Rhythm Variation, 2020-2021

Rhythm Variations, 2020-2021
Photos: Marijana Janković

Rhythm Variations, author of the text: Nevena Martinović

A serious film fan from his childhood, Nemanja Nikolić has almost entirely based his artistic practice on his own cinematographic experience, thus continuing the line of „avant-garde practices of Yugoslav artists focused on experimental research in the area of moving pictures“[1] In studying the realms of film networking with traditional artistic discourses, such as painting in which he himself has had formal education[2], Nikolić does not steer his creative work into a straightforward course, but branches it into two different directions that move parallelly. On the one hand, he creates complex multimedia works, including his major artistic project The Plot (2017-2021)[3] where the incorporated cinematographic elements equal the drawing, the text, or the sound. In other part of his opus, starting with the group of works Vertigo (2012-2013) and the cycle Samples of the Liquid Book (2012-2017), over the series Vanishing Fiction (2017-2018) to the latest cycle Rhythm Variations (2019-2021), the artist works exclusively within the discourse of the picture, in traditional painterly medium and the morphological field of geometric abstraction. Here, film, or the experience of film watching, has an ambivalent position, simultaneously crucial in the creative process and marginal in its final section.

Starting from the basic premise that a painting is a two-dimensional flat surface, devoid of any illusionistic or mimetic function[4], and the artist’s insistence on its non-figurative and non-narrative character[5], Nikolić’s paintings are constitutively defined by the autonomy of painting as an independent realm determined by its own rules and built by its own elements – colour, line and surface. According to their formal characteristics, Nikolić’s works belong to the other and ramified line of “cold” geometric abstraction, developing from inter-war avant-garde phenomena, such as neo-plasticism and constructivism, over the minimal art of the sixties and seventies to the most diverse aspects of neo-minimalism in contemporary art. By an extreme rationalisation of visual art forms, the geometric models of abstraction endeavour to push out the stubbornest external content from the picture – the one injected in it from the turbulent world of artist’s psyche. Thus, the line of abstraction comes the closest to creating the imperative that a picture speaks only about itself in its own language.

Nikolić’s pictures, for example, those from the latest series Rhythm Variations, morphologically represent surfaces where the artist establishes diverse arrangements of straight lines and regular rectangular fields of different formats and dimensions, by using elementary geometric images and pure colours, free from even the smallest imprecision of the “free hand”. The presence of the artist is erased by a series of procedural stages – from a digital outline produced on a computer, over the transference of that delineation onto the canvas by use of technical devices, to painting by hand when any facture created on the painting is purposefully avoided. The paint is applied flatly and evenly within one field, without tonal variations or any visible traces of brush strokes. Therefore, the picture has been planned in advance, its realisation is also according to plan and in the process of its materialisation there is nothing unexpected or spontaneous. The meaning of such an application of a traditional painterly technique in Nikolić’s works becomes clearer when juxtaposed to Rosenberg-like type of abstraction, where the imprint of paint on the canvas indicates artist’s presence and where painterly tools are primarily the instruments of artist’s expression. In using the same tools, the artist invests the greatest effort and skill in a totally opposite task – to annul every spontaneity and erase every trace of his own specific painterly hand (as evidenced in another big segment of Nikolić’s opus). This extends the discourse on the autonomy of picture because the painter’s instruments and procedures are observed as integral parts of the painting and not as tools of the artist’s creative act.

The above imposes an assumption that Nikolić’s picture is radically non-referential towards the world outside its own framework, but this is refuted by the fact that its departure point lies in film, more correctly, in artist’s experience of film watching. In his doctoral dissertation, Nikolić states: “It has been my desire to produce the impression of film watching inside geometric abstraction, but without the sound, the narrative, fiction or any other aspect of a film”[6] Nikolić carries out this initial idea through the procedure Stevan Vuković recognised as “remediation of film rhythms”[7] consisting of a repeated watching of the same film in order to “extract certain rhythm from it”[8]. However, Nikolić does not use any objective methodology, and never tries to literally follow the director’s idea by his own “punctuation” of sequences, stills and cuts. He chooses films that have made the most powerful impression on him[9] and returns to them focused on those scenes and sequences that have left the deepest trace  in his impression. Therefore, the procedure of “extracting rhythms”, seemingly analytical, is intuitively carried out, since each new watching of the same scene makes an advance relationship to the preceding, more or less different experience, deposited within the unstable spaces of memory. As Vuković notices, the rhythmic structure of film content is subjectified on its way to the painting and Nikolić’s “painterly works appear as very subjective and autonomous, because they stem from a personal experience.”[10]

