Encountering the game: in the studio of Aleksandar Dimitrijević

Photography and text by Alexandra Lazar © 2013.

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Aleksandar Dimitrijević in his studio in Užice, 2013.

The studio of Serbian artist Aleksandar Dimitrijević, located in his home town of Užice, three hours’ drive out of Belgrade, is teeming with paintings. Stored on two levels and against all walls in a considerable space (formerly a shop in a multi-storey shopping centre, pitched against a rugged mountainous skyline), the paintings fully contribute to the feeling of being gated in. Užice, at the banks of Djetinja river, is surrounded with Illyrian tombs, Roman and Byzantine ruins and remnants of considerable economic and industrial growth that has all but disappeared since the break-up of the region and the 1999 NATO bombings. Modern Užice is a city that struggles to regain its former economic and cultural resources; this struggle has left its mark on the city and on surrounding countryside.

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Red painting, 2011, oil on canvas
Born in Užice, Aleksandar started painting at the age of 22 in the studio of his brother, painter Ljudiša Dimitrijević, who led an art school Vinsent in Sombor from the 1990s. After two years in his brother’s studio and the year serving the compulsory national service, Dimitrijević went on to graduate painting at the Academy of Arts in Novi Sad (2004), and obtained his MA in drawing (2010). He became interested in gestural and physical aspects of painting early on. At college, he enlarged the formats in order to increase his movement in relation to the canvas, and discarded figurative representation on behalf of abstract gestures.

An early influence was Lucien Freud (whose monographs the college purchased on his insistence), but the dominant influences are Twombly, Schnabel and Basquiat. This is easy to see. Like Twombly, Dimitrijević blurs the line between painting and drawing, employing a similar painterly technique. Unlike the older master, he has no affinity for romantic symbolism, except perhaps with his latest Four Seasons polyptich, an hommage to Twombly’s Four Seasons (1993-94). There is no reliance on poetry or classical myth; instead, he observes the lyricism of anonymous everyday life, traced in the short-lived, episodic ephemera.

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Above: ETC. (Jelena je zvala), 2005; Playground, 2008. Below: Summer, part of the polyptich Four Seasons, 2012; Summer detail.

Dimitrijević uses diverse methods of application of paint (brush, broom, sponge, cloth) on varied backgrounds (canvas, hardboard, paper, wall) which he cuts, glues and fuses. Each painting is created over a period of time, and he frequently returns to the older paintings, changing and repainting them. He also uses found incidental drawings, rejected pieces of paper filled with records of game matches, doodles, signatures, pencil tests and other unconscious mark-making by ‘unknown authors’. For the artist, the value of these found drawings is partly their ‘worthlessness’ to their originators, who give them no value beyond the moment in which they were scribbled down. These found drawings, or Artefacts, are used as a base for his collages, installations or are enlarged onto larger works. Doodles and game scores are accurate templates of time spent doing nothing: of ticking away the valuable (or worthless) free time used for play, numerical variations played out as quickly as they are forgotten, serving only as permutations of killing time.

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Schon Probiert, from Artefact series, 2011.

It’s an uncanny thing to step on artist’s work, even if encouraged; but Dimitrijević rips a large sheet out of the pile that lies about on the studio floor and offers me to trample on it. This work, and others on the said pile, are a part of the collection of works that are habitually stepped on, ripped or damaged. Footmarks, drips and other incidental markings that occur during work, he assures me, serve to complicate the authored mark-making. The works stay on the floor until they’re brought into collages, framed, overpainted, or incorporated in other pieces.

Third distinct group of drawings constitute his documents and letters – kept in a battered old suitcase – that add further material proofs of value(less) existence. Flicking through them, Dimitrijević points out an official affidavit that states the artist is financially dependant on his wife (needed to obtain a travel visa), and an award (first prize at the XX Regional salon of art, Užice 2008) completely obliterated with paint and scribbles, thus ‘modified’ into an artwork itself.

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Above: drawing on the studio floor. Below: an art award that became an artwork.

Separate body of work forms Time of Renewal (2004 – present), a series of book-like objects painted on art catalogues and brochures. Unlike Gerhard Richter’s Overpainted Photographs, Dimitrijević’s Time of Renewal series do not merely provide disturbance of a flat image: they completely void it. The catalogues do not survive neither as motives nor textures (in contrast to similar catalogue-drawings of modernist Ivan Tabaković), but become physical carriers of paintings and diptychs of games, distractions, and other recounts of ‘valueless’ lost time. By obscuring (and forgetting) the ‘boring’ high art with what looks like references to football fields and goal posts, Dimitrijević creates a space for exposing the bare gesture and colour, cataloguing highly energetic presence and dystopia.

