1. Contemporary Bulgarian Painting as a Historical Concept
Who creates contemporary Bulgarian painting today in 2018 and where is it created? This question may sound strangely, but let us imagine several dozens of people living in cities like Vienna, Berlin, London, Paris, New York or Amsterdam and trying to participate actively in the art life there while also being among the most influential participants to the art scene in Bulgaria. Their painting work can legitimate to a large extent the concept of contemporary Bulgarian painting as opposed to the background of thousands other artists from different generations that keep on practicing painting at the same time in Bulgaria. Provided a situation like this, it is obvious that if we speak of contemporary Bulgarian painting, we do not encounter problems with the concept of painting, but with the concepts of contemporary painting and Bulgarian painting.
Maybe it would be appropriate to pose our question in a broader geographic, cultural and political context by starting from the concept of Eastern Europe, which is a product of the most recent history and designates the so called Eastern Bloc that for the period 1945 – 1989, included communist states closely related to the Soviet Union like East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, as well as states having communist governments like Yugoslavia and Albania. A contemporary understanding of Eastern Europe should consider mostly the events occurring at the collapse of the Eastern Bloc after 1989.
In relation to the above, Alexander Kiossev reasonably states, that the confused directions of art processes in the period of the Bulgarian transition to democracy put in question some basic previous truisms as, for example, to what extent the new art visuality is “Bulgarian”; whether it remains within the framework of “art” and to what extent it could be summarized as “art of the transition in Eastern Europe”. (Kiossev 2015, 339)
The appearance of contemporary art after 1989 in Eastern Europe inevitably poses the question of the way in which contemporary art, as “Western concept” and as “Western phenomenon”, manages to enter the art life of Eastern European countries. This Western concept creeps in in the form of homogenous and rapidly advancing “mechanism of integration” that claims to offer a sole alternative in the process of professional restructuring of the art field following the model of Western art.
The earliest museums for contemporary art in Eastern Europe are created in Hungary and Poland as early as the beginning of the 1990’s – Ludwig Museum in Budapest in 1989 and Ujazdowski Centre in Warsaw in 1990. The museumization of contemporary art becomes an effective way of integrating national cultural processes into the international context. The hype of the museums for contemporary art starts after 2000 when the first phase of political, economic and social transition ends and most of the Eastern-European countries join the European Union. The museums for contemporary art in Eastern Europe usually have identical structure that mandatorily includes the history of neo-avant-garde from the last two decades of the communist period and then the historical process of adoption and assessment of contemporary art.
The origin of the institutions for contemporary art and their development are of great importance for explaining the concepts and practices related to historical phenomena like “contemporary art” and “museum for contemporary art”. In relation to that, it is worth taking a look at the history of modernism and the role of the museums in its development and institutionalization. A telling example in this respect is the one given by the German art historian Hans Belting, namely the role of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York as a creator of the canon of modern art. According to Belting, we should distinguish prewar from postwar modernism. The first one thrives only in Europe when by the same time it appears in the American museum, while the second one appears only in the USA. It is only in the postwar years that we can speak of “Western modernism” as a common space.
Thus Belting reminds us that MoMA is actually planned as a universal and American museum in one. (Belting, 2012) Thus, before we adopt the “ready-made” distinctions of the cultural and historical borders of the concepts “Bulgarian contemporary art” and “Bulgarian contemporary painting”, we shall clarify some universal, Eastern-European and national aspects related to the use of these concepts.
The concept of Eastern-European art itself is problematic when it is applied to works created before World War II, as far as the idea of Eastern Europe is based on the political construction of the Eastern Bloc, but the concept is no less problematic when applied to the period after 1989. The states belonging to Central Europe have close connections with the Western cultural centers, while those from the Southern and Eastern regions are traditionally related to Eastern Orthodoxy, the cultures of the Middle East and the Mediterranean. In this sense, the Eastern-European countries interact in different ways and to a different extent with the international avant-garde that appears in Europe in the beginning of the 20th century. Regardless of the differences before World War II, the common experience of four decades of communist rule after the midst of the 20th century has deep influence upon the cultural and art history of these countries as it slows the development of art, of art institutions, theoretical discourses, art practices, as well as the development of the local art markets. Although the policies in the field of art and culture are different depending upon the specifics of the respective state regime (at some places strongly restrictive, at others pretty liberal), the Iron Curtain as a whole hinders the free spread of information about art not only between Western Europe and Eastern Europe, but also between the different countries of the Eastern Bloc. As a result of exactly these historical circumstances, the development of art in Eastern Europe in the second half of the 20th century acquires a character of its own in reaction to the local political, economic and cultural conditions. Two factors play a crucial role in the formation of postwar art in the countries of Eastern Europe. One of them is the socialist realism as an official doctrine. The other is the persecution of independent art that falls outside the official channels. After the collapse of communism and the disintegration of the Eastern Bloc, the artists from Eastern Europe start appearing on the international scene.
