IPERCUBO presents the first Italian solo show of Ivan Grubanov (Belgrade, 1976), who represented Serbia at the Venice Art Biennale in 2015. The exhibition presents Skin Nation Class, a large polyptych over 10 meters long and three paintings from the Motto paintings series
For the last fifteen years, Ivan Grubanov’s oeuvre has investigated the conventional notions of the «nation- state» and the power linked to it, of what it means to belong to a certain nation-state, and of nationalism. His research was crystallized in an exceptional way in his installation entitled United Dead Nations for
the Serbian Pavilion at Giardini at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015. This work consisted of a 200 m2 floor installation in which the entire surface became a fresco painting on top of which flags of dead nations lay. As in all of Grubanov’s other works, the use of brushes or other painterly tools was avoided as the fresco was painted using the very flags of these countries that do not exist anymore. Several years before, more precisely in the spring of 1979, Rosalind Krauss published her massively influential article «Sculpture in the Expanded Field» in the pages of October. In it, she proposed to expand the category of «sculpture» in order to explain certain contemporary artistic practices that, although developed in space, could no longer be confined within the modernist conception of what a sculpture was.
This conception implied considering that a sculpture, or any artwork for that matter, has a transcendental ontological and aesthetic value that is completely detached from the context in which the artwork was created, as well as from the context in which it was exhibited.
In other words, the modernist artwork was considered as autonomous. However, Krauss’s approach and, in particular, her use of the structuralist Klein diagram in order to «expand the field», did not escape critique because what it did was sacrifice time and history (and consequently the political dimension) to a permanent, ahistorical structure which has been called the «ability of the diagram to arrest time and to suspend history». Nevertheless, according to structuralist semiotician A. J. Greimas, this «closure» to or suspension of history «can be solved only through the intervention of praxis», hence, by introducing movement (life?) into the stasis of the diagram which, according to Greimas, «is when the praxis of the artists comes into play». Taking this reflection as a point of departure, I would like to propose a reading of Grubanov’s practice in terms of medium, in which the medium of «painting» is expanded as a tool for triggering questions that could hopefully lead to political change. In Grubanov’s use of the medium, there is a political dimension given by his refusal to consider painting as an autonomous and limited object but rather as one capable of generating possibilities for change or putting previously given categories, such as that of nation-state, into discussion by expanding its possibilities to a broader context and explicitly reflecting on history and memory in relation to a given political and social context. There are several layers in his expansion of painting. The most evident are his installations, such as the aforementioned Serbian Pavilion (formerly the Yugoslavia Pavilion) in which flags of countries that ceased to exist during the twentieth century, which were used to perform the painting and damaged through various processes, were scattered as obsolete objects on the floor, which was also painted as a fresco. Another level is a performative element in the artist’s process which, even though it cannot be directly observed, is present through traces in the work. This aspect was present in his work before the Pavilion, for instance in the Smokescreens series (2012), in which the artist burned the still fresh paint on the canvas, controlling its effect in a performative action of sorts. In the military context, a smokescreen refers to the use of artificial smoke to hide soldiers’ movements and actions. In the common use of the word, smokescreen may refer to an action aimed at concealing certain intentions or activities, so the residue of smoke left on the painting works as a smokescreen both physically, on the canvas of the painting, and as a figure of speech, in the sense that, according to the artist, it expresses «despair over human impossibility to adequately express the urge for transformative—and not merely participatory—action in the social realm». An artwork may not be able to bring about actual social change, but it may be able to summon reflection and eventually stimulate a disruptive action. There is also a systematic avoidance of figurative representation in Grubanov’s works as well as of the use of typical painterly tools, such as brushes. In all of his works, paint is applied to the canvas using other fabrics, rags, or more often, obsolete flags, with the occasional introduction of text—for example, in the «motto paintings» in which the artist uses the mottos of different nations to allude to their almost magical power, to how the people of certain nations identify with them, and how mottos would eventually mobilize masses in their name. By decontextualizing the embroidered mottos and inserting them in an abstract painting, Grubanov intends to make them resonate in new ways in order to foster different reactions and interpretations.
Yet another level lies in his treatment of the painting as an object or, to put it in minimalist terms, «as a specific object» and not just as a «surface» on which an «image» is created. Working very much within the conceptual treatment of painting inaugurated by Jasper Johns and Frank Stella, for Grubanov there is no difference between spreading out an ensemble of flags on the floor, painting on polycarbonate riot shields, as in Counterpicturing (2018), embroidering text and applying paint to it, as in the «motto» series (2020), or composing a polyptych with different painterly elements framed, or better, «boxed» into wooden frames, as in Unnation (2021). In all these works, painting and its supporting surface are one whole entity. Very much in line with the idea of «specific objects», these works contemplate and gather traces both of the action of the artist and of the interaction with an embodied viewer. This is also the case for Grubanov’s new series of works that give title to the present exhibition, Skin Nation Class (2022), his first solo exhibition in Italy. Skin Nation Class consists of an installation composed of six polyptychs. Each of the six square pieces is composed with a black mirror in the center, a stretched canvas, and a stained flag that was used to paint the canvas: The mirror at the center of each of the six pieces reflects the viewer, including her/him in the work; the stretched canvas emphasizes exploitation through the process of imprinting using the stained flag, which at the same time alludes to the conventional and often forced nature of what are called «nation-states»; as Grubanov puts it, «The flag remains altered in the process but its national/ ideological connotation cannot be removed, it is forensically traceable and even more violent as we witness its ability to adapt its color but never abandon its signifying role». The series is in continuity with the Unnation polyptychs, but the mirror is a completely new element in the artist’s oeuvre. Remarkably enough, Grubanov’s methodological avoidance of representation is clearly broken by the inclusion of the mirror which creates a perspectival virtual duplication of the space of the viewer. This represents a further rupture with painting as the modernist medium par excellence, in particular abstract painting, because it is yet a further step in linking the painting to context by expanding it; or, as has been written regarding United Dead Nations, it is a way of creating a «plane of immanence» in which the here and now and the alive- ness of artistic praxis intersect with the past and death, set against the «transcendence» of the aesthetic value and autonomy of the modernist artwork. Therefore, Grubanov introduces history and time, a recursive time that goes back to dead nations to make them resonate in the present—sadly enough today with a tragic new sense—not only, as Greimas would put it, through practice, but through his very use and expansion of the medium that repositions painting in a historical and political context, both literally and performatively.