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Overpainted catalogue, Time of Renewal, 2005

Dimitrijević’s paintings from the 2005-07 contain gestures (script, signs, crosses, lines, marks, smudges, letters and numbers) that will reappear in his later work, but with time they became structurally and formally more sound. Whilst his early canvases are covered with markings that battle each other for supremacy, later works are more harmonious in texture and composition, losing none of the accumulated meanings. Kirk Vanedoe‘s defence of Twombly from 1994 holds true for Dimitrijević. Like Twombly, Dimitrijević works “in the orchestration of a previously uncodified set of personal ‘rules’ about where to act and where not, how far to go and when to stop, in such a way as the cumulative courtship of seeming chaos defines an original, hybrid kind of order, which in turn illuminates a complex sense of human experience not voiced or left marginal in previous art.” [1]

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Dimitrijević in front of Pastime, 2005, and detail.

These marks are frequently (and sometimes exclusively) numbers. In series Reconstruction of the game (2011- present), Dimitrijević depicts variations on game leaflets marking score between contestants: labelled with initials, anonymous individuals repeatedly win and lose against each other. The vast boards of numericals (reminiscent of a much less monochrome and sedated Opalka), record with intense fascination the passing of so-called free time, the time in which the players have a free reign.

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Dimitrijević rearranges the panels on The point of view, 2013

Apart from numbers, a dot – utilised from indigenous art to Miro, from pointillism to Hirst – exists as an essential individual element as well as subject of painting. In a work The point of view (2013), currently on show at Dimitrijevic’s solo show ‘Inversions’ at the City Gallery Uzice (7 – 28 February 2013), Dimitrijević’s hugely enlarged handwritten dot serves as the subject of an enormous version of handheld puzzle. The point of view, the work’s title, suggests that by changing places of the square panels we get a different painting every time; yet it also contains a thwarted promise of an overall difference and change of our ‘point of view’. From which angle or position is the work ‘true’ or ‘false’? As in the actual game, one piece of puzzle is always missing, and we will never see the whole.

Activity not frequently recorded nor measured (unless the aim is to put some rein and limits to it), play is a curious focus for a contemporary Serbian artist. Especially the one coming from the town that, like Newcastle in Britain, has yet to recover from its loss of industry. Work in hands that, to use the language of a not so distant past, have co-opted their means of production, is a play with borrowed time.

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The point of view, 2013, oil on hardboard

The first encounter with Dimitrijević’s work reminded me of Oulipo, (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle or the workshop for potential literature), a group of French writers and mathematicians that attempted to unleash new creative potential from often random structures and patterns – linguistic or mathematical. The works of Raymond Queneau or, in particular, Georges Perec comes to mind. Oulipo defines their aim as “seeking of new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy.” In case of Perec, this joy took form of games used as structures for his writing: chess, crossword puzzles, lipograms, palindromes – an aesthetic that, according to Tom Payne, ‘chased itself around into oblivion’. Another thought is of Beckett. Like Beckett who, having established that he has nothing to say went on to consider how to say it, Dimitrijević discovers loss (of time, self, or possibilities, of a different path or route to choose), and then does his best to paint it. The artist says his work is not intended as political or conceptual, but they’re far from being just aesthetic compositions. Instead they offer a composite reality of game and chance, ownership of myth and time, socio-archaeological onion skins containing gambled pasts, pawned present and conditioned futures.

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Ljudiša Dimitrijević, Fish that ate the world, 1986, mural

Leaving Užice, we walk past a mural painted by Aleksandar’s brother Ljudiša. The primary school wall depicts a Fish that ate the world, or rather, the entire history of wall painting: Lascaux caves, battle scenes, Egyptian tomb art, indigenous and tribal scenes. The entire cultural ancestry of humanity seen from the perspective of an artist from (then) former Yugoslavia. A few blocks down, the Teaching College building has a mural painted by Aleksandar two decades later. Written as if by child’s hand, it appears to keep score of a game. In fact, the marks and numbers record historic dates of Užice’s past. It ends with 2007, continuing to infinity. Perhaps Dimitrijević is not so far from Opalka after all.

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Aleksandar Dimitrijević, Sklavko, 2007, mural

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Notes:

[1] Kirk Vanedoe, Your kid could not do this, and other reflections on Cy Twombly. MoMa, No 18, Autumn-Winter 1994. pp.18-23

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