In relation to that, in 1995 the art critic Yara Bubnova notes that the “legalization” of conceptualism as a part of modern Eastern-European art is a result of both the liberal sociopolitical situation and “external factors” like the free exchange of professional information and the fact Eastern-European artists are allowed to participate directly on the international art scene. (Bubnova, 1995)
Two decades later, it is safe to say that the artists of Eastern Europe are to a great extent integrated into the European art scene in a broad sense and into the world art scene. Many of them live almost permanently abroad while maintaining relationships with their relatives in the home country, and their works are collected and exhibited by the biggest museums in the world. It is interesting to note that in the context of global tendencies, the research of Bulgarian art sometimes belongs to Central and Eastern Europe, other times it is attributed to the art of the Balkans and South-Eastern Europe, and in some cases to the art of the post-Soviet space. We may reasonably state that as per 2018, the art scene of Bulgaria remains to a large extent invisible and relatively less researched.
When we try to put to consideration the contemporary Bulgarian painting as a historical concept, to my opinion, in is very important to clarify some questions that address the concept “contemporary painting” itself. For example, this concept is missing as a separate defined area of research in the book Introduction to the Bulgarian Contemporary Art 1982 – 2015, published in 2018 and written by the art critic and curator Vesela Nozharova – a book that, to the moment, appears to be the most thorough presentation of the history of Bulgarian contemporary art in the last three decades. This absence is no coincidence as far as in Bulgaria, contemporary art as a category very quickly turns into a dividing line that forms an insolvable antagonism between the main personages and events representing the art scene for the period upon consideration.
In the last decade, in the history of Bulgarian art and art theory, as well as in philosophy of art, there is a definitive consensus on the claim that the term “contemporary art” does not designate the newest art being created today, but is a concept for distinction referring to a certain type of art (Alberro, 2009; Belting, 2013; Osborne, 2018). There is also a strict consensus on the issue that this is a concept distinguishing this type of art from modern art and from postmodern art. In historical aspect, the concept “contemporary art” is based upon the idea contemporary art represents an autonomous phenomenon historically following after modern and postmodern art while at the same time it overcomes all other forms of art that continue to exist anachronically in contemporary times. It is necessary to note that the category contemporary art is established as an institutional framework after 1989 and is directly related to the problem of what contemporary is in the globalized world after 1989. In other words, this category appears out of the contradictions taking part in the simultaneity of the different lines of development that are realized together within the “present”. As a particular type of art and of a condition of art in general, contemporary art successfully benefits on the literal meaning of the concept “contemporary” and at the same time monopolizes the historical ontology of art in relation not only to the present day, but also to the future. Today this term designates a main disciplinary center that started governing conceptually the category of art and all the processes through which ideas, practices and institutions of contemporary art relate to the general term “contemporary” – the specific term “contemporary art” refers to both the specifics of this art and the models of understanding art in general.
The above clarification is important since the functioning of concepts and practices around the phenomena “contemporary art” and “museum of contemporary art” have very clearly defined philosophical, cultural and historical borders in the field of visual art in the last three decades.
Painting and sculpture as pure media are today enveloped by contemporary art which, in its diffuse structure, is very difficult for direct definition and encounter. Moreover, contemporary art represents a post-conceptual state of art where the idea of art no longer refers to a status based upon certain medium. Contemporary art establishes equal status of material and media. This is a situation determined by Rosalind Krauss as “post-media situation of art” (Krauss 2000), and Peter Weibel calls “media justice” (Weibel 2013). According to Weibel, the global contemporary art is characterized not only by the equal status of different media, but even more so by the unprecedented mix between them.
One may say that in the beginning of the 21st century, the main antinomy appears to be the tension between the temporarily situated instances of post-conceptual contemporary art and the attempts for a return to painting and sculpture as universally established media. It is exactly through this tension that the new antinomy of art is sought, while the thing that will have to be sacrificed is the idea of contemporary art itself (Tsanev, 2018).
Probably the most serious problem that is threatening contemporary art is related to the political hegemony in it, but beside the political issues, contemporary art also has serious philosophical problems. According to Peter Osborne, without any philosophy of the time-period that can be included into the art critique and aesthetics, the works of art are doomed to be incomprehensible (Osborne, 2018). This is so because of all forms of art to ever exist up to now, it is exactly contemporary art to understand to the highest degree its main purpose as making time (historical time – note by translator) perceptible. Contemporary art does not only show that in the present there are many and different “now”. The basic pretense to found the idea of contemporary art is that there are certain forms of art most densely saturated with “now”.