How can one, then, explain the situation in which a picture is created within an artist’s extremely subjective experience, but at the same time cancels with its appearance the existence of artist as a subject? The answer is imposed in the afore quoted statement by the artist that his desire is to produce the impression of film watching within geometric abstraction. In other words, Nikolić watches films from the discourse of a painting defined in advance that directs his personal experience exclusively into a specific arrangement and rhythm of the geometric structure in the picture. The artist thinks fully in the relations his work uses for communication and an abstract painting is created already in Nikolić’s gaze, in his own way of watching a film, of neglecting the plot (scenario, storyboard), acting and even photography (the aesthetic of a film). Nikolić’s abstract painting fulfils its premise of being non-narrative and non-figurative already in its anteroom. As opposed to the preceding cycle of Vanishing Fiction, where the artist’s gaze detected the type of dynamics, of the duration and change of sequences and stills – in the latest series of paintings rhythmic variations refer also to audio-visual settings within certain scenes. “This intuitive procedure”, explains the artist, “brings about a certain sketch I take as the departure point for my later conception of the picture.”[11] Thus, when watching the scene of commotion on the streets of Santa Mira in the film Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) Nikolić perceives patterns in the general dynamic of the scene and transfers it to paper in a rhythm of lines he would later develop as the final structure on the canvas. Even these ephemeral notes with which the artist begins his process of remediation, composed of rectangles, lines, circles and similar simple graphic recordings, emerge in the discourse of geometricized abstraction. The next process of picture-making evolves towards perfecting and purifying of abstract structures, from those geometricized on paper to the geometric ones on the canvas, from a rapid-transit note to a sketch drawn with precision and with the help of computer software. This transference brings about the process of final harmonisation of artistic and film rhythms, defined by Velimir Popović as the crystallisation of rhythms between the traces of frames and pictorial traces on the surface of the picture.[12] In the end, the result is a picture with contents composed of rhythm variations attained exclusively by the relationships and arrangements of visual elements in a two-dimensional painting. In canvases Rhythm Variation # 2 and #3 the central visual event is the division into two segments of the picture. In Rhythm Variation # 3 the left and the right fields function as two autonomous entities existing in a larger common context, while the relationship between the parts of #2 is under a dramatic tension creating the impression of a single field internally dislocated and torn up, remaining as a permanently wrenched and disharmonised whole. That division in the painting originates in Nikolić’s perception of cinematographic cut as one of the key elements in the creation of a film and in film experience. Different visual patterns in the picture have origins in other cinematographic elements: rectangular fields arranged inside parallel vertical strips (Rhythm Variation #1, #7, #9) or the grid structure in his Rhythm Variation #2 and Signal Processing, as well as other more discreet rhythming within the framework of those patterns. According to the artist, film sound is most frequently transposed by means of colour, and that relationship is the most intuitive in the entire process of remediation. However, during the process of realisation, colour is subjected to many rules, first of all the rules of chromatic spectre, when the picture again strictly disciplines every subjectivity.

Although film is an important etymological determinant of a painting growing from the context of contemporary culture, Nemanja Nikolić’s paintings manifest his own rhythm variations even if one does not know the artist’s previous cinematographic experience. This is supported by the titles of many works from the latest series; they do not refer to film at all but extremely precisely define the contents of the painting. Abstract canvases by Nemanja Nikolić offer their own rhythms as their meaning and therefore in the realm of a picture each reference to film, or the artist himself, is purposefully omitted. Is the film story absolutely necessary for the gallery visitors watching, for example, the painting Rhythm Variation #7? From the position of the picture one would say that it is not only unnecessary, but can harm the visual experience or disrupt its autonomy. Still, every picture is an object of the gaze of contemporary observers whose relationship towards entire reality, and art consequently, is today, more than before, delineated by a constant consumption of video contents of diverse formats, including film. In this digital era, which has already spent the minimalist geometric of aesthetics to the limits of decorative purposes, on the one hand, and on the other, flooded the everyday with moving pictures (and their rhythms), the perception of contemporary man resonates with the cinematographic subtext of Nikolić’s works, shifting it, seemingly paradoxically, to the defense line of integrity and autonomy of abstract paintings in twenty-first century.

[1] N. Nikolić, on his works from the cycle Samples of the Liquid Book,  https://www.nemanjanikolic.com/works/samples-of-the-liquid-book-2015-17/, accessed 9 March 2021.

[2] The artist graduated and received his D.A. at the Department of Painting, Faculty of Fine Arts in Belgrade, where he teaches as Docent.

[3] Preceding works: Inserts (2007-2010), Distant (2012), Panic Box (2013), Panic Box II (2014), Panic Book (2015), Love Drawings (2016), Double Noir (2016) Uncontained Images (2018).

[4] In this era of twenty-first century digital media and Internet technologies it is necessary to make current again the premise about the non-mimetic character of a painting, and therefore repeat that Nikolić’s paintings posess no reference to recognisable graphic recordings with origin in the digital sphere (such as software codes or diagrams, etc).

[5] Nemanja Nikolić, Outline for an Eraseable Plot, Belgrade 2020.

[6] Ibid.

[7] S. Vuković, „Remediacija filmskih ritmova“, Vanishing Fiction (Remediation of film rhythms), U10, Belgrade 2018. The same text: http://u10.rs/2018/vanishing-fiction/, accessed on 6 March 2021.

[8] N. Nikolić, ibid.

[9] With regard to the cycle Rhythm Variations only science-fiction films are relevant: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Forbidden Planet (1956), Silent Running (1972), Blade Runner (1982), Strange Days (1995), The Matrix (1999), Children of Men (2006) etc.

[10] S. Vuković, ibid.

[11] N. Nikolić, ibid.

[12] V. Popović, „U ritmu nedovršenih kristalizacija“ (In the rhythm of unfinished crystalisations), exch. cat., Nemanja Nikolić, Gallery RIMA, Kragujevac 2018.

Mail: nemanja_nikolic@ymail.com