with permanence, persistence, experience, intimacy, compassion, understanding... She insists on magnifying and zooming in - in order to expose everything. There is no hiding: skin, particularly aged skin, the one which defies life, which has a soul and remembers everything, invites contact. It is a man's map with numerous layers, a borderline world which bridges the gap between the internal and external.
She takes photographs with high tech professional cameras, on the run. And then she eliminates. Simultaneously with large white paintings, smaller dark ones emerge, even a series of miniatures. A true counterpoint with the same peace and quiet, deep experience and layering.
A high resolution camera represents an aid - intermedium for characters she most often runs into accidentally, in passing, people she doesn't know but decides in a flash to immortalize via long, patient painting. Layer upon layer... Line upon line.
Nevertheless, a new subject caught her attention: she dedicated a whole cycle of completely different textures and chromatics to rivers, mountain ranges, snow, rocks, and cliffs. Their frozen atmosphere, under clouds, tops and obscures landscapes. There, too, invisible layering spreads are sensed, a result of prolonged, attentive work. Shining, or glistening, emanates from them; a darkness is penetrated by light, a radiance - new tactility, different enigma.
Maturity comes unexpectedly swiftly. Thematically, those smaller darker paintings are miles away from the recognizable, huge white portraits of older people.
Coincidence preoccupies, and perhaps also amuses her: unhindered ("tachistic") flow of color down the canvas which she gently corrects, directs, but also from time to time lets go freely so that it can find its outflow. A kind of subliminal game is established - in which everybody wins.
She fosters a remarkable sense for recognizing the importance of natural materials which she uses for her work: she accentuates their various possibilities of expression. She uses their structure, facture, color, nuances, reflections. She feels that they define the poetics of the work, its character and quality, tactility, impressions, even acoustics and smells. This is why she carefully, respectfully, almost tenderly, picks up jars as relics which she filled with special values - her own colors, pigments, dust, gravel... the basic instruments of her work. This precious material she obtains by granulating - grinding, in large industrial mills. She makes pigments out of shells, for instance, oysters from rocky shores of shallow Atlantic near Charleston, out of cool lava from Tenerife, out of kaolinite - white, gray, black, and also out of dangerous, poisonous graphite and charcoal, granite and limestone, marble dust...
She recognizes each ingredient by facture, shade, and ethereal smell. Still, she doesn't refrain from using acrylic and polymer emulsions; sometimes even oil color. The only thing she doesn't use - because she doesn't like it - are colored pigments. She often uses colorless acrylic for a kind of membrane, 'isolation" between two colors, for installing two or more layers. All those layers - both on large and smaller paintings - reveal and reflect their insides, they hold special contents, their own lives, they speak for themselves... Instructions about the meaning and significance of layering painting techniques she received from her professor at the Novi Sad Academy of Art Milan Stašević, which is, in any case, the legacy of all great masters of classical painting. As those layers are autonomous, certain craquelures appear, which the artist embraces and follows, establishing a dialogue with the surface, pursuing all the changes emerging, regardless of her intervention and accepting the reality of things, the "magic of the real," the "alchemy of transforming abstract substances into human sensations."
It is perhaps due to these carefully painted layers, careful selection of materials, and adequate format, as well as the foundation, whose visible structure sometimes replaces expressiveness of personal movement, the artist points out that she admires the work of Ljubica Cuce Sokić? Cuca's perfectionism and elimination of recognizable traces of her own handwriting - even though many artists have based their opuses on the authenticity of their handwriting. And even careers...
Persuasiveness of her paintings comes, evidently, from the strength of the mundane, the ordinary. The things that surround us. This is what interests her most: looking through the prism of time, historical perspective, psychological context, and an esthetic dimension, she simultaneously establishes a personal relationship with the object of her analysis and work - whether it is about almost anatomical drawings or palimpsests of layered nature. She is free from contradictoriness filling the public and the world full of signs and information, meaningless, incoherent, transient ephemerality. It is as if though she sets traps for us - she cultivates hidden structures: it is only when you come close enough that you are able to see what constitutes a shape, exactly how many strokes it took to make it, how it vibrates, and how much tension it contains. What stems from this are spatial characteristics, architecture-like quality of her compositions, and impressive naturalness: "Does beauty have shape?" Is this something that can be defined or is it merely a state of mind? Human sensation? Beauty is a distinctive feeling inspiring our perception for producing particular shapes."
P.S. I am grateful to Jelena Bulajić for pointing out Peter Zumthor's Thinking Architecture: it helped her identify identical manner of understanding things and circumstances, same sensibility for materials and magic of reality, same feeling of essence underneath or beyond illusion, the same expanse and silence... All the quotes in this text are by the same author.
The Port of Belgrade, June 21, 2019, 5-8pm