Many theorists think, the principles of the contemporary system of art are the same principles that represent the principles of the Western democratic liberal system. Thus the term contemporary art is inevitably involved in the political realities of uneven development. There are opinions stating that our idea of contemporary art resembles a completely formed cultural project with fixed parameters and logic, which is by no means different from modern art as a project, only that we have already succeeded to historicize and confine the latter. This complete closure is predicted to befall the project named contemporary art too (Malik, 2013).
To my opinion, the understanding of painting as contemporary art in Bulgaria in the last 30 years is related to three types of transformations. The first transformation originates in the circumstance that painting after 1989 inevitably confronts the idea of contemporary art as post-national art which represents a certain phase in the development of art. The second transformation is related to the circumstance painting becomes a part of the post-conceptual condition of art and this predetermines its new position as self-reflexive territory that shall look for its own borders through interaction with other types of art. The third transformation is the dramatic fate of painting as substantial category that is to form its own view of the world.
Lachezar Boyadzhiev is one of the first Bulgarian artists who, in the beginning of the 1990’s, start using the conceptual characteristics of contemporary art in a categorical and recognizable way.
A Life (Black & White) 1998-present, 2001.
- Photographer: Giorgio Colombo
- Material: Black and white paint; two workers/painters constantly repainting the walls of the exhibition space in black and white for the entire duration of the exhibition, day after day (following each other);
- Sizes: dimensions variable
- Description: Edition of 5 and 1 AP.
Collections of Peter Kogler, Vienna; Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (a gift of Susan and Lewis Manilow, Chicago); Sammlung Hauser und Wirth, St. Gallen; Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt am Main, Tate Modern, London.
Courtesy the artist.
Installation view: Plateau of Humankind, 49th Biennale di Venezia, Venice, 2001.
Nedko Solakov is regarded as the Bulgarian artist with the most successful international career in the field of contemporary art. In the 1980’s, he is considered one of the most promising painters in Bulgaria. In the following three decades, his work is related not only to the global rise and institutionalization of the phenomenon “contemporary art”, but also to the gradual distancing of the artist from painting as universally established classical media. At the same time, if I am to choose an emblematic work that characterizes painting as contemporary art and illustrates in the best possible way what I considered above as the historical concept of “contemporary Bulgarian painting”, I would not hesitate but choose as an example the work of Nedko Solakov Life (Black and White). I find reasons for that not only in the circumstance this work explains perfectly the thesis I support here, but in the fact it is one of the works of highest international status in the field of contemporary art for the period we are researching – the last 30 years. Apart from that, however paradoxical it may sound, it is the only work by Bulgarian artist, as contemporary painting, that is included in one of the most successful and prestigious editions dedicated to the world contemporary painting in the recent years, namely the book by the director of the Master’s Program for Contemporary Art at the Sotheby Institute in London, the British professor Tony Godfrey, Painting Today (Godfrey, 2009). A purely formal reason for my choice is also that, during the historical period upon consideration, this work by Nedko Solakov is also shown in Bulgaria in 2009 at the Sofia City Art Gallery.
2. A Possible Periodization and Typologization of Contemporary Painting in Bulgaria
Most of the existing attempts for periodization of contemporary art and contemporary painting in Bulgaria consider the process as comprised of different phases of catching up with the Western condition and of normalization of the art life as compared to the bans and traumas of communism. Such methodology views the history of contemporary art most often in two phases. A transitional and an essential phase. According to some researchers, the beginning of the transitional phase should be recognized in a period as early as the midst of the 80’s; according to other authors, this process commences with the fall of the Iron Curtain. The second phase, according to some researchers, comes when in the midst of the 1990’s the notion of contemporary art is professionalized and the first artists with successful international biography in the field of contemporary art appear; other authors assume that this process is not finished yet as far as Bulgaria still does not have professional and functional institutions and a market dominated and marked by contemporary art (Stefanov, 2003; Tzanev & Panayotova, 2005; Kuyumdzhieva, 2007; Lardeva, 2009; Zankov, 2013).
In this context, in the examined period several key exhibitions stand out for their scope and attract the researcher’s interest. They are attempts to define main directions and tendencies in the development of contemporary Bulgarian painting. Mostly, these are the exhibitions organized by the art critic and curator Ruen Ruenov An Idea of Bulgarian Painting in 1993 in Ata-Ray Gallery and Bulgarian Painting after 1989 in 2002 in the National Palace of Culture.
