MEET THE ARTIST//ADRIAN STOJKOVICH
BY KATIE PAINE
An explosion has devastated a white Mercedes. An unsettling apparition, the car’s sleek lacquered surface jars with its charred interior and the smashed glass that litters the floor. In a peculiar gesture by the artist, the gallery is left untouched by the incident. This is Adrian Stojkovich’s installation The Death of Anastasio Somoza (2012-13), a work based on the assassination of exiled Nicaraguan politician Anastasio Somoza. This project cannot contrast more with his painting practice, in which strange scenes of domestic life unfold. In Yellow Table, across the velvety surface of an Aztec rug, a dove grey cat slinks through domestic debris: a translucent plastic bag and an iridescent plate of sardines. Caught in the brilliant spotlight of a desk lamp, the scene in this vibrant painting possesses a theatrical drama, akin to that of fashion photography. Luminous layers of paint etch out of pastel abstraction the sumptuous flesh of a quartered lemon, the scaly bellies of fish, the creamy plastic of tape. Exploded cars? Fish? Deconstructed still-lifes? These discordant images feel like the ingredients for some absurd Lewis Carol narrative. What could a life-size reconstruction of the car in which a dictator was assassinated in and a series of decadently grotesque paintings of fish amongst silverware possibly have in common?
As viewers, we often acquaint ourselves with an artist’s practice by locating them within a specific aesthetic, categorising them as possessing a certain recognisable ‘style.’ Ostensibly, one may have difficulties attributing an exact style to the practice of Melbourne-based artist Adrian Stojkovich, whose mercurial body of work spans painting, video and installation. Yet, if we look closer, there are clues that, once strung together, form the intriguing code of Stojkovich’s seemingly disparate body of work. Ultimately, this is a practice united by a fascination with narrative, as epitomized by The Death of Anastasio Somoza and Yellow Table: the spectacle of South American politics, the broader cannon of art history, the pathos of the theatrical tableaux or the heightened atmosphere of the cinematic.
Having exhibited throughout Melbourne at galleries such as c3 Contemporary, Paradise Hills and Caves Offsite, Stojkovich weaves captivating tales from both complex assemblages and found material. During his Masters candidature at the Victorian College of the Arts, Stojkovich explored notions of historiography, reproduction and ethics in an installation that documented the political events that made up the Iran Contra Scandal. Taking as a departure point, the embrace of disjuncture within Stojkovich’s practice, one could approach him like a writer of magical realism. Indeed, like the novelist Gael Garcia Marquez, Stojkovich’s practice has the capacity to momentarily suspend reality. Viewing his work, we are transported into a space in which the uncanny doubling of historical events, or the manipulation of pictorial space in a still-life is perplexing, but thoroughly convincing.
In his recent works for solo show: Paintings for a Room at Fort Delta, Adrian Stojkovich performs a "subtle spell-craft" by gently dislocating his subjects from their backgrounds, reminding the viewer of these domestic scenarios' possibilities for enchantment. Stojkovich's love affair with painting is evident not only in the works' seductive glistening surfaces, but also in the way that he plays with the materiality of paint, through the creation of a symbolic language that cleverly refers to moments in art history. In each work there is sense of play and tension: the artist pushing and pulling with each medium to understand it better.
Artist and arts programmer Katie Paine talks to Stojkovich about the place of painting in contemporary art and how cats, Jürgen teller and Ridley Scott’s Alien have all found different ways into his practice.
KP: Your practice has gone through a series of quite fascinating changes. After having created a body of abstract and semi abstract works–what was it about returning to a figurative, realist approach that excited you?
AS: I guess that the abstract works primed me for making these new works. I think the main problem I had before I started the abstract series last year was that I was finding it challenging to make a painting that wasn't quite literal. The abstract works were actually inspired by vintage lino flooring. The paintings felt more representative of what I wanted to achieve with that subject matter, even though they were ostensibly abstract paintings. The liberating possibilities for paint handling that I discovered focused me a lot on the kinds of textures I could use in my next paintings, so that I felt really ready to return to figurative subject matter. In source imagery, I pick what I know I can transform through painting. It's the sudden shifts in texture; the merging, the splicing of things that can happen in a painting that can make it really powerful or can transcend the photograph in some way.
KP: Previous works of yours seem to have an artificial and constructed set-like quality. In a way, this new body of work appears to mark a return to still-life tableaux, but also features more natural domestic scenes that work a lot more with found objects, or happenstance moments. In particular the still-life has been a recurring emblem in your practice so I'd like to know what it is that attracts you to this form in particular?
AS: Originally what attracted me to still life subjects was the texture of particular objects. I remember when I was first training myself to paint, I was deeply embedded in particularly in Baroque painting and working with subject matter that was texturally interesting. Fish, porcelain, steel reflections–a lot of those textures offer an opportunity for virtuosity. When you're a younger painter–a younger man–you’re cockier or more anxious to prove yourself in a way. Those kinds of virtuosity are more important to you at that age, but it matters less to me now
KP: I'm interested in the way artists’ practices change and evolve; they're kind of cyclical. The Masters project: The Death of Anastasio Somoza and The Hearing seem initially to be a complete departure from your previous work. Can you tell me more about that project and how it informed future elements of your practice?
