Drawing, Repetition, Time by Barry Schwabsky

Oct 27, 2017 9:26PM

It could almost be nothing more than a play on words—to say that, in his drawings, Aleksandar Duravcevic works on a plane of darkness to excavate an unexpected light. What could be more facile than to equate literal and metaphorical darkness and light? Luckily, nothing’s quite that simple in Duravcevic’s work—a weave of echoes and reflections whose meaning resides less in objects or images than in the resonant space between them. Still, it’s clear that this art is rooted in a clear view of the darkness at the heart of our existence—in recognition of the harshness and tragedy of historical experience. This is a universal condition but possibly more vividly present to the imagination of someone who experienced the political crisis and breakup of Yugoslavia and the resulting civil wars than to those of us who have so far been fortunate enough to merely watch such events from a distance. And yet in talking about light and darkness, I am describing a simple question of technique. Duravcevic is an artist of many media—painting, sculpture, video, installation—but as is true of many other artists, his work is founded in drawing, that most intimate art. And his drawing, in turn, is literally founded on the color black: Black paper is its recurrent support.

Thanks to the simple device of drawing on a black rather than a white surface, Duravcevic engineers a strange reversal: The marks he makes in graphite or pencil, which would have appeared on a white sheet as dark matter, reveal themselves instead as light, bright, reflective. This fact is not surprising—it’s obvious that tone is relative— but its effects, at least in this artist’s hands, often are. One feels that the image has been unearthed from the darkness. It’s an illusion, of course, but not one that is intended to deceive us. No trompe l’oeil here. The drawing is always self-evidently a drawing, that is, a collection of marks on a surface. And even if whatever the drawing depicts—the head of an eagle, the flickering tongues of a flame, whatever—has been rendered with considerable realism, the motif never represents the real in the sense of nature, of the empirically observable. It is always an icon or emblem—or rather, the pictorial part of an emblem, which has been defined as “a combination of picture and text intended to draw the reader into a self-reflective examination of his or her own life.” In other drawings by Duravcevic, the text itself becomes the image—but just as with his pictorial emblems, the accent is placed on the work’s challenge to interpretation.

It is probably this emblematic character that accounts for the fact that in Duravcevic’s work the drawn image—or the painted one—is never unique. Not only does it evoke some pre-existing model, but typically, it is repeated (often doubled). But this repetition is evidently not a case of mechanical reproduction. The image has been redrawn by hand. Though the differences are minimal, one is not quite identical to the other. But neither are we confronted with an original and a copy. Even if it were the case that one drawing were made first, the other one afterward—but it is not at all clear that this is the case; if anything, it seems more likely that the two (or more) versions of the image were made side by side, simultaneously—the first one would not be an original but always already a copy; the fact that the image seems familiar is part of its message. This is particularly clear in a group of fifty drawings of eagles’ heads, some of which I recently saw in the artist’s studio in Brooklyn. The eagle is, of course, the emblematic bird of the United States—a reference emphasized by the fact that there are fifty of them—but its symbolic reach is far broader: the eagle has been associated with power and conquest at least since the time of the ancient Greeks, when it was associated with Zeus. In contemporary art one thinks especially of Marcel Broodthaers and his Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles. Duravcevic’s eagle looks fierce and vigilant, as sharp-eyed as legend would have it, but the marks that conjure it on the paper are as delicate as breath itself. It’s almost baffling, how someone could recreate the same image with such sensitivity time after time.

And time is of the essence. Probably it is this question of time that underlies Duravcevic’s art and its profound affinity with the phenomenon of repetition. Repetition is time, the inexorable ticking of the clock, in which our perceptual apparatus implants the nonexistent difference between “tick” and “tock”. But does time-as-repetition reinforce the image, disintegrate it, or somehow both at once? It’s a mystery, “Il tempo è il giudice più crudele dell’arte,” Duravcevic once told an interviewer, at the time when his work was shown in the Montenegrin pavilion in the 2015 Venice Biennale: Time is the cruelest judge of art. He’s right, of course: Time sentences most art to oblivion. But it works both ways: Art is also the cruelest judge of time. Time undermines the apparent solidity of objects and monuments and reveals it to be an illusion, but the image, which persists in the absence of its referent and after the demise of its creator, breaks free of time’s constraints and suggests that its inexorability, too, may be illusory. The image-world is the realm of simultaneity. I always think of something the great Italian artist Giulio Paolini once said: “Every work of art is already in itself a museum.” That means that, however simple, however immediate it may seem, the work collects and preserves within itself many moments—moments in the process of its ideation and making, moments in the life of the imagination of the artist who made it, moments in the vast and almost unknowable history (artistic and otherwise) that made the artist and the work possible. In this simultaneity, time stops, or turns out to be something completely other than what we thought. “Everything feels like a déjà vu,” as Duravcevic once said of the veils and fragments of the past that eternally return in his work. What once occurred, occurs again: the past recaptured? No, in this work, the past recaptures us.