In the exhibition An Idea of Bulgarian Painting, where a consultant is Dimitar Grozdanov, the partaking artists are Aleksandar Raykov, Asen Zahariev, Bozhidar Boyadzhiev, Boyan Dobrev, Valentin Donchevski, Vesko Velev, Vihroni Popnedelev, Vladimir Shunev, Valchan Petrov, Georgi Kovachev, Dimitar Cholakov, Dimitar Yaranov, Emil Popgenchev, Ivan Kyuranov, Igor Budnikov, Kalin Serapionov, Kolyo Karamfilov, Lidiya, Georgieva, Lyuben Kostov, Magda Abazova, Margarita Radeva, Milko Pavlov, Milko Bozhkov, Mimi Dobreva, Nadezhda Kuteva, Nadya Genova, Nedko Solakov, Petar Dochev, Pravdolyub Ivanov, Rumen Budev, Rumen Zhekov, Rumen Laptev, Sasho Stoitsov, Svilen Blazhev, Slav Bakalov, Stanislav Pamukchiev, Stiliyan Dichev, Hristo Kralev, Chavdar Petrov.
In the exhibition Bulgarian Painting after 1989, where the assistant curator is Stefaniya Yanakieva, the partaking artists are Albena Kazakova, Aleksandar Mateev, Angel Chirakov, Anna Boyadzhieva, Asen Botev, Bogdan Aleksandrov, Bozhidar Boyadzhiev, Ventsislav Zankov, Veselin Nachev, Gosho Georgiev, Georgi Tushev, Georgi Karantilski, Gredi Assa, Daniel Dankov, Daniela Oleg Lyahova, Denitsa Gospodinova, Dimitar Grozdanov, Dimitar Trukanov, Dimitar Cholakov, Dimitar Yaranov, Dinko Stoev, Ivaylo Popov, Ivan Toshkov, Ivan Tafrov, Ivo Bistrichki, Yoan Kirilov, Yordan Parushev, Kolyo Mishev, Krasimir Dobrev, Krasimir Dobrev – the Doctor, Krasimir Rusev, Krasimir Tereziev, Lyuben Genov, Milko Pavlov, Nadezhda Kuteva, Nikolay Naydenov, Petar Kochevski, Plamen Todorov, Krasimir Krastev – Rasim, Rosen Toshev, Rumen Bogdanov, Rumen Zhekov, Rumen Mihov – Popa, Svilen Blazhev, Sevdalina Kochevska, Svetoslav Nedev, Stanislav Pamukchiev, Huben Cherkelov, Chavdar Petrov, Yuliy Takov.
In these two exhibitions, the development of contemporary Bulgarian painting can be seen as a general panorama of new opinions and approaches that can be described as a “history of the innovative tendencies in Bulgarian painting”, as far as we can use this formula proposed by the art scholar Svilen Stefanov. Stefanov himself publishes the first ambitious analytical text in 2003; it is dedicated to the possibilities for periodization and typologization of Bulgarian contemporary painting under the title Transformations in Bulgarian Painting in the 90’s. Postmodern Doubt in Traditional Matter? (Stefanov, 2003). Stefanov’s thesis is that the appearance of contemporary art he identifies mainly with the dominant role of conceptual tendencies, suspends the autonomous value brought about by “the experience with the painting”. Stefanov writes: “The changes coming in Bulgarian art in the 90’s, seem to suggest doubt for the leading position of painting in the local value scale. Painting was semantically put “outside itself” by self-discrediting its traditional foundations”. (Stefanov, 2003)
According to Stefanov, in the period under consideration, three main lines of the development of contemporary Bulgarian painting can be discerned. The first line is an expressionist one and it shows certain relations to European modernity and the Bulgarian expressionist experience after World War I as the most visible and generalizing concept of the heterogeneous Bulgarian visual modernism. It is also influenced by the expressive inclinations of some authors form the 1970’s and 1980’s like Genko Genkov, Georgi Baev, Atanas Patsev, Lyubomir Savinov, Nikolay Maystorov. The second line of development is determined by Stefanov as the “unresolved abstract” as far as, according to him, this is non-figural painting where the abstract is conceptualized as continuity and “inference” of certain plastic principles of rather formal character, than as the dimension of the spiritual to which abstract art is related from the time of its beginnings. The third and most innovative line of development, according to Stefanov, is related to the conceptualization of the painting experience. The tendencies of conceptualization of painting image are characterized by the inclusion of text, plot, photographic techniques and imitations of such techniques, that Stefanov comments in relation to the creative experiments of the artists: Lachezar Boyadzhiev, Sasho Stoitsov, Krasimir Dobrev, Krasimir Karabadzhakov, Ventseslav Zankov, Pravdolyub Ivanov, Rosen Toshev, Huben Cherkelov, Georgi Tushev, Nikolay Petkov, Petar Tsanev, Yoan Kirilov, Anton Tereziev, etc.
