In examining the paintings of Maruša Šuštar, one could speak about a special ‘figurativeness’ that she has introduced into the art of painting; and about ‘focalisations’, ‘reductions’, about a special expressiveness that characterises certain periods. Another significant aspect is the ‘mannerism’ and ‘disproportionality’ of depicted figures; the role of the ‘background’ – in other words, the role-and-significance of space – ‘the emergence of space’ – in her paintings. We shall speak of this in more detail elsewhere. For now, we are concerned with the scheme of gazing, the gaze that the painter introduces into her works. Depiction as a function of the picture in relation to the gaze, where one can speak of the so-called scopic drive, when our gaze, according to Lacan, is “the object, subconsciously or consciously forgotten, yet perpetually returning as a pulsatile field; as a fluid mechanism… What is painting? It is obviously not for nothing that we have referred to a picture as to the function where the subject has to search for itself as such. But what is happening when a human subject is engaged in making a picture of himself, in putting into operation that something that has in its centre the gaze? We are told by some that in a picture, the artist wishes to be the subject, and the art of painting is to be distinguished from all others by the artist intending to impose themself on us in their work, as the subject, as the gaze.”
Subject, painter: Maruša Šuštar inscribes herself into a painting as the gaze: as the view-from-above that was introduced into fiction by N. Sarraute:
“They were sprouting from everywhere, as if germinating in the clammy tepidity of air, and dripping slightly, as if leaking from the walls, from fenced trees, from benches, from gritty sidewalks, from squares. They crept in long dark clusters along the dead facades of houses. Here and there, in front of the store windows, they would thicken into more coagulated, immobile clods that were making whirls like those of slight plugs. They radiated a desperate serenity, a vacant complacency. They closely examined the sheet piles in the white Laundry, which skilfully imitated snow-covered hills, and doll whose eyes and teeth steadily switched on and off, on and off, on and off, continually switched on and then switched off again at equal intervals. They watched for a long time, not moving forward, standing absorbed in front of the window and constantly deferring the moment of departure until the next interval. Tired of looking and inattentive, the good little children, whose hands they were holding, waited patiently by their side.” (Tropisms, 1957)
Under the gaze, a painting is a stain, a ‘macchia’ that is correlative with gaze and thus a ‘freak’, a ‘monstre’, archaically speaking, a sign that, according to S. Žižek, “embodies the unbearable truth about me”. Is (this) truth really unbearable? Psychoanalysis fails here, it miscarries. In ‘truth’, Maruša’s images convey gaiety and joy; a joy not unlike the one described by H. Matisse: “What I am after, above all, is expression. Sometimes it has been conceded that I have a certain technical ability but that all the same my ambition is limited, and does not go beyond the purely visual satisfaction such as can be obtained from looking at a picture. But the thought of a painter must not be considered as separate from his pictorial means, for the thought is worth no more than its expression by the means, which must be more complete (and by complete I do not mean complicated) the deeper is his thought. I am unable to distinguish between the feeling I have about life and my way of translating it.
Expression, for me, does not reside in passions glowing in a human face or manifested by violent movement. The entire arrangement of my picture is expressive: the place occupied by the figures, the empty spaces around them, the proportions, everything has its share. Composition is the art of arranging in a decorative manner the diverse elements at the painter’s command to express his feelings. In a picture, every part will be visible and will play its appointed role, whether it be principal or secondary. Everything that is not useful in the picture is, it follows, harmful. A work of art must be harmonious in its entirety: any superfluous detail would replace some other essential detail in the mind of the spectator.
I want to reach that state of condensation of sensation which makes a painting. I might be satisfied with a work done at one sitting, but I would soon tire of it, therefore, I prefer to rework it so that later I may recognize it as representative of my state of mind. There was a time when I never left my paintings hanging on the wall because they reminded me of moments of over-excitement and I did not like to see them again when I was calm. Nowadays I try to put serenity into my pictures and rework them as long as I have not succeeded.” (Notes of a Painter)
From the artist, such a painter’s view demands a special understanding of space: a space that actually does not exist. Where all depicted figures seem to float, as if suspended in vacuity, in whiteness, in the spacelessness of a picture. The painting is in ‘the emergence of space’, maintained by special artistic structures – the structure of a ‘curtailed’ stroke, a grid of artistic elements that now represent a basis, a base, a foundation, a background withstanding the pictorial surface. The space of these pictures is imaginative, imaginary, merely a property of the pictorial screen from the ‘white’ period until the present day. A borderline space is ‘at work’ in these paintings, a space where one is falling, is suspended, is floating: like a sublimation of bodies and swimming in whiteness and an angel, a dance, a reflection and a star, a smoky curtain… It all reflects the fundamental primary trace (in the sense of Derrida’s definitions), which is timeless and devoid of a real space, and thus the traces of artistic introspection that withstands / holds the painter’s phantasm only as an artistic product; only as a so-called ‘work of art’.
