The Brooklyn-Based artist draws from History to comment on the present in his exhibit of dramatic, mural-scaled paintings at the Kemper Museum.
Good art communicates on multiple levels and rewards multiple visits. Such is the case with “American Montage”, an outstanding 15-year retrospective of Brooklyn-based artist Adam Cvijanovic at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, organized by curator Erin Dziedzic.
These works impress immediately due to their immense scale, unusual compositional techniques, and their great variety of thematic references, including autobiography, American history, prehistoric animals and vintage Hollywood. The overriding feeling that one gets from the exhibition is awe mixed with a sense of loss.
Cvijanovic (pronounced svee-YAHN-o-vitch) frequently paints on sections of Tyvek with Flashe, a vinyl-based paint with a matte, flat-looking finish that is used often in scene painting. The Tyvek sections are adhered directly to the wall, resulting in paintings that resemble murals or frescoes.
Belshazzar’s Feast, based on a segment from D.W. Griffith’s ambitious 1916 film Intolerance, towers over one of end of the exhibition. The multi-panel work was constructed using 9 freestanding structures that bring to mind stage sets. Each measures 16 feet high by 4 feet wide, and their semicircular arrangement surrounds the viewer, an extraordinary breakdown of the traditional physical separation between art and viewer that occurs throughout the show.
The many threads running through the exhibition come together in the epic Discovery of America, which measures 15 feet high and 65 feet wide and spreads over two perpendicular walls. The painting revolves around three narratives, and as a whole seems to convey a sense of loss or decay. On the left wall, Cvijanovic presents passages borrowed from a diorama at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, populated by extinct megafauna such as saber-toothed tigers and woolly mammoths. The right wall features an image of the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889, taken from an archival photograph. At the intersection of the two walls, these two narratives collide in the form of trompe l’oeil wooden painting supports that seem to splinter forth from the corner. The artist is present to document this collision via an image of his studio, which forms the third narrative in the lower portion of the left wall. The diorama is made to look like it is inside of the studio, unfinished or perhaps abandoned.
In relation to our time, the megafauna extinctions happened eons ago, while the Oklahoma Land Rush was comparatively recent. The Land Rush image reminds us that territory in present-day Oklahoma was reserved for American Indians until it was parceled out to settlers beginning in 1889, culminating with Oklahoma’s statehood in 1907.
Themes of loss or decay occur elsewhere in the show as well. Nuart and Iolanthe both employ a topsy-turvy compositional arrangement, with objects flying out to the margins, so that the structures in the paintings seem to be bursting apart. Belshazzar’s Feast is a story from the book of Daniel in the Bible in which King Belshazzar literally “sees the writing on the wall” that foretells his death and the fall of his kingdom.
Nonetheless, a great deal of hope exists here. The Fall (Capri), one of three new works created for this exhibition, offers a multisensory experience via an audio track. The audio portion seems to describe the dissolution of a relationship. However, isolated small paintings of a woman and a scenic location march through the composition also, as if they are snapshots that can serve as future reminders of the bright spots in this relationship.
On a more general level, the dexterity and breathtaking scale present in many of these works indicate that Cvijanovic still believes in the power of art, and that we should too, even if all around us is in decline.
“American Montage” continues at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, 4420 Warwick Blvd. through Sept. 20. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday. Admission is free. For more information, 816-753-5784 or kemperart.org.