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Asta Vrečko

SEARCHING FOR THE BIGGER PICTURE 

Staš Kleindienst (1979) began his artistic career already during his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design. During that time, he teamed up with his colleague Sebastjan Leban, and together they created art intensively in a tandem called Leban/Kleindienst for more than a decade. Their work was based on their shared theoretical premises, thematically dealing with the questioning of social relations and revealing the mechanisms of exploitation, while their production included various media. Despite the fruitful collaboration, they worked separately as well at the time. Between 2007 and 2010, Kleindienst was part of the group Reartikulacija, which published a journal with the same name. After this intense period of group work, for the first time after finishing his studies, the artist was drawn by the expressive possibilities of the most traditional artistic medium – painting. The transition from conceptual practices towards painting was not sudden. As was shown at the exhibition In-Betweens (Galerija Alkatraz, December 2015), where Kleindienst’s works from 2011–2015 were exhibited, it was a gradual process. A year earlier, Kleindienst won the OHO Group Award, intended for young artists, for the painting Mysteries of the Forest (2014), as the judges recognized the radical execution and usage of the medium, which had to be understood in the context of the artist’s usual practices. Kleindienst is considered to be one of the most theoretically and artistically versed artists of his generation. Despite the formal change in his chosen mode of expression, he remains committed to the same fundamental questions in art, and to the exploration of social phenomena, as in the beginning of his path. The turn to painting, if it may be called so, in his opus seems completely unstrained and organic, being only the next stage in the artist’s development.

 

Staš Kleindienst’s paintings are distinguished by two interrelated components: the artist’s extraordinary mastery of the metier of painting, and the high complexity of his works. The characteristic trait of his works is perspective. The view from above enables the view from a distance and puts the viewer into the role of an outside observer, distances him in a way, and evokes a feeling of impartiality. However, this makes it difficult for the spectator to embrace the whole, as the paintings are composed of many levels, moments and situations, the details being that which actually assembles everything into a whole. We can only really see them when looking simultaneously from up-close and from afar. The artist constantly juxtaposes public and private activities and manoeuvres our glance from squares, streets, nature to the intimacy of homes, this harmony of fragmentary sights unveiling the whole of society. The substantive and formal contrasts in his paintings expose social antagonisms, the questions of class struggle, ecology, authority and the entrapping system. Although the paintings are set in landscapes, that is, in open space, the works evoke an unpleasant and anxious feeling of omnipresent surveillance. The atomised individuals all breathe their own lives, tell their own stories, but they are connected by the same habitus, they live in the same universe of an individual painting. The idyllic landscapes in the background, which symbolize purity, incorruptness, are often in a dialectical relationship with other parts of the painting, as their visual antagonism is based on the coexistence of the anxious and the idyllic. 

 

In the artist’s canvasses, we are often faced with images we can relate to references from media reports or that are familiar from everyday life. In the painting Second Decade (2013) we can see a poster – it is similar to an advertising campaign of a Slovenian mobile operator – featuring people with flags and a crowd protesting. This campaign took over the symbolism and iconography of the so-called uprisings of that time, which were engendered as a response to the economic crisis and the government policies of austerity. By criticising the marketing approach that took the image of unsatisfied youth and perverted it for consumerist purposes, Kleindienst carries out a critique of the system, which opens us a niche market for self-criticism, and thus quickly takes away its emancipatory potential. The art museum, portrayed in another part of the painting, represents art institutions, which are subjected to the market, and which appropriate critical works of art that they usually depoliticize in the process. A crowd of protesters is strolling through a park, where some other inhabitants of the same city continue their everyday routine undisturbed. The park, located in the centre of the painting, like a hortus conclusus, represents an atmosphere of the innocent, peaceful city life of those who think that what is happening outside is none of their business, and are either unaware or consciously ignore the fact that their position, supposedly free from ideology, reinforces everything that is happening outside of this oasis. On the other side of the park, there is a scene that strongly reminds us of charitable institutions. Their attendance has risen since the beginning of the economic crisis as more and more people are struggling to survive due to loss of income. For the elite, however, or the 1 %, to borrow from the Occupy Wall Street move ment, the American response to the systemic problems of capitalism and the financial crisis, not much has changed. As can be seen here, the legalized corruption continues to take place undisturbedly, suitcases change hands, the rich become richer and are having carefree fun in their houses, far away from the angry mob that would ruin their fun.

