Artist: Goran Petercol
Croatian artist Goran Petercol (b. 1949), an AIR – ARTIST IN RESIDENCE Niederösterreich guest from May to July 2022, has since the late 1970s exhibited works dealing with questions of process, formal reduction, and the subverting of “pure” geometric forms and structures. Since 1985 he has created light installations utilizing light and shadow as distinctly pictorial material. Petercol works with both material as well as immaterial forms, with spaces, interstices, but also with inverse volumes. In terms of production-aesthetics, his works also invariably call into question the conditions of art-making.
During his residency, Petercol developed an array of light works especially for the AND OR exhibition, juxtaposed with two of the artist’s early films. Contrary to the works’ purely formal comparisons—such as the use of simple geometric entities like lines, circles, and rectangles, or the application of the most elementary design principles such as doubling or mirroring—this temporal-conceptual framing allows Petercol’s rigor but also the philosophical dimension of his aesthetic practice to come to the fore: questions of space, emptiness, or the relationship to the perceiving subject.
Goran Petercol poses fundamental philosophical questions with the means of art. He asks in subtle ways how artistic doing and decision-making transpire. His works are characterized by a rigorousness of the most elementary forms and processes, which in essence elicit existential questions from the viewer: what is given, what is decided, how freedom is articulated in (artistic) actions. Here the body serves as a primary condition and thus also as a basic regulating factor; it is a fundamental kinesthetic circumstance that cannot be circumvented. Elementary features of Petercol’s aesthetic practice are already apparent in two short films from 1978. The short film Colored Surface is a simple depiction of the artist’s exploring and testing of his own radius of painterly action. Crouching on the floor and limited by the reach of his own arms, Petercol paints the ground around him. The body, its physiognomy, and limitations literally determine the space of painterly activity.
Petercol’s second early film from 1978, Measurement I, in contrast to Colored Surface, depicts an instance of movement. Here the body serves as the medium of movement, but simultaneously also an instrument of metrical, painterly measurement and inscription. The artist is seen moving down a street step by step. Petercol “notes” every step taken with a brush stroke. In the first half of the film, Petercol chooses the longest steps possible, whereas in the second half he explores the other end of the spectrum, taking the smallest possible steps. The markings on the ground ultimately produce a metric reflecting the minimum and maximum “amplitude” of the body in motion.
Petercol takes a critical view of aesthetically “successful” artistic approaches or decision-making—for instance in drawing or painting. The element of repetition, of varying repetition, serves as an important instrument for circumventing and subverting the notion of genius authorship. At the same time, however, inherent to repetition is also the risk of reverting increasingly to what is “successful” and thus itself becoming solidified as “convention”—as the artist calls it.
Even if questions of process, decision-making, and freedom represent consistent lines of thinking in Petercol’s work, relational, compositional aspects are not to be overshadowed. Afterall, his works are by no means authorless, or even purely systemic or autopoietic creations. The artist invariably responds to given parameters—of the body or even the exhibition space—dialectically and relationally. He seeks out basic, existing elements, and then works with these in primarily subtle, liminal approaches or choices, interventions, and alterations. In so doing, Petercol often draws on formal contrasts, such as light and dark, material and immaterial/ephemeral, often juxtaposed in compelling fashion. In simple aesthetic configurations, Petercol gives voice to questions that invariably allude to the big picture, questions of being. His works are far from being merely charming, semi-scientific scenarios that investigate the causality between light and shadow. Rather, they are paradigmatic, even unambiguously miniature manifestations of fundamental questions of perception or questions concerning the ontology of image and space and ultimately ontological questions in general.
For the light works presented in AND OR—conceived by Petercol as a relational array for Galerie Stadtpark’s main exhibition space—the artist draws on the medium of light not only for its sensual, ephemeral qualities, but also for its metaphorical value as a symbol of cognizance and understanding. Light is specifically used in this sense to call attention to important and meaningful elements in the exhibition space. Petercol employs light as a prevailing institutional element and convention, but he also gives it its own autonomy, turning it into abstract, pictorial material. For Petercol, the basic shape of a spotlight, in reality a circular or elliptical shape illuminated on the wall, becomes the basic form of geometric-compositional “executions” in space, whose interplay generate the potential to transcend the given space as a “conveyor” of pictorial/aesthetic occurrences.
For the wall work Completed by enlarging the first one (2022), conceived by Petercol as the starting point for his compositional-relational array, the artist first projected a small circular shape, marked it, and then significantly enlarged this projection radius for a second projection in the same location. This second circular projection, which is still visible to the viewer, is then positioned in relation to the initially projected smaller circle, which is no longer apparent. Petercol’s use of a wedge-like, black-painted, negative-surface area—connecting a point (in reality a hole drilled in the wall) on the projected outer edge of the second circular shape to the initially projected inner circle—establishes a kind of inter-pictorial and simultaneously supratemporal connection between both shapes. It might be a challenge for the viewer to grasp this “causal connection” without detailed explanation, nevertheless, a relationship between both circular forms can be surmised and discerned both non-verbally and intuitively. Mysterious, intrinsic, albeit binding connections are often part of Petercol’s work, without these being explicitly clarified or decodable—nor are they supposed to be.
For the second wall work Completed by enlarging the first one (2022), directly related to the first light projection in form and process, Petercol uses a laser point to mark the center of a circular shape with a fifteen-centimeter radius. But in this case the artist does not indicate the circular shape by using light or drawing an outline, but by simply cutting a circular shape out of the exhibition wall, so that the laser point, originally projected in the center, lands diagonally offset onto the “real” wall of the gallery building, which is recessed at a depth of five centimeters. This simple, but decidedly space-invasive intervention splits apart and divides the configuration of circle and center. What is supposedly simple and unitary becomes legible as a configuration of differences with quasi-sculptural presence, whereby the shadow cast by the room light from the top layer onto the recessed layer is transformed into a sfumato-like pictorial/aesthetic element.