AS: The project that I set for myself for my Masters was to create a kind of political artwork; it kind of stands as a complete outlier in my practice. Though there are certain themes that carry through from that period right into my current work, the paintings from that period had a very different methodology to my other paintings. Those paintings were extremely laboured as I would sand a layer, paint it back, add another layer and so on. I was working with source material, historical photos,that had extremely low resolution, they were pixelated and it was extremely difficult to recover a coherent image from them. I wanted the painting to act as a kind of object in which I was trying to recover the content. I was thinking about that entire series as an excavation, as analogous to a kind of historical study, and trying to get to the facts, as it were, of the image. So at that time, the only way painting could become really interesting to me was to think of it as a kind of sculptural object; an object with a kind of tension that both hides and discloses itself. The car, The Death of Anastasio Somoza, is a sculptural work with a methodology that in some way matches the paintings from that period. In comparison, the new works that I created for Painting for a Room were done in a single sitting with only a single or two layers of paint at most.
I feel that I have to make it challenging for myself, and that artists should really be exploring and making completely new work, by confronting new sets of problems in every artwork.- There’s this kind of idea that comes from modernism that is very much about an artist's integrity– that they have their style, and it's their true self, like Modigliani or Picasso...but I actually don't feel that that is the most honest approach. We're such different people in different social contexts, so it feels honest to say, at one instance make a work that's about South American politics, and then also make an artwork that's of my cat. Because, you know, with one person you might talk about the former, and with someone else the latter, but both conversations are the real you and I hope my art practice reflects that.
KP: I know that cats have definitely had a place in contemporary art–if you think of Anastasia Klose's Cats show at Gertrude Contemporary, or even Warhol and Wei Wei's love of cats. Can you tell me about your recurrent inclusion of them in this current body of work?
AS: I think the genesis of this began with my trip to Europe. I had always hated cats since childhood, but I found myself for some reason drawn to the cats in the paintings. For instance there is a [Diego] Velazquez painting, Las Hilanderas, in which there is a cat playing with the ball of yarn that I never really noticed until I saw it in real life. Or in the Prado I saw Goya's painting of two cats fighting, not to mention the best cat painting of all time; Bonnard’s Le Chat Blanc. I was surprised at how much attention I was paying; they were so timeless. There's so often a barrier created by, for example, the historical clothing that the people are wearing but the cat is like a time portal. It’s the knowingness of cats.
They are a key, a cypher in both the senses of the word–a code and a key to break the code of the painting. That is perhaps an apt way to describe the way that an animal can act in a painting. I think it’s because animals kind of exist in their own plane of reality anyway. I think it can be allusive in a way, or evasive, the way that a cat can look very self-absorbed in play, but at the same time there's something about the tone of the way that a cat is presented. It’s almost as if they find their own ways into the paintings, like the way Juno insists on being in my studio every day.
KP: There's something about your works that have a similar aesthetic to fashion photography. I wouldn't be surprised really to see some of these works in fashion publications so I'm curious as to your thoughts on the subject.
AS: For my latest work I have moved away from using found photographs in a literal or obvious way. Most of the photographic source material I have used for the new paintings I created myself. I’ve had to learn my way around a DSLR for my part-time work as an art technician and that has given me so much more freedom to create images quickly and how I imagine them.
I've always enjoyed Jurgen Teller's photos, which is probably clear in the show from the use of camera mounted flash and the casual mix of awkwardness and candid-ness. I think that’s a good way to cool down the tone of the paintings.
When I make something that succeeds, it's on a knife-edge between a cold facticity and theatre on the other hand. There's a detachment that's compelling, but also a kind of drama and if it went too far either way the work would just become very boring. Even something like the car, it has a kind of theatre, but there's also dumb, mute coldness. It's a fact about the world just plonked in the gallery. But I think that's changing a little now...
KP: In almost every work I've ever seen of yours, while many of the constructed scenes you create are nods to the theatrical tableaux, there's also a sense of the cinematic.
AS: I love film. When I was making grotesque still-lifes I was interested in horror cinema and I even wrote most of my Honours thesis on the film Alien (1979). I found the kind of textural transformations that happen in it really powerful–the way that the creature blends itself into the surface of the spaceship and then emerges from that. I found those textural transformations compelling and in my own crazy way, I saw it as analogous to the drama of a lot of Dutch still life painting. Or when I was making the car, I was particularly interested in political thrillers like the films if Costa Gavras or the film Battle for Algiers by Gillo Pontecorvo. Filmic references and their strategies often find their way into my work.
Alongside Paintings for a Room, you can currently see more of his work at Fort Delta's suite at Spring 1883, at adrianstojkovich.com and at @adrian_stojkovich
Katie Paine is an artist, curator and writer: you can find her work on Instagram, at @dreamsofspeaking