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Stacey Engels

born in: Montreal
Stacey Engels writes in a variety of genres. Her plays have been produced and presented as staged readings in Canada, the US and Italy. She is the recipient of numerous grants and fellowships from, among others, the Canada Council, NYFA and... [more]

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Slovenia
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It is hard to believe that as recently as 1998, a good-sized second hand bookstore, overflowing with single copies of strange and unusual as well as remaindered mainstream books, might have been able to survive in Soho. Yet it is true, and it was on a sale table outside this store that I discovered a large, black and blue “coffee table” book entitled Tisnikar, Painter of Death. I put “coffee table” in quotes because I lived in a narrow railway apartment in Little Italy, and did not have a coffee table. If I had, I would have been one of the few people I know who would consider it “appropriate” to lay out this tome as someone else might one of photographs of buildings or horses or fields in bloom.


I have now been at it long enough to declare authoritatively that my creative process is odd. I become ‘infected’ or ‘impregnated’ with, or by, projects almost instantly; the tropical spider crawls into your ear and lays eggs; the condom breaks; in either case, no matter how long it takes for the thing you know is happening inside you to become visible to anyone else, you know your life is changed forever. So was it with finding Jože Tisnikar: standing there on a hot weekend afternoon, spending my last ten dollars on this book that almost everyone I shared it with would call “morbid”, many of them recoiling physically from the images, I knew it had happened again.


I did not know that eight years later I would be in Lljubjana on a prestigious travel grant promoting cultural exchange with Eastern European artists, recreating the paintings in a workshop with Slovenian actors. I did not know that I would be visiting the northern town where Tisnikar had lived his entire adult life, working in the hospital morgue, preparing bodies for autopsy and, following the autopsies, preparing them for the mortician and the grave. I did not know I’d be visiting the tiny mountain town where he was born; sending one of his living relatives fleeing into the hills because a New York playwright might want to talk to him; drinking the cold, dry red wine that is unique to the country, in bars Tisnikar had frequented regularly after his recovery from alcoholism. [?]


I did not know, and still do not understand, how this painter reached out to me from this cold, distant, beautiful place, with its long, proud, wounded history, its beautiful and varied landscape, its impenetrable language; how he grabbed me by the neck and seduced me with dark, childish art so that I followed him, deeper into the rhythms of death and rebirth than I ever would have agreed to go.


It is both funny and something else – exhausting? discouraging? – to find this first line in a cyber entry about Tisnikar, who, apparently, “belongs to the circle of awakened expressionism”. I was told more than once, through an interpreter, that he was a proponent of the Yugoslavian naïve art movement of the seventies. Indeed, this “naïveté” is part of the unique appeal of his work, and perhaps part of what balances the darkness (for those who consider it balanced at all).


The more complicated kinds of darkness aside, his color palate is mostly dark, the whites and yellows and lighter blues having the kind of phosphorescence you might associate with fireflies or other glowing grubs. He attributed the blue-greenish hue that began to seep into the skins of his subjects to the light bulb used in the morgue. The writing about his materials seemed to suggest that he used blood and plants and various human humors; my guides would nod their heads and reiterate “organic”, and explain how the best paints derive from natural sources, but I could never get a fully satisfactory answer to what exactly was meant by his use of “organic” ingredients in making his own paint.


His subjects are individuals, couples, groups, processions, animals; his rendering is crude. The humans tend toward asexuality, thinning hair, glazed eyes; the animals generally have much more expressive eyes, and what they most often communicate is fear, pain, or a silent, baleful knowing. The permanent collection in the Slovenj Gradec Gallery includes a number of canvases from the eighties and nineties. His style remains instantly recognizable and yet acquires a refinement and sharpness: the backgrounds become black, the figures more luminous, the canvases themselves often sealed with shellac. These later pieces reveal his preoccupation with our actively courting death; following the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor power plant in the Ukraine in 1986, mushroom clouds began to appear frequently in Tisnikar’s paintings.


The transcripts of the dialogue with Nebojša Tomašević, who edited the coffee table book published in 1978, show a clear connection between Tisnikar’s painting and his need to release the grief and confusion that arose from dealing, daily, for decades, with the dead. Often, he would know the people who appeared on the slab, and the sheer volume and variety of death were the impetus for more than one painting of a procession, in which endless figures in black extend to the distant horizon. In some paintings, they carry candles, symbolizing the fragility of the flame of life.


I had presumed that when Tisnikar died at 70 in 1998, the year I discovered his work, that it was from alcohol-related wear and tear. The gallery director and her employees had generously taken me on the day-long tour of the various significant sites, and it was late in the afternoon when one of the museum assistants pointed to a nondescript section of road and said: That is where he died.


Though three of my four guides spoke excellent English, I felt something was eluding me as they explained that, on the night of his death, a large, celebratory retrospective exhibition in the gallery had brought together all his work and a great number of friends and admirers, and Tisnikar was heard to have said more than once that this was the happiest night of his life. Some hours later, he was hit by a truck and dragged under its chassis, so that he was not immediately identifiable when he was found. No one knew why he was in this area, at this distance from his own town. The police report that made its way into the papers eventually quoted witnesses who narrowly missed hitting a bearded man who materialized suddenly in the road.


He held his hand up near his face, they said, as if to protect himself from what was coming.


 



 

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