Goran Petercol often references the fundamental conditions of perception, of the given space, of the exhibition dispositif. For the third light projection, Completed with the first one (2022), he inverts the “proportions of meaning” or logic of the exhibition in substantial ways. In this work there was nothing initially present of (artistic) significance that is illuminated and thus accentuated. Instead, Petercol projects an empty oblong shape, so to speak, and then fills this semantic void with “content.” But Petercol, quite ironically, activates this frame with a kind of false wall, specifically with Rauhfasertapete (woodchip wallpaper), which of course takes the dispostif of meaning production—excessive staging by means of light/illumination—to a point of absurdity. Beyond this contextual reading, however, the illuminated woodchip wallpaper almost appears to the viewer to be floating in space, as a semi-sculptural presence whose location cannot be clearly defined. Due to the dislocating quality of the light, the rough illuminated surface becomes a visual phenomenon that oscillates between pictorial (ephemeral-illuminated) and spatial-sculptural effects.
The fourth wall work in AND OR, again titled Completed with the first one (2022), on the far wall of the exhibition space, forms the most complex, intricate work in the series. It represents a kind of circular reasoning: here, Petercol has a spotlight—this time without a clearly discernable circular or oblong shape—illuminate the wall from the left. Compared to the projection effects of the other works, the soft-contoured illuminated area has a muted and gentle and even almost scenic quality. Petercol has mounted a thin iron bar perpendicularly on the wall as a kind of performer whose only apparent function is to demonstrate the effects of the light. The shadow falls elegantly from left to right across the wall without any further “disturbance.” At the end of the shadow, however, Petercol positions another circle of light, projected onto the wall in a seemingly almost provisional manner from a tripod spotlight set up in the space. The end of the compositionally executed motif thus also forms once again the potential beginning for the creation of another, new, light-circle motif.
In the fifth work of the series, titled Symmetry (2022), Petercol draws on a design principle highly characteristic of his work, specifically the doubling or mirroring of a shape along an extended axis. In this work as well, a projected, slightly oblique circle of light forms the initial shape, which Petercol then divides by drawing a vertical line through the center in pencil. The left half of the ellipse, however, is not just mirrored on the right along this axis; instead Petercol cuts this half out of the exhibition wall, exposing the wall of the space behind it and thus inscribing this into the pictorial occurrences. Petercol’s simple, creative intervention situates the basic projected shape in relation to itself but even more so in a way that differentiates it from itself. The symmetry of the forms is no longer identical here. On the contrary, the wall cutout infuses the mirrored form with a different, even “augmented” ontological presence that extends distinctly into the sculptural. The relationship of these broken, mirror-image elliptical shapes is characterized neither by similarity nor analogy, but by difference and the intensified actuality (presence) of the surface shape.
Petercol situates a 2012 floor piece—which also references a kind of formal convention of exhibiting—in formal resonance with and conceptual relationship to Symmetry: for Halves (7), the artist positions on the floor two halves of a white lacquered wooden pedestal next to one another; the right half reveals its interior (wood), while the left shows its white exterior. As if more were needed, Petercol “transcribes” the material lost from sawing the pedestal apart into the medium of glass, specifically into a thin glass plate corresponding to the dimensions of the pedestal placed on the floor between both halves. The negative space, so to speak, or better yet, the lost interstice, is “translated” here into glass. With Petercol, what’s absent often manifests itself in a paradoxical manner. The artist subtly alludes—here also linguistically—to the sensorial confusion between transparent and non-existent (absent). Here the conflating of visibility and presence is shown to be not only reductive, but simply as an epistemological fallacy. Ultimately, in Petercol’s work, a question mark hangs over the entire realm of seeing, indeed perception per se, with regard to what is actually ontologically present.
In the array of light works Petercol developed specifically for Galerie Stadtpark’s spaces, individual works are not manifested as singularities that are intended to stand and function aesthetically merely on their own. Rather, the light projections evoke between and with one another an array of invisible relationships and reciprocal effects, ultimately organizing the works in the main space into three pairs, which is ultimately also reflected in their spatial placements.
On the face of it, Petercol calls into question what defines the “aesthetic machine” of the gallery, the white cube (Brian O’Doherty). He utilizes white walls, light, at times even elements such as light switches or pedestals as basic elements of the institution of art. And yet Petercol does not think in a way that is essentially contextual, systemic, or institutional. Rather, his works are conveyed in an exceptionally non-verbal, pictorial-poetic manner. Petercol formulates subtle aesthetic scenarios that give room to decision-making aspects, but which also seek out and call into question these very aspects. While being cognizant of the fact that every articulation, including those that self-reflectively question these very conditions of making, can in turn themselves become conventions and even solidify into “institutions.”
Petercol’s works and series of works unfold and progress along relational, self-reflective, and invariably non-determined paths. One’s own doing, shaping, and forming are meant to be connected—in the truest sense relationally—with what precedes it and yet continue to evolve and distance itself from it. The artist is not the genius subject who simply expresses himself in the material, but a kind of subtle observer who explores the conditions, possibilities, and imponderables of formal change. The process of searching and finding, of choices and varying, has been intrinsic to Petercol’s work since its very inception; it forms not just a continuum, but the actual continuum. This aesthetically open-ended and polysemic undertaking—which Petercol has pursued since at least 1978 when considering the time span represented in the AND OR exhibition—defines his work as an historically significant and rigorous position whose questions cannot be reduced to a matter of artistic creation. Rather, his questioning reflects and puts forth a singular aesthetic, indeed a philosophy of action, decision-making, and doing.
Text: David Komary
Translation: Erik Smith