Of the above described three lines of development, the painting tendency related to the abstract is most visibly presented in the public space as a thorough phenomenon. In relation to that, these exhibitions have to be mentioned, namely Sand Spaces by Milko Pavlov in 1994 in Sapio Gallery and the exhibition Ash, Graphite and Rust by Petar Dochev, Stanislav Pamukchiev and Kolyo Karamfilov in 1996 in Ata Art Center. The large collective exhibitions also have important role, such as Informal/informel with curators Dimitar Grozdanov and Boris Klementiev in 2001 in Rayko Aleksiev Gallery and the exhibition organized by Stanislav Pamukchiev and entitled Achroma, held in 2002 in the gallery of the Union of Bulgarian Artists, 6 Shipka Street. They establish the presentation of this abstract tendency as a thorough phenomenon in Bulgarian art.
An interesting fact is that the real explosion of the abstract, that is observable in the midst of the 90’s, happens not through the image but through the choice of material and its experiencing as liminal and as bringing enormous potential. The rediscovery of the power of abstraction is communicated through the objective characteristics of matter. Critique, that is by that time preoccupied mostly with greeting the “new” (for Bulgaria) forms of performance, installation and video art, is prone to consider the interest to the spiritual dimensions of informel and monochrome with certain neglect and suspicion; it interprets them as finalizing phase of a long process of “further purification” of the versatile plastic language that unfolds in the last years of the totalitarian epoch. The dramatization of abstraction through the materiality of sand, rust and wax, together with the metaphysics of the achromatism, can be interpreted as a certain type of revenge for the “appropriation” and “objectification” of abstraction by the decorative arts in the previous decades (Tsanev, Цанев 2014, 35-37).
The end of the 20th century in Bulgaria is characterized by antagonistic tension between the conceptual strategies focused on the dynamics of the innovative forms, and abstraction that stands for the elitism of the classical means of expression. Gradually, in the first decade of the new millennium, this condition changes with the appearance of manifold original creative approaches combining these two polarized tendencies. Artists like Iliyan Lalev, Stoyan Kutsev, Nikolay Petkov, Nikolay Naydenov, Simeon Stoilov and Stanimir Genov use the ostensible detachedness and clarity of abstraction as a phenomenon capable of triggering the mechanisms of mutually contradictory statements and interpretations.
Yet in the case of conceptual abstraction, the works can be read either as pure colors and forms, or as literal concepts and objects of everyday life, but the existing division between the two types of reading makes it impossible to simultaneously understand them as both homogenous objects and as concepts. Conceptual abstraction thus confronts us with works that do not reproduce reality or invent a new reality, but they rather create a new type of communicative space of internally split notions and perceptions.
The autonomy of abstraction, understood as a topos for direct and intense defense of the internal spiritual space, is replaced by depersonalized approaches and preferences. The involvement of monochrome and ready-made in the strategy of conceptual abstraction brings about new potential for the blurring between the serious and the ironic, as well as between the generic and the specific. The figures of thought themselves thus turn into objective content, and the formal characteristics of the work test and encrypt simultaneously any possible status of the viewer.
Apart from the interest in conceptual abstraction, the first decade of the 21st century shows very strong interest in the abstract in the direction of post-minimalist abstraction, self-reflexive painting and concrete art. In relation to that, the names of Mariya Chakarova and Georgi Dimitrov shall be mentioned. In 2010, Georgi Dimitrov founds the platform Non-Objective Sofia, that in 2012 is registered as the first of its kind organization with the goal of offering institutional support for the development of non-objective art in Bulgaria, of the popularization of non-objective art in Bulgarian social context, as well as of including Bulgaria in the world map of non-objective art (Tsanev, 2014, 41-43).
