A glittering glove thrown over a picture frame opens the exhibition (Glove, 2010). Or is it actually just a picture of a glove? Maja Vukoje exploits the illusionary space of painting, alluding to the celebrated contest between the two ancient Greek painters, Parrhasius and Zeuxis. The latter managed to fool birds into pecking at his painted grapes, then Parrhasius fooled Zeuxis, who tried to pull back the painted curtain from his opponents picture. In her choice of motifs, Vukoje overlays various spaces and cultures against the background of this illusionistic game; in Salzburg she exhibited a cycle of pictures that incorporate elements of a ritual dance, in this case that of the Tobago Carnival. Following Maya Derens films on the Haitian voodoo cult, Vukoje investigates the cultural coding of gestures, movements, rituals and performances, like those of the carnival, but also others associated with hiphop, Cuban rumba and a variety of religions. A large-format work entitled Spider School (2008) depicts a desert landscape with a group of girls at the centre in spider costumes, apparently following a teacher; to the right, a couple wind their way around some withered trees. In these transformed bodies, detached from the immediate events of the carnival, elements of the uncanny and the monstrous are superimposed on the playful and the tender.
Besides acrylics and spray-paint, Vukojes pictures frequently employ more unconventional painting materials here for instance domestic hay, mirrors and glitter. The diffused spray-paint is used particularly for bodies and faces, allowing for a certain ambiguity that de-emphasizes the individuality of human features in favour of painterly figuration. Vukoje employs different techniques and painterly effects to accentuate her various layers of narrative: spatula application, dripping, the contrast of strong contours with subtle glazes of colour.
References to the intrinsic aesthetic codes of painting are less evident. As she put it in an interview with Stella Rollig, her concern is with thematic positions rather than the medium-related issues often dealt with in art-historical and theoretical discourses. But this begs the question as to whether a separation between motifs and the inherent order of the medium is actually possible. In Satelitas (2010), for instance, figures from the Caribbean carnival are transported to the banks of a river near Belgrade, Vukojes former home, and if we can read the extensive palette of painterly techniques employed here as expressions of an amalgam of diverse cultures, this still leaves the question open: what part does painting itself play in the blending of narratives?
Vukoje references the discursive network of the art world in her most recent work, which was made for exhibition at the Salzburg Kunstverein. A painting eight metres wide titled GEAK (2011) shows a Viennese shop front with the sign Gesellschaft für Energie, Arbeit und Kunst (Society for Energy, Work and Art). The smooth naturalism of this painted image of an actual shop window in the 22nd municipal district of Vienna initiates a tantalizing play of transparent and semi-transparent surfaces. Vukoje uses the display space of the shop window which still has something of the local store about it in spite of the high-flown signage for a painted exhibition of art works by Willem de Kooning, Max Ernst, Simon Starling and herself, all lined up next to one another. She sets these off with a fictive reflection of the Bacardi Square Building in Miami and thus transports a touch of glamour to Vienna. Fathoming a variety of mainstream modernisms, Vukoje presents art as a system of references and values where the market and the Bacardi Building alludes to this plays a fundamental role. Rather than exempting herself from this system, she inscribes herself into it, but there remains the question as to whether she can credibly do so without explicitly addressing the issue of the autonomy and the historical dimension of the medium of painting.
Translated by Jonathan Blower