BY Jennifer Higgie in Reviews | 03 MAR 03
Featured in
Issue 73

Reconstruction Isn't Easy

IBID Projects, London, UK

BY Jennifer Higgie in Reviews | 03 MAR 03

Although there were four impressive paintings by Milena Dragicevic in the main gallery, at first glance it was the eyes that stole the show. Thin, mad and blue, they peer out from the face of a mirrored portrait of a pale-haired androgynous accordion player, a sliver of colour in a painting dominated by the muted earth and damp concrete tones of long East European winters. This is a picture that could have been drab but isn't; it's somehow bright and clean. Entitled Reconstruction Isn't Easy (all works 2002) - also the title of the show - this large painting is so tightly controlled that it emanates an atmosphere of insanity only just held at bay.

It's not obvious what the reconstruction alluded to is. Bearing in mind that Dragicevic was born in Yugoslavia, it's tempting to read the image as a symbol of a culture attempting to reconstruct itself after sublimating some of its worst excesses beneath a veneer of normalcy (you see accordionists everywhere in Eastern Europe); or then again perhaps it's simply a private memory, dragged up and reconstructed through paint. Either way, the accordionist's reflection in a mirror adds to the sense that what you see here can be seen from different angles; no image, and by association no idea, has a fixed viewpoint. The drawing is solid and spare, the paint application impressive in its understanding that energy is often best expressed through restraint. There are faint echoes of a slightly unhinged Milton Avery here, in the thin, definite paint, solid blocks of colour and focused composition. The centre of the image is dominated by the loose geometry of the expanding accordion, but unlike most geometry, it's not one that refuses to budge; in this case it can make people dance. This is a plain riddle of a painting. But what of the title?

It's true. Reconstruction isn't easy: it always involves slippage, repetition, nostalgia, even failure - a look backwards in order to move forward. What you remember and what you want to build from that memory rarely coincide, whether it's a society reconstructing itself or someone attempting to remember the narrative of a dream upon waking. Either way, attempting to embody such complexity in a single image is a daunting undertaking. Without resorting to platitudes (an easy trap given these parameters) Dragicevic explores the idea with a deceptively light touch.

The three other paintings by her depict a diving platform (Lagoonal), a roll of unravelling film (From the Diavolezza Series) and a pattern of concrete beams that teeter on the edge of geometric abstraction (Alpski). Inspired by images of Eastern European and South American Modernist leisure centres and communal buildings, the two large un-peopled paintings that reference architecture employ the flat planes of propaganda posters, without any of the sloganeering. The medium is stripped back and allowed to bask in the simple pleasure of its components: the physicality of paint, the idea of swimming, the promise of immersion, and the liberation that a combination of abstraction and straight lines can allow. In Lagoonal the four-tiered ochre diving platform, seen from below, rises up against a gridded, variously toned cherry-coloured wall; a clean place to spring from. In Alpski the concrete beams disappear into the infinite possibilities of the wide blue gridded yonder.

From the Diavolezza Series is the most literal, the smallest and the most intimate of the paintings. Red-bordered film unravels like a hair ribbon against a velvety black background; portraits of tiny anonymous faces are inscribed on each frame. The only reconstruction possible here is the one you can do yourself. Forever stilled, film is deprived of its flickering light and granted the status of a still life, a humble cinematic memento mori to lost moments.

In the smaller gallery Richard Cuerden's take on the difficulties of reconstruction took a more familiar route. A group of small dark paintings - Waiting, Home and Leaving - describe what people do most days; walk through doors and look out of windows, sit in gloomy rooms, and drive down gleaming wet roads. Here, shadows are as ubiquitous in life as they are in the movies. The key-changes are high-pitched and dramatic; film stills painted in chiaroscuro. The more self-conscious pictures, such a Waiting, drift perilously close to cliché; in the better ones, however, such as Leaving, the uneven yet delicate handling of the paint unsetttles the ennui that threatens to saturate the surfaces. The images are so familiar it's hard to see why it would be important to know whether they were influenced by theatre, cinema or personal experience. I would guess all of the above but the knowledge won't add much - after all, every image is constructed from something else. And as is abundantly clear, it's rarely easy.

Jennifer Higgie is a writer who lives in London. Her book The Mirror and the Palette – Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and she is currently working on another – about women, art and the spirit world.