The line of development in contemporary Bulgarian painting, that is related to conceptualization of the painting image, on its part, doubts the reasons for the existence of painting itself as an autonomous medium. In the 1990’s, this line of development is characterized by appropriating images from magazines, newspapers, video, television and cinema. Ventsislav Zankov is one of the first artists who use mass media as a vantage point and a source of inspiration. Mariya Vasileva writes about his approach: “Zankov’s paintings present large-size “copies” of the multi-images published in the luxury magazines on a whole page. The comments of the author (Zankov) are expressed both in the titles and in the inscriptions on the canvas itself that look like street graffiti yet put upon luxurious pads. In the texts, different semantic layers can be discerned – statements can be borrowed from the street slang, form advertisements, form lyrical and epic poetry.” (Vasileva, 2004, 53)
In addition to offering forms of appropriation and reinterpretation of images, conceptual painting starts being ever more critical on the issue of the clash between the classical painting tradition and the forms of performance, installation and video art. Svilen Stefanov notes that from the midst of the 1990’s on, more and more authors, who started their careers in the neoconceptual movement, turn to painting. Stefanov writes: “At a certain moment, almost all prominent video-artists and performers start assembling their conceptual actions also as classical material. Krasimir Tereziev uses video and cinema as a foundation for the painting image, while Rasim directly transfers some of his actions on canvas.” (Stefanov, 2004, 45-46)
- Material: oil/canvas
- Width: 100.00 cm Height: 80.00 cm Depth: cm
- Property of: Kunstsammlung Hypovereinsbank, Munich
The ways in which the artists rediscover painting on canvas are oriented towards the new reactions and perceptions that appear due to the emergence of digital and virtual technologies. In 2001, in the paintings from the series Reality Pixels, Krasimir Tereziev asks himself the question: “Is painting still possible today provided that perception is totally obsessed with mass media and the industry of moving images?”. The search for the artist – Maria Vasileva writes – is located between the moving image, the motionless image on a slide, and painting (Vasileva, 2004, 54).
Thus in the beginning of the 21st century, painting poses the question about the ownership of the images again. The question of who owns the images is a fundamental one, particularly if we are trying to answer the questions what causes and controls the ideas of art and the ideas of a work of art (Tsanev, 2018). In the three lines of development considered above, painting retains its claim for a dominant role and it does that by producing images that try to dominate over the possible interactions between art and the visibility of the world in general.
In the tradition of abstraction, the images are oriented towards suggestions liberating painting from its condition of object and surface, and they do so by revealing the unlimited meaning of a total space that is reorganized in order to revive painting as an absolute art. This strategy is unwilling to part with painting as a modern ideology. In the neoexpressionist tradition the image is oriented towards the phenomenality of the painting gesture as an absolute opportunity for owning the lived experience and its representation. In this way, to the abstract tradition the ownership over the images is correlated with the understanding of painting as hyper-matter, while to the expressionist tradition the ownership over the images is correlated to the understanding of painting as hyper-writing.
In any case these are mindsets that do not question the status of painting as a recontextualization of what certain modernist tradition keeps on proclaiming to be a pure medium. This development, in its forms of post-minimalism, neoexpressionism and neo-pop-art, respectively in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s of the 20th century, is related to the attempts for survival of painting as a medium opposed to conceptual art and its development. In the first two decades of the 21st century, this insistence on the parameters of the painting medium continues on the one hand, through fetishizing of classical conceptual stylistics, for example using images as camouflage while making them perform functions different from their original ones, and on the other hand, through painting-type objectification of images that synchronize the tension between the non-digital and the digital while in practice these images cancel the said tension.
According to some authors, the painting strategy, that is trying to combine the spirit of modern painting and the lessons of conceptual art, a strategy like the the one of the photo-painting of Gerhard Richter, can be defined as negative painting as far as it contains efforts for the preservation of painting through negation of painting. On the other hand, in the spirit of the radical conceptualist tradition, some authors, for example the group Art & Language, think that painting is possible only if it is created not for the sake of being seen like it was seen before. This is painting capable of modifying and destroying every traditional gaze and reading of painting. Another opportunity presented at the disposal of post-conceptual painting – an opportunity that emerges simultaneously with the forms of painting rejecting painting or appearing as negation of painting – is the creation of works that cause the emergence of a medium of their own, for example it may exist in the form of image-events or image-situations (Joselit, 2014).
In accordance with classical conceptualism, creating art and creating theory of art are activities that coincide. This is the appropriate context for one to consider the theoretical and artistic intervention of Petar Tsanev in the period 2003-2004. It addresses the idea of a post-painting interlude that is provoked by the questions “What are the contemporary forms of “representation” of painting, without painting, but in the space once occupied by painting?” and The Post-Painting Condition: a Hypertext, a Hyperfetish, or an Interlude?, Club for Discussions “Close Together”, Hambara, February 12, 2004 (Radeva, 2010). In this text, the use of the above example feels appropriate to us as far as it refers to an early form establishing an art discourse and a theoretical discourse, yet not in the context of an exhibition, but as articulated through the academic and scholarly form (Mladenov, 2018, 51 - 52).