 

The question of identity – personal, collective, national – is one of the frequent subjects. In the painting Third Decade (2014), individuals, no more in a dense crowd with a unified message, but shattered across the public space, walk with banners that convey their particular personal interests or depict symbols that define them. But the pursuit of particular interests leads to a society of atomised individuals, in which the care for the common good is marginalized. Those who benefit from this and whose status enables it, more often than not look the other way and escape into an idealized safe haven of a community that is estranged from reality. The look inside, into the intimate spaces of the city’s inhabitants, where much is happening but nothing happens, reveals routines, intertwined with the boredom of everyday life. The painting is also defined by the absence of the cathartic moment, as the suspense of waiting has long since dissipated to be replaced by apathy.

 

The work Miracle Mountain (2015) depicts a crowd of people who are climbing a mountain in a relatively orderly winding line. At the top the pilgrims will place their different identities into the symbolic social order, thus irrevocably giving themselves up to the authority that addresses the crowd from a music stage. The individuals, caught in a race towards humiliation with no winners, then bow before the stage, hoping that a part of the symbolic capital of this fictive authority will pass on to them and improve their lives. Freedom of choice, it seems, is not that free at all, even though the path towards it is full of creativity and adorable flowers. Right at the top, profane and sacral corporations sit, using their privileged position to manipulate the masses. The issues of event, ritual and their meaningfulness are present in the work The Dirty End of Winter (2016) as well. At first glance, we can see the staging of two historical events in an unexpected environment, a working construction site. There are no recording cameras, and although we would expect someone to shout: Cut!, it never happens. In a pit, which is the central venue of the activities on the painting, a comedy, or at least its staging, takes place. Working machines, an unexpected audience, polluted water and a urinating man do not seem to interrupt the audience’s apparently cheerful (drunken) atmosphere and point to the absurdity of the whole situation. The toxically yellow-coloured sky, rising above the snowy hills, gives the atmosphere an unhealthy touch as well.  

 

In mass media, we encounter scenes of war, torture, exploitation on a daily basis, thus becoming immune to their contents. We are not surprised anymore to see chopped-up bodies, policemen shooting non-white minors, women and children in faraway factories of the third world, working in slave-like conditions for just a few dollars a month, or refugees at our borders. Burdened by our own everyday problems we have lowered our standards and are able to quickly adjust and distance ourselves, we are touched by something only when we are directly involved in it or it happens right before our threshold. First Decade (2013), with earthy colours, scenes of shooting prisoners in orange jumpsuits and scenes of torturing captives, stripped bare, brings to mind the activities taking place in war prisons. The sandy shades of the city and the blood-coloured horizon allude to the war conflicts of the Middle East, while the blue colours in the front point to the other side of the coin. The lives of those who profit from these crimes go on uninterrupted. Even more, their lifestyle is based exactly on the blood of fallen soldiers and captives, on the sweat of exhausted workers, who are rebuilding that which was demolished just before. The work Alien Invaders (2015) deals with a similar subject. The city’s civilian population is evacuated, only people in uniforms remain, shooting at each other like in some computer game. It is easier to imagine wars happening far away that have nothing to do with us than to think about our own involvement. The title itself hints at estrangement, which is in a way created by media images, since the English word alien can be translated into Slovenian either as foreigner or as extra-terrestrial. This forces us to pose the question of who are the people that are destroying the free world. 

 

In the world obsessed with information, those who control them have the most power. Mechanisms of control and discipline, introduced in states of emergency (for example after terrorist attacks), seem less foreign every day, we get used to them and soon, we do not even notice their omnipresence anymore. The state of emergency thus quietly becomes entirely normal, mundane. Less and less people warn about it, voices of criticism slowly dissipate. As in the painting New Morning (2015), people with large grotesque masks, reminiscent of Disney’s anthropomorphised animals with big eyes and smiling faces, inconspicuously walk among the streets and parks of idyllic towns and villages. That is the moment when the bond between power and the values that supposedly legitimize its existence is broken. When the representations of those ideas are in a downfall, most people cling to them ever stronger, even with violence. What follows is the revelation of the entrails of the exploitative system that recognizes only the exploited and the exploiters. Capitalism raises personal freedom above all values, but it is soon proven an illusion, a freedom of false choices. In the painting Electric Sky (2015) we can see that under those grotesque masks there are not aliens, but the cowardly hidden faces of those who build the system through their actions. The system itself, however, is not immune to lifting monuments to itself, except that in the world of postpolitics and postideology, these are an emptied form without content, a smokescreen or a spectacle, serving only to erase the irreconcilable social relations. Thus the postideological Monument to the Free Word (2014) could be many things, but not a monument to freedom. 

