On View15 Orient
January 23–March 14, 2021
This exhibition at 15 Orient is the first of Serbian-Macedonian painter Ljiljana Blazevska’s in the United States. Her name is fairly unknown outside the scene of artists she showed with in Belgrade starting in the 1970s, and even less so outside the region of former Yugoslavia. Seeming to have followed the tail end of a Surrealist revival in Belgrade lead by members of the Mediala group like Leonid ejka and Olja Ivanjicki, Blazevska’s work reflects this turn, with its mystical, rebellious inclination to wed ancient and modern. Despite this though, her light and vibrant palette shares a great deal with notable French school painters like Marko Čelebonović and Ljubica Sokić, who were both teaching at the Academy of Fine Arts in Belgrade when Blazevska completed her studies there in 1969. But the context that makes Blazevska’s work approachable in the US is obscured by the extremely personal, sequestered nature it has all of its own, that makes each painting, like a private dream or memory, untranslatable for the viewer.
Among her peers Blazevska’s paintings were seen to sublimate the world through poetic imagination. As fellow artist Boidar Babić explains it, Blazevska “seeks peace in the silent stillness of the dream. The dreams and lucid dreams that occur in the paintings, distinguished by their noble gentleness, reveal their symbols; shyly, timidly, childishly cheerful. Flora and fauna, recognizable in their distinct forms, each have the character of the World.” Unlike some of the fantastic landscapes of central European Surrealists like Yves Tanguy, Leonora Carrington, or Salvador Dalí, there is an innocence and openness to wonder in Blazevska’s landscapes that Babić speaks to, which indicate a fresh and curious nature often lacking in Surrealism. Blazevska herself called her work “poetic infantilism” but unlike other “-isms” there is, appropriately, no manifesto to explain this. The paintings seem to speak in a mysterious language that is infantile in its reverent, fluid apperception and that does not distinguish between figure and ground, subject and object.
The selection of paintings at 15 Orient creates a coherent whole out of what was actually a very disorganized studio practice. The whimsy of Blazevska’s pictures is complemented by the looseness and spontaneity of her archival process. Some of the paintings are covered in flecks from other nearby paintings; it is clear these were turned around and moved many times in the studio. It was also apparent from the edges that they had been re-stretched repeatedly. Most of the paintings in the show are undated and lack titles. Only three were titled specifically, Začarani prostor (Enchanted Place) (1979), Pustinja (Desert) (date unknown, 1975–85), and Tajni zakoni to vladaju snom (The Logic/Rules of the Dream) (date unknown; revisited in 2019). In Začarani prostor two figures resembling a man and woman stand in the foreground at opposite ends of the frame peering out at a golden and pearly landscape. In the center of the frame drifts three entities: a translucent orb resembling a flower or a cell, a cloudy tunic, and an impish bird with legs. Of these, the tunic is a character that reappears between a different couple in Untitled (6) (date unknown). More birds and imp-like creatures repeat as well throughout the pictures, as in Untitled (5) (1982) and Untitled (2) (date unknown, 1984–90). Untitled (Slika) (date unknown, 1975–85) features maybe a lion, a horse’s behind, and an unusual looking tree. A figure in colorful vestments walks through the landscape. There are also shadow figures contrasted by familiar objects like musical instruments, a clock, chairs and dining tables, as in Untitled (2) and Untitled (4) (date unknown, 1990–2000). Here, as in many other paintings, a dream-vision is represented that seems drawn from a distant childhood memory, or some other unconscious alchemy of associations and experiences.
Tajni zakoni to vladaju snom stands out as the most significant painting in the exhibition, as it seems Blazevska reveals her hand here, in the endless regression of the dream world. It is worth noting that this painting was revisited in 2019. Two figures in the foreground drift around what look like taxonomies of creatures, insects, and fetuses. It is not clear whether these figures are organizing, or merely studying them, maybe they don’t see them at all. As the title suggests, the dream does in fact have a secret taxonomy, a grammar, and logic. But these fremd landscapes are only beholden to themselves. I was left pacing around the gallery looking for the rules of the dream, unable to find them. Underneath the innocent mystery and wonder of Blazevska’s pictures hides a sinister quality that exiles the viewer. In each painting the perspective is from the outside looking in, behind the figures, as the horizon seems to pull everything further into the distance. There is a similarity between the personal introspection of Blazevska’s pictures and the dream imagery of Carl Jung’s Red Book, but while Jung, a psychoanalyst and academic, attempted to privately codify the secret unifying language of his own unconscious, Blazevska’s work seems to resists this kind of explication, embracing instead a disjointed and alien vision of self, lost in the spirit world.