By JONATHAN GOODMAN March, 2018
Eva Petric, an artist originally from Slovenia now in her mid-thirties, spends a lot of time in America when she is not in Central and Eastern Europe. Her work belongs to an international idiom that cannot be easily placed, geographically or culturally. The art she makes consists of sculptures, paintings, photographs, collages, and even performance--in other words, Petric is committed to a broad array of genres. Often (but not always) placing herself in the imagery she constructs, the artist seeks to convey both an erotic and a spiritual lyricism in the same moment. She is quite active in New York, as these shows at St. John’s and Galerie Mourlot currently attest. Her art at St. John’s is monumental--a very large Collective Heart (2016) made of lace with surface embellishments hanging over the altar; and Safety Blanket (2019), also made of lace, hanging from a high column. At the gallery, we view a series of photos printed on the synthetic material used to make skis; a rug, commercially realized, based on a photographic image; and relics, which argue slightly for a European bias.. While Petric’s own face and figure can be seen throughout the gallery show, they do not take over completely Instead, spirituality establishes itself as dominant in both of the two excellent exhibitions, which convey the fleeting experience of emotion supported by ethereal yearning..
Petric’s heart is almost vast, stretching high above the altar of one of New York’s most impressive churches. Changing colors in accordance with the light directed over its surface, the cloth shape also has images that take place on its exterior, made up of what look like doilies and runners for dining tables. Smaller, often pink and red heart-shaped forms are concentrated on the upper register of the heart, but the collage elements look like they are spread throughout the tapestry. The colors used to illuminate the light change over time. In one photo, a light mauve glow covers most of the sculpture, which is as close to a painting as it is to a three-dimensional work of art. We must remember that the piece is being seen in a place of worship, so that its emotional evocations are linked to spiritual insight (as they often are in religious feeling). Petric is hardly an active Christian, but she comes from a place where Christianity has had a stronghold for millennia. So the Christianity she is suggesting is part of her historical imagination, very nearly on a genetic level. In a way, Americans are unprepared for such an image; we trade on a secular expressionism, unlike the poetic, muted spirituality Petric is communicating. It is also true that she is taking a chance--the heart is so old a metaphor, so old a symbolic vehicle for emotion, that to use it in contemporary art is to seem at least partially archaic. The question, then, is how to make it new. Petric does this by employing unusual materials, randomly spreading images and forms over the surface of the lace, and abstracting the shape so that it stays alive not only as a vehicle of feeling, but also as a raw, nonobjective form existing outside figuration.
The abstract qualities of the heart distance us from its age-old implementation as a figure of constancy; it becomes just another shape to look at, which is what is needed for the symbol to disassociate itself from its past. Its presence above the altar’s wide table is impressive, merging the age-old rituals of Christian beliefs with the contemporary urgency of a decorative expressionism. The blanket, hung high from a column a good distance from the church’s altar, comes from memories of childhood comfort, as Petric explains. Colored an off-white, nearly formless in its random drapery as it descends toward the floor, the object stands for very early recollections of any child who has treasured a blanket as a security object. And what are the rituals of church but a means to attain solace among circumstances that appear to be, at the very least, indifferent or potentially menacing, if not actively hostile? It is highly interesting that Petric in both works intimates a comfort that is ethereal, as we experience with the heart over the altar, and physical, as we recognize in the blanket, which alleviates fear and sorrow. The heart is prominently displayed, while the blanket is hidden away among the columns supporting the church’s more distant seating area. This means that it is hard to find, and that its psychic weight occurs slightly on a hidden level. Petric likely did not intend to hide the blanket from display. But it is a work perhaps more closely tied to the more hidden emotional, as opposed to the publicly religious, life of the churchgoers. No one can measure the point at which feeling and spirituality meet; they seem to merge in cases of genuine belief. But today we have tried very hard to separate psychology from piety in our lives; whether this is possible deserves discussion beyond the review. The blanket remains an object of real solicitude--a quality associated with spiritual endeavor.
The size of the two works in St. John’s remind us that Petric is dealing with an epic space. The small gallery her other show occurs in offers no chance for a large statement. Instead, we move from a public environment to a more private (and commercial) one, although Petric’s art is by no means driven by a business mentality, being traditional and exploratory. In Rubik’s Cube #1 (2019), the three synthetic links communicating a photographic shadow of the artist in the nude exist as black-on-white images; they can be shifted as needed, and in this case the middle panel moves to the right of the one above it and the one beneath it. Petric’s image is transparently undressed, but while erotic feeling does exist, it is muted. It is a body that functions, in its beauty, as an image of nearly wordless desire without excessive provocation. The image is repeated twice; on the left, we can see it more clearly. Offsetting this work is the rug, titled Rubik’s Cube #2 (2019), based on a photo by Petric; it is in gray and black, with an aggressive devil figure with horns occurring twice, on the top right and the lower left. Abstract black imagery--what looks like poles with black pennants--sets off the satanic forms. The nude body of Petric contrasts with the demonic figures; together, they communicate different kinds of energies as they face each other on opposing walls. Yet the two differing images are aligned too by their reliance on black, gray, and white imagery, as well as their penchant for emotion--understated in the case of Petric herself; and violently direct, in the case of the devils seen in the rug.
The last two works to be described are relics--religious images that have been somewhat secularized by the artist. In one, Relic #2 (2017), a thin vertical, copper-colored plate, meant to be a person, stands under the thread of a tree with metal coils for foliage and lace for clouds. It is at once abstract and figurative. In the other, Relic #4 (2017), we see two domino cards, calling cards, and stars framing a nude body, which is hard to recognize because of the glare of the lights reflecting off the glass. Both works are small--private windows of devotion. But they are contemporary is their assemblage of materials. Petric is an inventor, using her body, experimental techniques, and various media to communicate a complex realism that shifts back and forth between the past and the present. Her use of herself, often but not always in states of undress, tells us that she takes part in a time when the personal self is a primary, and primal, means of communication, with a focus on desire. What she does is slightly dangerous, especially if she is intent on conveying piety, because to work so much with one’s own body is to yield a bit to self-regard. Yet Petric successfully fends of narcissistic play in favor of a seriousness that borders on religious feeling. To orient herself toward spirituality now, well into the beginnings of the 21st century, is to take the chance that her art will not be read successfully, in part because we have been taught not to feel this way. Yet Petric, in the works described, turns toward an imagistic grace that does sit well in a cathedral, just as the small relic pieces quietly show a personalized devotion--mostly likely because they are mysterious in content. We shouldn’t over-spiritualize the work--this is contemporary art. But unlike most art we see these days, Petric is moving in the direction of a meaning stemming both from desire and pious discretion. Without the first, the work would not be contemporary; and without the second, we would not be exposed to so serious, and accomplished, a point of view. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
view all articles from this author