In December 2003, Svilen Stefanov, together with the art scholar Chavdar Popov, initiate the organization of the first conference dedicated to the issues of contemporary Bulgarian painting, and the next year, they organize the publication of the book Contemporary Bulgarian Painting: between the Local and the Global that includes articles by many researchers (Popov, Stefanov, 2004).
The formal reason for the organization of the conference becomes the painting exhibition 10х5х3, held in the gallery of 6 Shipka Street in 2003. The exhibition poses many questions to the art theory and critique. The exhibition is organized by the section “Painting” at the Union of Bulgarian Artists after the idea of Stanislav Pamukchiev and its goal is to build a vision of the contemporary processes in painting through the viewpoints of 10 art scholars. The title 10х5х3 means that 10 curators are going to present five authors selected by them with three works per author, and the works are related by the general conception of the curator. The project 10х5х3 has tree editions, respectively in 2003, 2006 and 2010, which means that the conceptions of contemporary Bulgarian painting of 30 curators have been presented while 150 artists have participated with their works.
The initiative of section “Painting” is accompanied by discussions on the current tendencies and changes in the Bulgarian painting scene. One can only feel sorry that this ambitious project is not thoroughly archived as a catalog or a book.
The painting installation by Zornitsa Halacheva is a part of the curatorial project of Petar Tsanev Machines for Painting: Antagonisms of Abstract Production at the third edition of the exhibition 10х5х3 held in 6 Shipka Street Gallery in 2010. The curator asked the artists to refrain from any form of painting by hand or the use of painting instruments. The project is an attempt at finding the sense of abstraction through opposing the hand of the artist that, as it is reduced to the status of a machine, produces the painting trace today. The final result appears to be unexpected both for the curator and for the participants. The obtained works show how the idea of freedom turns the mechanisms of the body into a center to which all technologies return.
In Bulgaria in the first decade of the 21st century, the tendency related to the return of painting in the form of neo-pop-art undergoes the strongest development. This fact can be interpreted as a natural reaction against both the continuous wave of neoconceptual art in the 1990’s and against the local claims for practicing academic painting. By the same token, this revolt of the new painting, that uses the language of neo-pop-art in order to cancel the borderline between the themes of the high and the low culture, although it paradoxically does that by the means of ready-made or painting based upon photography, gradually acquires the definite form of elitist painting. In their Bulgarian scope, the tendencies of neo-pop-art absorb within the classical framework of painting the versatile elements and phenomena related to digital culture and their fetishizing.
We can say that in the second decade of the 21st century, this tendency related to neo-pop-art loses its critical pathos. And what is more, the interest for the theoretical aspects of conceptual painting starts giving way to a romantic admiration for the classical paintings and their heterogeneous coexistence with visual characteristics that are based completely upon digital photography as a main source and as a relation to the visibility of the world.
3. Main Tendencies Related to the Development of Contemporary Bulgarian Painting as a Thematic Category
We can say that the view of Bulgarian contemporary painting in the last three decades is dominated, to a great extent, by questions researching: the interpretation of the past in the context of the post-communist heritage; the issues of the trauma, the decline and the ruins; the role of economy and politics for the present day; the relation between populist slogans and everyday reality; the specific problems of minorities; the rhetorics of pluralism and tolerance; the transformations of public space and institutions. Usually, the strongest discussion pathos emerges in the research works dedicated to the internal parameters and chronology of Bulgarian contemporary art. These research endeavors emphasize the influence of certain factors and groups that have succeeded in adapting effectively to the expectations of the Western art institutions that, in the meanwhile, have turned global.
In this context, the exhibition The Argument for Reality. Contemporary Bulgarian Painting and Sculpture raises particularly interesting questions. It was shown from December 5 to January 12, 2018, at the gallery on 6 Shipka Street and the second part of the project from May 15 to June 18, 2018, at Rayko Aleksiev Gallery. The exhibition is planned to be simultaneously a research and a discussion forum. The curators Stanislav Pamukchiev, Petar Tsanev and Kiril Vasilev offer their critical view to the dominant ideas in contemporary Bulgarian painting and sculpture. 90 authors from different generations, of different worldviews and aesthetical views, are presented at the exhibition: Andrey Daniel, Antoaneta Galabova, Boris Serginov, Valentin Donchevski, Veselin Nachev, Desislava Mincheva, Dimitar Genchev, Dinko Stoev, Dimitar Yaranov, Dolores Dilova, Elena Panayotova, Iva Yaranova, Ivo Bistrichki, Krasimir Dobrev, Krasimir Rusev, Krasimir Tereziev, Lyuben Genov, Lyudmil Lazarov, Marina Marinova, Mariya Chakarova, Milko Bozhkov, Monika Popova, Nikolay Maystorov, Nikolay Petkov, Pravdolyub Ivanov, Rasim, Radoil Serafimov, Ralitsa Ignatova, Rosen Toshev, Rumen Zhekov, Sasho Stoitsov, Svetlin Rusev, Svetlozara Aleksandrova, Svilen Blazhev, Stanimir Genov, Stanislav Pamukchiev, Stoyan Kutsev.