The view in Maruša Šuštar’s paintings is the inner projection into the vast abysses of the picture and the art of painting, which nevertheless does not depict – represent – something that is essentially absent, latent, subdued in the unconscious… The painter is faithful to the pictorial screen as a vehicle for communicating special and original visions without the borderline examination of the foundations of painting. Everything happens in the selected frame of an allegory, which it suits entirely and fully. The painter no longer searches for the ‘painting of paintings’ but stages an idiosyncratic narrative force of figurative artistic relations in many, many canvases.
The perspective in the paintings by Maruša Šuštar raises a number of issues that are not readily resolvable. One forms the impression that the plane of the painting is developed in the foreground in the absence of a horizon that would determine the represented paysage and, moreover, the figures that find their way into each painting are disproportionally folded into themselves, ‘bent’ or ‘multiplied’, which invests the pictures with a special aesthetic quality. Everything happens on the flat surface, in an ‘absorbed veil’… Though not revolutionary in terms of composition, the picture nevertheless introduces a series of new artistic approaches to figurative arrangement, which makes Šuštar a modernistic painter. Her figurativeness presents a special ‘investigative field’ or champs d’investigation that has not been addressed in Slovenian fine art before; a field where the artistic and not the mimetic approach is relevant. Priority is given to the moment de l’artiste and not the moment de la nature, although a sense of plein-air painting is pervasive. The creative permutation in the treatment of figures is foregrounded – a permutation related to the conscious decision of the painter to consider the painting as a screen on which she has free rein to play with the figure and its ‘distortions’. And yet the figure arises from an image as an equivalent element, the pictorial system of painting is preordained; undetermined by a figurative scheme, the gaze travels from the bottom upwards and vice versa. It is defined by a subjective view that no longer allows for traditional gazing.
The painter’s ‘modernism’ is especially explicit when it comes to the understanding of the figure, in figurative disproportion when one might speak of the divided and reunited body of the painting within an autonomous artistic structure. The ‘twists’, turns and ‘jumps’ of figurative elements – of group and partial arrangements – are only readable in the enclosed field of some metaphorical phantasm. An established artistic discourse cannot capture this new, pure element of perspective that compels the beholder to reconsider and alter this gaze. The pictorial subject is not illusionistic; instead, its landscape is levelled with the flat surface, the gaze blending with the plane into a subjective mass that covers the painting in its entirety. Hence, what we encounter is the pure subjectivity of painting and of gaze, an assimilation of the eye into the painting. Quoting Matisse, one could nevertheless say that what he is “interested in is not nature morte or paysage, but the figure that allows him to most efficiently express a virtually religious sense of living” (1908, Grande revue). A painting is the direct translation of emotions and unconscious states of mind into an image. Human figures in these canvases are never painted in the exterior; instead, one forms the impression that the entire scene is being played out in some bright interior. This is due to the intimacy of painting, however. The figures are disproportional, but only because they are not being depicted mimetically, in nature. Maruša paints pictures, not nature. In this sense, the pictorial perspective is utterly ‘rigorous’, although it appears that these are mere excerpts, ‘partial’ picturings that could have just as well been arranged otherwise
The distinctive pictorial idiom and ‘corporeality’ constitute a representative structure that foregrounds a signified image, its phantasm, its insatiable lust for life, for pulsating in the painting’s material space. What is required is the erotic drive, which the painter discovers in each new work. The interpretation and the gaze sliding along the painting can contain nothing rational. This painting divulges an explicit creative method, un progetto dolce, which is a product of the painter’s imagination, devoid of the expressive rhetoric to which works of this kind can quickly yield. Here, the only thing of significance is the personal cultural universe and the arte-arte dialogue. The painter, therefore, does not construct her visions in other relationships: art-nature or even art-idea-ideology, and even less so in relation to society. What is important is not the artist’s position on the objective and visible reality but the artistic vision. Maruša Šuštar does not acknowledge dissimilarity or the distance to the painted space; quite the contrary, she only recognizes the phantasm, which impels the artist to engage in an extreme, intimistic coalescence, a nonpareil identification. The reality of a work will not be found outside this association, beyond the conscious loyalty to the metier of a painter. The self-presence of a painting and a painter in relation to ‘inner experience’ is the principal aspect of artistic co-existence.
Contemporary Slovenian Painting, First Generations of the 3rd Millennium, Andrej Medved
At the exhibition of the same name in Cankarjev dom in Ljubljana, March 2014