Adam Cvijanovic

Adam Cvijanovic’s meteoric rise in the art world began with his surprise appearance (youngest artist included) in the 1984 Boston Museum of Fine Arts exhibition “Emerging Massachusetts Painters”: and continued with a series of splashy sold-out shows in Boston and New York (where the artist recently moved). Add the drama of Cvijanovic being entirely self-taught. and you’ve got Boston’s Jean-Michel Basquiat.

The romance of the wunderkind is paralleled by Cvijanovic’s juxtaposition of rapturous love against a backdrop of urban dissolution. As love transcends the city’s savagery, so the brilliant prodigy surfaces from the art-world swamp. But, as current divorce statistics and America’s history of creativity extinguished by fast fame attest, only up to a point: this museum exhibition of the 26-year-old artist’s work was, in a word, premature.

The show was chronologically divided into three phases, including 1982–84 Boston cityscapes, works inspired by a 1985 Caribbean trip, and two 1986 Manhattan-based paintings. Poor showings in the last two categories detracted from the éclat of the Boston-based urban-violence series that first attracted attention to Cvijanovic, and reinforced the overly familiar effects of talent and ambition disabled by overwrought adulation.

Curatorial editing was noticeably absent; thus even the 1982–84 period included paintings, such as Dog’s Body, 1982, whose painful anatomical awkwardness hampered the viewer’s apprehension of Cvijanovic’s compelling subject, the subdual of a nude male patient by menacing white-robed doctors. Although Cvijanovic’s febrile metropolitan edge recalls Robert Longo’s intensity it too often lacks the technical verve needed to propel a scary idea into the realm of the truly fearsome.

Cvijanovic’s theatrical dynamics shine in Skim Milk, 1984, a triptych that juxtaposes a totemic image of two kneeling lovers embracing amid the tall grasses of a tenement-abutting meadow, on the left, with a center panel depicting a burning three-story house. On the right, a nocturnal jogger skirts a lurid and lonely gas station, with a naked male in the foreground—a streaker arrested in a crouched posture of suffocation. Cvijanovic’s brushy and breathless painterly style evokes a disjointed world of meaningless cinematic motion, yet the seemingly unrelated narrative elements eventually cohere, forming an allusion to love incinerated on a pyre of urban decay.

Elevated by Cvijanovic’s passionate imagination, the fragility of contemporary male/female relations is infused with the grit and pathos of working-class angst. Romantic hope amid squalor—a kind of canvas embodiment of Bruce Springsteen’s poignant, driven lyricism—is personified in the James Dean–ish, jeans-and-T-shirt-clad male lover stalwartly clasping his vulnerable heroine. Cvijanovic’s roots in the drama and poetry of film and rock culture also appear in the gesture of the woman’s diaphanous skirt blowing defenselessly in the wind, reprising Bob Dylan’s observations about the disintegration of ’60s society This plaintive moment signals an ’80s world where the “answer” grows ever more elusive.

Works from Cvijanovic’s Caribbean sojourn are for the most part characterized by a kind of travelogue palette that undercuts the intended trouble-brewing-in-paradise message. The New York imagery echoes more of the same, except without Cvijanovic’s earlier punch, and this time with the all-too-common addition of obligatory David Salle—derived superimposed drawings. But paintings such as Skim Milk, 1984, and Fireflys, 1982, offer ample evidence of Cvijanovic’s distinctive talent. All the more reason to nurture that gift at a pace at which it might flourish.

Nancy Stapen