New York

IRWIN

Bess Cutler Gallery

IRWIN is a five-member collaborative of artists from northern Yugoslavia that produces complex works as part of a highly polemical cultural program. It was first introduced to New York audiences last year in a show including over 100 works, hung salon-style, which borrow imagery from sources as disparate as Nazi propaganda, religious icons, and 20th-century art from Suprematism to Social Realism. IRWIN also disseminated manifestolike statements explaining its participation in Neue Slovenische Kunst (New Slovenian Art), a 60-member collaborative, including a rock band and theater group, devoted to resuscitating the culture of its native region. NSK fuses retro- and avant-garde strategies, politics and art, in a collective spirit that seems to draw on socialism but also harks back to older models of anonymous artistic collaboration.

In the current exhibition IRWIN continues along the same lines, presenting over 200 works of often striking beauty. Motifs and techniques reverberate within and across works: a cross echoes Kasimir Malevich as well as a swastika, kitsch or folk paintings of women, and magazine cutouts are used interchangeably with images of the Virgin Mary. Several works refer to earlier images by IRWIN. In Blood and Loyalty, 1988, a faded Christ on a tilting cross recalls another piece in which a Christ figure rotated on an industrial gear; Four Seasons, 1988, exploits techniques of naive and academic painters in a manner recalling the earlier Slovene Athens, 1987.

What differentiates IRWIN’S recent work is the incorporation of specifically American iconography. As with the group’s previous motifs, these references come via art: Four, 1989, depicts four Andy-Warhol-inspired Campbell’s soup cans with the labels peeling off, a Jasper Johns-type flag is embedded in Fiat II 1989, and Champion, 1989, pays homage to Stuart Davis. The question arises whether this new imagery—which makes the work more accessible to Western audiences—will compromise IRWIN’s dedication to the Slovenian project. In a recent interview the group acknowledged its involvement in the international art market and emphasized the importance of form over ideology, art over politics.

IRWIN’s first show perplexed many viewers: some lapped up and reiterated the group’s often contradictory rhetoric, while others tried to draw facile analogies between IRWIN’s production and that of Western practitioners of appropriation, simulation, and kitsch-based art. Such unsatisfactory readings tried to determine whether IRWIN’s project was sincere or ironic and to articulate the group’s relation to both the state and the Western art market—interpretations primarily based on whether one found IRWIN’s ambition heroic or grandiose, selfless or self-serving.

But IRWIN’s understanding of and concern with Slovenian culture remains the most interesting and profound aspect of its work. Slovenia, characterized by an independence of spirit throughout years of outside cultural and political domination, embodies the conflict between East and West, totalitarianism and democracy, just now being explored by Soviet artists. IRWIN’s “organic eclecticism” has given convincing form to Slovenia’s uneasy mix of indigenous and imported culture, while evoking both its desire for autonomy and its bloody history of oppression.

Lois E. Nesbitt