Bernik, Kariž: NEW WORKS

Žiga Kariž and Viktor Bernik. Two artists, two painters. First and foremost,
painters at a time when visual art, intrinsically and extrinsically, has
expanded beyond determinable boundaries. Despite the fact that their works
often cross into the field of other media, at their core, they are still paintings.
And this painting, with Kariž as well as Bernik, is even more painterly than
ever. Think about the Painterly Project (Slikarski projekt, 2008), the
exhibition of paintings that the two artists conceived together with Arjan
Pregl and Saša Vrabič; or Kariž’s Terror=Décor (Teror=Dekor, 1998–2003)
and Grey City (Sivo mesto, 1997); or Bernik’s Thinking of the Bridge
Concordia (Misel na Concordski most, 2003) and The Spaces of Urban Images
(Prostori urbanih podob, 2005). In both artists’ cases, these cycles have
alternated with projects that touch upon painting only fleetingly and venture
into the world of installation, drawing, event, video, graphics. Content-wise,
they have mostly been related to painting; however, the artists have used
many other forms of expression. This experience has always been reciprocal
and evident in each new painterly cycle. This time around, in Bernik’s case,
it is obvious at first sight; for here, even some images are related to previous
projects. It is evident in Kariž’s case, too, in details. In their opus, which
encompasses more than a decade, Kariž and Bernik have shown that they
are painters even when they’re not actually making paintings and that they
return to painting time and again.
Painting persists, with its historical anchorage in the field of art; with the
theory that has developed around it and that has changed at an increasing
pace over the centuries; with its objectness and décor that stimulate the
desire to posses paintings; with its adaptability to the different new artistic
and social conditions in which painting has landed over time; and with the
primacy of its mode of expression, which can be, perhaps, beaten only by
drawing. Painting has the capacity to capture the eye, which transforms from
a straying, hasty organ of service into the central element of our body when
observing a painting. Thoughts, feelings and sensations arise out of the eye,
for painting halts other physical activities. This function of painting is key
when, nowadays, we raise the question of the significance of its existence.
The gaze comes to a halt when chancing upon a work of art; however, when
encountering painting, it halts differently. The painting in front of the eye is
a frozen image. In itself, it seldom changes and it does so very slowly. To
observe a painting is something totally different from observing a street,
a landscape from a moving car, or the moving images on TV or a screen.
Painting is an image that has come to a halt. Sculpture is like this, too;
however, it is also spatial, it requires us to move our bodies, to make a
round… Painting conceals nothings; everything that is visible is offered at
once, as a whole. The halted image arrests the eye. The eye issues a signal.
Feelings, memories, thoughts ensue… No new image can stop this flow until
we avert our gaze. Painting is a site of tranquillity, contemplation, stolen
aimless time within time. It only gives to those who are willing to give
Žiga Kariž and Viktor Bernik are painter of the generation that marked
Slovenian painting at the end of the millennium. This generation posed new
questions about painting within the frame of the tide of new visual media,
and it brought painting into the present, which was media-based, urban,
Western, international and social, and it established links with other artistic
media and concepts. However, over the past few years, the practices of both
artists have become distinctly individual; yet, explorations of the manifold
aspects of the image still characterise both artists’ work. In his latest cycles,
Kariž has constructed the idea of the “personal”, which is totally different
from the personal as we have known it from the dominant stream of
Slovenian painting, which is why we can only mention it in inverted commas.
The images in Viktor Bernik’s work are, as a rule, related to the issues of the
spaces and the places that determine their reading. The transference of a
certain visual sign from one place to another, the overlapping of images, and
the question of where exactly the image, which we observe, is located, where
it came from and what the new place of residence has offered it, characterise
the artist’s practice.
This time around, the decision about how the images will anchor themselves
in the painting transpires in the act that takes place directly in front of the
canvas, by painting and imprinting the images from various media, such as
plastic bags, among other things, which Bernik has already used in his
previous cycles. The painting is taking shape, it is being built, erased,
composed, pasted on, things are added to it and taken off of it, the canvas is
being covered and exposed, until the painter’s subjective will decides that
physical activity is over and the canvas is offered to the eye. Some of Bernik’s
paintings seem to be somehow related to informel, only that painting is flatter,
for numerous imprints – some sort of remains of the décollage of pvc material,
one of the iconic signs of contemporary civilisation – produce a low undulating
structure. At times, the layers on the canvas overlap and the colours become
planes of bluish black, in which, here and there, we catch a glimpse of a logo,
a text or the remnants of an image. Bernik’s painting is the blotting paper of
reality1, in which the images overlap to such an extent that they become
Der Natur. This is a dark image of the remains of a civilisation, an obscure
landscape of images, which form the new nature of the contemporary world;
this is probably also where the German title of the painting originates from.
This landscape by Bernik is different, post-apocalyptic, post-technological
and coolly cruel. In this cycle, the artist takes the image to the extreme,
where numerous layers turn black, or he “leaves” it white with minimal
interventions, which, however, often turn out to be multi – and sub – layered.
Bernik’s paintings are often cruel, like some of the paintings from Gabriel
Stupica’s light period; they are urban in the sense of Ed Ruscha’s work; and
we can detect in them the contrasts of Richter’s paintings, which sometimes
give the impression that we could situate them within the frameworks of