The main research claim of the project The Argument for Reality refers to the sense-producing context of the images through which reality is present in Bulgarian contemporary painting and sculpture. The authors take up the challenge to propose a thorough critical analysis of the worldviews that construct the models of art itself as a kind of consciousness and a specific form of thinking. The exhibition is a fictional clash of many realities searching for and defending their identification with the categories of contemporary times: the Reality of the Sacred, the Reality of Time, the Reality of Everyday Life, the Reality of the Existence, the Reality of Mass Culture and Media, the Reality of the Ideal, the Reality of the Political, the Reality of Utopia, the Reality of the Psychological.
Reality is a category that art, just like every other sphere of human activities, uses in two main directions. The first one is cognitive, i.e. how we know reality. The other one is reality as a sphere of truthfulness, i.e. the ontology of artwork and the question of what reality the work is dominated by.
The exhibition manages to outline the typology of the different worldviews that can be recognized in contemporary Bulgarian painting. It does that by analyzing the implicit stances of the authors on fundamental philosophical questions like the nature of reality and the borders of human cognition. The main general conclusion that can be drawn from the suggested typology, traces a gradual evolution in contemporary Bulgarian painting in the last two decades. It develops from essentialist representation of reality to non-essentialist forms of perception and presentation.
We can discern two main functions of painting that are related to the images and hence to the way the presence of reality is represented.
The first function deals with the dissolvability of images. Images are dissolved in interpretations, but not in the sense of the classical hermeneutics of images involved in an endless process of deciphering of universals or multiple meanings and truths. The images are dissolved as such, as images that construct a different type of objects and due to their susceptibility to archiving they acquire a new type of documentary dynamics. The new documentary dynamics is multi-layered and allows for interaction not only with epistemological, but also with ontological realities. This is a situation that creates opportunities for the emergence of completely new communicative qualities of the images. The above mentioned function has the purpose of constructing images that support thinking. It provides a system of specific meanings and contents and leaves the impression that everything, which can be found in the painting images, is constructed there mainly by language and by the conceptual schemes. This function originates from the self-reflective essence of painting as reality of second order. It develops the idea that the objects of art are constructions outside pure perception where, according to certain rules, new opportunities for perception are created.
RASSIM® Krassimir Krastev
Old Paintings - Bousher. Diana after the bath. 2015 -1742. From the Oil paintings series, exhausted motor oil, petrol on canvas, 150 x 210 cm, 2015.
- Photographer: Yavor Stefanov
Study of Bivalent Objects, 2015.
- Material: Oil on stretched paper Arches
- Width: 110.00 cm Height: 160.00 cm Depth: cm
The second function of painting in relation to the images as presence of reality, deals with the ability of images to hypnotize. This function is related to irresistible impulses that seem to be emanated freely from the images in the form of unpredictable content – they either disappear inside the images, or explode on the outwards. This function provides opportunities for all kinds of condensations of the images – essentialist, sensualist, magical, mythological, religious, spiritualist. This compulsive function replaces the mindset that images are presence of reality, an idea from the sphere of constructivism and pointing in the direction of radical empirism and phenomenalism. In the case of the compulsive function the images always have a compulsory character, and not the character of a conventional fiction. The images have a sense only if this sense reaches its final expression in our own experience.
Abstract Collaboration 1, 2017.
- Material: Acrylic on canvas, wet cloth.
- Width: 120.00 cm Height: 100.00 cm Depth: cm
- Property of: Sasho Stoitzov
I’m forced to decide, 2017.
- Material: Oil and spray paint on canvas
- Sizes: 170x200 cm
Taken as content, the best model-works of contemporary Bulgarian painting oppose the readability, the transparency and the correlatedness of the image included in the contemporary visual practices. In most cases, painting serves as a critical supposition about the homogeneous content of the image. We can say, painting has realized that it has the most important function of retaining the images for itself – painting has to make the images unintelligible and invisible for the other spheres of culture. The monopoly of painting as art consists exactly in this – in the parallel presence of some unexplainable kind of consciousness of painting.
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Peter Tzanev, 2019