 

The hustle of previous cities, which were full of greenery, buildings with different purposes and vivid colours, is replaced in Untitled (2014) by a grey palette, boring concrete architecture and bleak streets without life. Exhausted and estranged people stay at home, while the look into their intimacy reveals an impoverished city where everyone is barely holding up under the burden of the weight of the world. A (dystopic) society unfolds in front of us, which functions at the minimal conditions for survival. Completely numbed individuals can only survive by being serviced by persons in blue jumpsuits, who make sure that things go on regardless of the victims. 

 

Kleindiensts works mostly are not derived from concrete situations, they are not illustrations of this or that event, but a visual synthesis of his thinking and his attitude towards the world. The work that deviates the most from this is probably the painting Snow (2015), the basis for which is the artist’s memory of an event when Slovenia gained independence and he went to a hill above Idrija with his family, joining the fellow townsfolk. This is one of the events that is, along with those that followed it, regarded as untouchable in the Slovenian collective memory, which makes it that much more important to think about. In this painting, it is reworked and discursively introduced into topics the artist deals with in his work. 

 

The narrative of the large canvases is interrupted by the so-called modular paintings of a smaller size, which do not comprise a completed cycle, but which are related to each other mostly by their size and their focus on a single scene. They usually depict a more humorous treatment of a motif and some are even accompanied by a joke. Satirical inserts can be found in his other works (for example, it is worthwhile to pay attention to the signs on the buildings). The paintings are the size of beehive fronts, which once more opens up the questioning of identity – this time through the exploration of the question of the national, traditional, Slovenian – which can be also seen in the larger works in the form of national costumes. The smaller pieces thus engage in a dialogue with the larger ones on the one hand, and logically complete the whole opus on the other.  

 

Kleindienst’s works function on different levels, which is why the understanding of the whole demands from the spectator to have an engaged view, to know the social and political developments and art history. The paintings are made by a skilled painter’s hand, but without the fetishizing of the medium and without exceedingly flaunting his virtuosity. The artist’s expressive aesthetics has formed in the past years and shaped the distinguishing marks of his works. A desire for progress, development and the discovery of new possibilities of the medium of painting can be felt at all times, both on the level of form and on the level of content. Historically, we can trace his works back to the Dutch renaissance painting of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and place them into the style of the engaged variant of critical realism, which can also be found in Yugoslavia in the period before World War II (for example Krsto Hegedušić, France Mihelič). That said, realism should be understood as more than just a style of art and a stylistic label. It is not simply about the mimetic imitation of reality, as the views on reality can differ, just as the motives to depict reality can. Realism is therefore a strategy for critically addressing social, economic and political relations as well, and it reveals the artist’s attitude towards the world. The paintings subtly combine artistic, theoretical, political and consumerist references and unite them into a visually and thematically harmonic whole. Careful viewers will be able to see several small hints, hommages to individual artists (for example to Sanja Iveković, Gustave Courbet). When looking through the windows into private or hotel rooms the same feeling arises as with the giant of American art Edward Hooper in his portrayals of the estrangement and solitude of the American middle classes.

 

Although Kleindienst often says of his work that his paintings are more storytelling than painting, what we have before us are in fact those rare works of art that manage to elegantly and without pomp join both of those poles.

 

Asta Vrečko is a researcher at the Department of Art History, Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana and an associate at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design Ljubljana. She regularly works with the Institute for Labour Studies, Ljubljana and is a member of the editorial committee of the journal Borec - Revija za zgodovino, antropologijo in književnost [Fighter – Journal for History, Anthropology and Literature]. Her main research topics are Slovenian and Yugoslav art of the 20th and 21th Century.