conceptual art, yet, at the same time, they continuously cross the line that
separates them from minimalism, while they never enter its core. The second
nature, which takes shape through the bulk of the palimpsest in works
such as American Spirit and Der Natur, is clearly recognisable in a different
version in the diptych Ensemble. The image of a mountain in early spring,
which in itself is an image that carries the potential for the sublime, for
numbness and for the magnificence and the ubiquity of nature, is totally
divested of its power. The logos, the text, the whiteness of the colour
which sometimes confuses us as to whether it represents a cloud or is
just a form that occurred during imprinting – unite and separate the
image of nature from the painterly. The attempt to look into the painterly
window fails. The desire to view the painting as nothing but an artistic
form also fails. Ensemble plays with the eye, it absorbs the gaze and reflects
it at the same time. It is and, at the same time, is not a screen. The painting
is and, at the same, is not permeable. It is a semi-permeable membrane
covering nothing but a blank canvas, for the membrane is that which
desires to be observed.
Bernik’s anti-palimpsests are not afraid of whiteness. Even when they are
at their whitest, such as in Yellow or in F. Castelli, they are not legible. We
cannot connect them into a story. They only let intuition link the forms of
the yellow stain and, due to their frequency, recognise them as important,
or, in the painting There Is Hope, to relate them to the presence of the image
of a discarded newspaper. The crumpled bearer of information now carries
the same semantic value as the yellow stain. Even when confronted with
figuration, such as in the painting The Prophet (Prerok), the eye is mainly
attracted by the forms which do not follow the image of the man in a white
T-shirt. We see the traces of erasure on his hand, the whiteness of the stain
on his white T-shirt, whose whitest spot is precisely the spot where we would
expect undisturbed shadow under the sleeve. Even where the imprint is
repeated with mathematical precision (Same), where the typographical
raster (Touch Me) or the angular technological pattern (Bow Peep) are
visible, the gaze still recognises some sort of nature.
Kariž’s works are similar and, at the same time, different. Above all, we
notice a different format; for, while Bernik’s cycle is composed of several
smaller pieces, Kariž has created only four large-format works. Here, too,
we encounter the construction of a collage of images, forms and colours;
yet, the feel of the paintings is different, more energetic and more colourful
on the one hand – there is less peace in these paintings – and also more
unpleasant on the other hand. In the process of creating them, Kariž first
conceived the paintings with a computer programme, into which he
imported fragments of images. His selection comprised images from his
childhood: advertisements for children’s glasses, crystal, saving with
German marks, toilet cleaning agents, plastic green chairs… Disney
characters, family photos; these are the images from the seventies which
characterise Kariž’s opus in general and which condensed most
evidently two years ago in the cycle entitled Paradise Lost (Izgubljeni
The feeling aroused by these works can be described as the intangible frivolity
of the 21st century, the empty, seemingly unencumbered joy, the pleasant
cover concealing something violent, something unpleasant, something that
does not belong here. Everything is nice, everybody is happy, everybody is
nice, yet…not really. The choice of the images, which should enable us to
experience pleasure, does not deliver what it promises. Something else is
hiding behind it.
The four large paintings by Kariž are obviously related to sexuality, mostly to
the moment of penetration. The vagina becomes the pleasant star-shaped pop
motif, the mouth of Donald Duck or the hortus conclusus of a scientist with a
large microscope. The phalluses – it is always about erect penises – are related
to a woman. If we think of Kariž’s previous cycles, the thought crosses our
minds that this woman could also be a maternal figure. The other phalluses
rise up out of commodities of contemporary civilisation, from money (German
marks, which, in this space, used to be so valuable – priceless, in fact), from
solid luxury crystals and from colour, which supports them in one of the
paintings, so they can rise towards the vagina.
Yet, despite the fact that the paintings obviously represent sexuality, the
latter is not sexual in the sense of a carnal desire for intercourse. This is an
asexual image of sexuality. Pornography that has nothing to do with sexuality,
but rather becomes a bare, insensitive sign. At this point of mediating feelings,
Kariž’s painting is empty. And precisely this vacant image, which results from
the artist’s intimate experience, is the stuff from which the outline of the
painting is constructed. In the painting, the intimacy is lost, for the images have
been transformed into sexualised visual rebuses.
The pleasure of both artistic cycles resides in painting as such, in that which is
painted onto the adopted images. The intimate does not dwell in the image, but
rather in form, colour, stroke, the dripping of paint, in tiny “irregularities”. And
even so, with an artist like Kariž, we wonder to what extent the gesture is
gestural and to what extent it is actually calculated for the eye of the spectator
guided by his/her previous insights.
With both artists, the constructedness – maybe we could also say the design – of
painting is conceptual. It does not transpire so as to make the paintings appear
more beautiful, more contemporary or more interesting; rather, its purpose is
to tell us about painting, the world and, above all, ourselves. However, for this
to happen, we must give it, the glutton, a very long look. When the painting
fulfils its desire for the spectator, it starts to give. It offers colours, shapes,
surfaces, images… They produce comfort, pain, pleasure, recognition and they
elicit thinking. Painting is not the only place that halts the gaze; it is, however,
the place where this capacity is always present. If we ever cease giving to
painting, we will lose yet another bit of freedom and sensibility.

Petja Grafenauer

(text from Bernik, Kariž: New Works catalogue, Aksioma – Institute of contemporary art, Equrna Gallery, Ljubljana, 2011)