Milena Dragicevic


Two or three things I know about Milena Dragicevic: She’s Serbian by birth, raised in Canada, and London based. She’s a twin, and her paintings have previously applied the no-doubt-peculiar feeling of observing something that looks like you but isn’t to the post-Communist East and West. A couple of years ago she made a few too many canvases that diagrammed fashionable nostalgia: Soviet-era modernist architecture floating over color fields or striped backdrops that resembled ’60s American abstraction at its Clem-pleasing zenith of flatness. But she had a sideline in cleverly composed portraits of doppelgängers and fractured selves, spiced with Eastern European references (big, sweptback hairstyles; accordions) that tested how much tension, contradiction, and illogic one could pack into a painting. This is evidently what she’s now focusing on—while seeing how much cultural baggage she can jettison before the whole enterprise floats into the clouds.

In Forma (all works 2005), a brunet stands before a three-part abstraction—deepest brown diagonally bisected by midnight blue, itself punctured from the left by a sharp green triangle. This might be a schematic nocturnal landscape or an abstract painting our man is obscuring or simply a bit of buffeting design. Whichever, it echoes his pose; or he echoes it. His eyes—one brown, one blue—and the green-string cat’s cradle he’s holding (which, aping abstraction with folksy means, creates its own echoing set of triangles) sit parallel with the green section’s upper edge. Similarly aligned with the brown region are his outstretched arms, which probably aren’t actually his: His green-brown shirt’s sleeves seem folded behind his back; the forearms—sheathed in red sleeves—emerge from under them, as if someone were standing behind him, performing a magic trick.

You can think a lot about what this man is doing and where he might be from; Dragicevic is very good at making it look as if she’s telling only half of a story. Ditto in Falsifikacija #2, in which a blonde and her tan, even blonder twin each tie an ambiguous object (half visor, half fake beard) around their chins. The women are separated from each other by a wooden frame; their bodies are cut off at the waist, as if they’d pulled off a conjuring trick or been punished for attempting disguise. The background, subdivided into differently colored segments, resolves itself into another backward-looking abstraction. Connecting these elements in a semicoherent way isn’t impossible, but, as in There Is No Gardener, and He Is Invisible—an artfully composed pileup featuring a garden shed propped up by an ugly sculpture, drunken topiary on an orange lawn, and a pair of hands reaching out blindly for two bright-colored balls that might have fallen off another ’60s painting—eventually you may feel there’s no code to crack, just a roundabout of sly connotation.

So what do you want: An artist who sees painting as a kind of Leyden jar wherein levels of reality and conflicting leitmotifs—nostalgia, disguise, and paralysis, for example—collide like hot electrons and who intends the ensuing energy as evocative of the fraught (re)construction of personal and collective identity? Or her meaner twin, one who racks up stimulating, enigmatic details and significant-looking rhymes only to kick you upstairs without supper? That’s the gauntlet Dragicevic throws down. The best one can say right now is that leaving it on the ground rarely feels like an option.

Martin Herbert