SINS / VIRTUES, 2006-07
The body of work currently shown by Tomislav Nikolic is the culmination of an ambitious series spanning several years, segments of which have previously been exhibited at Yuill/Crowley. The essential format for this work is a trio of differently sized abstract paintings: the medium sized canvases ("Angels") are named after 44 angelic figures; the smallest canvases ("Portals") are titled after one of the angels' attributes; and thirdly, the largest canvases ("Contradictions") suggest a manifestation in the terrestrial sphere as prompted by lines taken from contemporary popular songs. The angels themselves differ from the hierarchy proscribed by medieval scholasticism (the nine Orders), and are sourced, instead, from Jewish, Islamic, and other Christian traditions. Whereas Nikolic has previously installed the paintings as clusters (2004), or as a group of single attributes (2006), the current exhibition radically recasts the project along the lines of the environmental nature of CHAPEL, 2006. The three times eight canvases, which complete the series, are stacked against each other in a small space. Wrapped in protective plastic, their destiny is uncertain. The space is furnished with a stylish chair and a subtle invitation to examine the works at close proximity. This dense arrangement recalls the princely 16th century studiolo - an intimate and private room where works of art and nature were viewed and studied. Inevitably, the installation also resembles the gallery stockroom - an off-limits space where works of art lie dormant, commercially and aesthetically. What is the artist doing here, and why is he playing so heavily on our expectations?
At first glance, the larger space at Yuill/Crowley confounds by it's virtual emptiness, and suggests a de-installation. All of the modestly scaled works are off the walls: a series of card-like works on paper sit on a makeshift table, seven larger works on paper are scattered on the floor, and a pair of brightly coloured objects hewn from wood frolic to one side. The surfaces of these works, as with the EDICT paintings in the smaller space, are lovingly built up with innumerable layers of acrylic mixed with marble dust. Their colours swing between an Old Master tenebroso - created from a multitude of dusky tints - to an eye-catching range of pigments found in no picture before, say, 1960. The absence of any tonal modulation, or mixing of colours, is very close the dazzling colore cangiante effects that Michelangelo painted in the draperies in the Sistine ceiling: fabric animated by contrasting colours, perhaps inspired by shot silk. Lending a quality of otherworldliness to figures because of its pronounced artistry, the cangiante technique is earlier seen in Giotto, who likewise employs it to denote a heightened spiritual state. In the Cappella Scrovegni, Giotto extends his use of simultaneous coloured drapery to the sky high on the back wall where two angels peel back the azure heavens to reveal its crimson reverse. Similarly, Nikolic intensifies the visual effect of the sides of his canvases with colours that strongly contrast with the front surfaces. This structuring device lends an object-like presence to the paintings and produces a strange shallow space something like a huge Bento tray. The surfaces of the painting tend to hover inside this frame, like an ectoplasm, glowing, waiting.
The ambitious scale, exemplary crafting and the spiritual overtones of the paintings potentially flag Nikolic as a young fogey, but other elements reveal a very post-20th Century figure. The work's employment of esoteric systems such as the angelic orders, numerology, and the tarot, tend to procedural ends rather than a submersion in arcane knowledge. And importantly, such systems focus on personal destiny rather than propagating universal dogmas. Crucial in this is the significance of reading: the placement of the cards, the fall of the numbers, the combination of signs. Bersani and Dutoit, in their essay on Rothko, offer the following devastating banality: "In visual art, only appearances signify". Looking more closely at the five projects on show, what exactly do appearances signify? The sequence of the Angel, Thought and Contradiction canvases, installed previously in fixed positions on the wall, has given way to chaotic regroupings and potential misreadings. Their sealed plastic state in the cramped, smaller space suggest that the Angelic Orders have either faltered or been put on ice. The seven works on paper, SINS / VIRTUES, with their combination of dark paint and gold pigment, look like panels fallen from a vast decorated ceiling. The dark paint has seeped onto the gold surface thereby creating nocturnal landscapes that conjure up the decalomanias of Dominguez and Ernst. Again, coherence is under siege. And the small, custom-designed card table, with its gnomic deck primed with bright unmixed colours, PREDICT, looks like something only a young reader of Tana Hoban would divine any sense from. Back on the floor, the wooden blocks, DOUBLE, untreated and coated with paint and marble dust, are intended to split apart as the former tree adapts to its new condition. A fairy-tale-gone-wrong feeling underlies much of this work which on first blush tends towards High Modernist credentials. Likewise, an unobtrusive bowl filled with custom-made chocolates, DIFFUSION, emblazoned with the artist's initials, tempts later-day Hansels and Gretels.
Much of this is presaged in Nikolic's earlier work CHAPEL, exhibited in 2006. Here, a darkened room contained a sleek bar with a spot-lit bowl offering matchboxes printed with the artist's name. What rite is meant to be enacted in such a space, and to what new purpose has the altar table been given over? Preconceptions are up for grabs as one adapts to what one sees: are the matches a potential source of warmth and succour, or flagrant self-promotion? And the darkened room, a place for contemplation and solace, or back-room encounters? Nikolic's work abounds in such ambiguities, but its great strength lies in its potential for mediation: between destiny and the unknown, and between us and the divine. More troubling is the question we are left to ask ourselves: what is it we actually want?
Michael Graf, Melbourne, November 2007