Or The Return to the Sign

Sign-all is the title given to the exhibition and maybe even the latest artistic cycle of Zvonko Pušnik. Through its single-word totality the name reduces the realm of his paintings to a pantheistic integrality of the sign; in this world, the sign functions as an “idiom”, as the basic component of its language. The artist’s discourse is visual, it manifests through the medium of painting, in which he uses the technique known as the “material painting” – in art theory, the expression signifies the artistic exploration of the classic historical painting (composed of a frame and a painted canvas) by experimental painters of the previous century. The artist does not stop at the standard structure of the painting, his canvases are split and processed, then reattached to the basic canvas, i.e. the fabric functioning as the canvas. These separate fragments are incorporated into the primary basis as a collage on the back of the painting; the thick coat of paint makes them appear as openings, highlighting the silhouettes of the motifs in the foreground. The “construction” of the painting itself, the process of its conception, is thus only seen from an angle usually hidden from the viewer – paintings hang on walls, their backgrounds obscured. Zvonko is well aware of this fact, his approach to the illusion of painting is somewhat organic, slicing into the very anatomy of the painting – peering under its metaphorical skin, where every single person looks the same. Yet Zvonko does not find blood there, instead, he discovers a fabric that he can weave to his own liking; he does this in a theatrical fashion, manipulating the background of the visible (the back of the painting) to imbue the invisible (that which is hidden under the thick coating of colour and collage) with an illusion of the motif on the “right” side of the painting.
This “constructed” part of the painting is not “constructivist” in the basic meaning of historical constructivism (as a discipline of art/philosophy), because it is theatrical in nature: the scene manipulations that could lead to a deconstruction of the intended illusion are cleverly disguised in the visible foreground of the painting. Another elemental component of the Sign-all paintings are the massive frames, which transform paintings into icons and give them a sacral touch, a mythical status of creation. The analysis of the construction of the painting bespeaks an archaic spirit. This mythically archaic essence is also reflected in the bronze colouring in some parts of the frames.
We have approached the study of a piece of art as seen within the framework of form and content. Yet even this traditional division turns relative when we try to grasp the story through content alone. In the first part of our analysis, we took a look at the material construction of the painting, now we will focus on the motifs featured on a surface which adds its own relativity to the evolution of the artist's language (a blue basis is an emblematic component of abstract expressionism). This cycle features a collection of historical and contemporary elemental signs, as well as signs borrowed from various cultures and transformed appropriately. As we consider the yellow, deliberately asymmetrical and organically painted symbols of swastika, cross of Constantine, Kabbalah, etc., we place them in an archaic, non-moralising context, for all the symbols are set beside the paintings on the walls in smaller plasticised reproductions and described without bias, disengaged from historical guilt. We first think of an equalisation of historically tainted symbols (the “Nazi” swastika vs. the Maltese cross, the Kabbalah vs. the symbol of anarchy). And yet, the selection of symbols also includes reduced (unicoloured), symbolic (iconographic) representations of a hand-held fan and modern headphones. This can be seen as an adoption of popular icons, which are made common and devalued outside any ideological sphere, or quite the opposite – a sacralisation of the everyday through art. Such pairs, pertaining to the Western and Eastern cultural and religious traditions, feature prominently among the chosen images and can be identified as symbols. But we also find symbols that derive their status from a basic linguistic sign/word, e.g. the symbol of Yahweh, which is in essence a word written down in one of the ancient languages/alphabets. The latter is thus not a sign, but a symbol that owes its status to its universal meaning (Yahweh). It can be perceived as a critical turning point within this cycle: “Yahweh” is the name of God, which Jews should not pronounce out loud out of fear and respect – an analogy with the question of the “inexpressible”, adopted from religion by abstract painters of the previous century. We are embarking on a metaphysical search for an image of the inexpressible, the abstract.
The next collection of signs is the apex of the cycle, reflecting the answer to the question of the image and its content, i.e. the written word for the inexpressible, the cosmic absolute. It is no coincidence that the painter chose the symbol of the omnipotent god from the Jewish tradition, for it is this very folklore that places the status of the sign above the status of the image – corresponding with the story of the sign in the artist's repertoire. The painter responds by enriching his expressive language with Japanese characters. The words he chooses carry strong meaning in the world of painting: circle, eye and angel. It seems he is trying to tell us that, in order to achieve cosmic symmetry, an artist's eye must be angelically inspired.
This analysis of Zvonko's signs unveils a story that is a virtual rationalisation of signs (the selection of motifs) and therefore a conception of a message. In this context, his work is marked by Western concepts. Yet as an artist, he overcomes the historical conceptualism, which placed the visual art in an already passed era, and uses the conceptual return to the sign to declare painting a ritualised operation of a painter who is delivering his message. This is thus the artist's synthesis of Western conceptualism and oriental universalism.

Vanesa Cvahte, december 2005, Slovenska Bistrica