Damir Sobota


October 21st – November 5th


― Palindrome: Paintings and Objects by Damir Sobota


Abstract painting in Croatia has a long and fine tradition, especially in the post-World War II period – the 1950s, 1960s, and even the early 1970s. This period was profoundly shaped, among other things, by the activity of the EXAT 51 group and the New Tendencies, an international artistic and scientific movement that was based, among other places, in Zagreb and Yugoslavia. The prevailing opinion that, during this time, the abstract paradigm in the plastic arts began to dominate the visual language of the entire state is not exaggerated. The reasons for this were numerous, and some of them were political in nature (such as the proverbial Yugoslavian breaking off from the aesthetic principles of socialist realism as a consequence of the political split with the Soviet Union, which was the chief proponent of this cultural paradigm). This fact, of course, does not diminish the regional revolutionariness and the international relevance of various artistic achievements in abstract art, whether geometric or expressive (to use its simplest and most basic classification). Obviously, the artistic principles founded on the progressive idea that all visual arts should unite to achieve one of the main goals of international high modernism – to construct affordable machines that would cultivate and improve day-to-day life (from cities, buildings and apartments to furniture, utility objects, art objects, and messages) – set the abstract paradigm not only for painting but also for a much broader range of disciplines such as sculpture, installation, ambient art, public sculpture, and urbanism. Nonetheless, painting was still regarded as an inspirational tabula rasa and used both for trying out concepts that would be fulfilled elsewhere and for solving problems immanent to the medium of painting. With this in mind, it is interesting to observe the more recent developments in Croatian painting, which in the last decade or so has evidently gained considerable momentum and produced several world-class authors. These authors, however, have remained almost completely outside the abstract tradition and have opted for the figurative path, usually with a narrative rather than a realistic slant. In contrast, authors of the younger generation who are consistently exploring abstract languages and have by now gained some degree of recognition are few and far between. Among them is the protagonist of this story – Damir Sobota.     

I noticed Sobota’s early works when he was still a student at the Zagreb Art Academy.  There, in the Academy’s basement, he would print his abstract graphic art series of subdued colours (which were later to explode). Even then, the boldness and confidence that emanated from his works revealed his strong need for deep and dedicated exploration of the relationship between visual elements, means of expression, materials, and the painting itself in the context of its abstract origin. To this day, Sobota has remained faithful to his basic aesthetic principles. He has developed his creative manoeuvres and procedures in a logical, natural, and – I would say – very self-assured manner, moving from painting and assemblage (if one can call it that) to collage, which he has been exploring for quite some time. His experiments are rather original and, despite their impressive and visually alluring results, are focused predominantly on the creative process and not on the end product – even if this product is a collage-painting of great refinement and harmony. It is precisely the creative process that stimulates him and sets him apart from the rest of the art scene: visually, he is without doubt an extremely literate and mature author who approaches each new series (which is always centred around a firm base and can be regarded as a harmonious, thought-out entity) with the basic conceptual question: what if...? His respect for the medium of painting and for the painting-collage as an object is undeniable, but within this framework and within his chosen creative horizon, Sobota is a confident experimenter at the surface level. The surface is not necessarily broken, but it is continually broadened (not literally, of course, but in line with his aesthetic beliefs). Although Sobota’s works seem above all precise and, as many erroneously conclude, mathematically predetermined (which speaks volumes of the artist’s skill in creating complex compositions), I see Sobota’s painting as highly meditative and, often, even hypnotic. This view invites comparison with, for instance, contemporary electronic music, whose phenomenon can be seen as the closest artistic counterpart to current abstract tendencies. Both “genres” show no desire to tell stories or to build any kind of spastic narratives; instead, they are intent on freeing their respective media (music and painting), at least to some extent, of the priority to reflect or depict, which has in recent times begun to weigh them down. Be that as it may, Sobota’s multilayered painting (or collage), viewed in and of itself, is more than enough to provide possibilities for new and fresh interpretations, despite it being almost entirely devoid of any kind of symbolism or reference outside the medium itself.

Yes, almost entirely, because this exhibition, Palindrome: Paintings and Objects, is a kind of intentional exception to the general rule. The selection of works at U10 Art Space is made up of triptychs, diptychs, with the addition of objects (each accompanied by its own pedestal). They are united by two common traits – the motif of a vase, which acts as a faint formal feature more or less recognisable in all compositions (both the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional ones; the objects are basically two-sided planes whose minimal depth creates the unavoidable third dimension), and the productive process that shapes the compositions and that lends its name to the whole series. Palindrome is the “antique term for an expression, word, part of text, sentence, or verse that is the same whether read forward or backward” (according to the online edition of the Croatian Encyclopaedia) and is today most frequently used in puzzle solving. The word “palindrome” should not be understood as a literal descriptor of the author’s compositions: they are obviously not the same when observed from up to down or from left to right (or the other way around). One should instead focus on the processes of reversal, variation, transposition, or displacement of chosen formal elements, which are sometimes completely abstract and geometric, and sometimes look like floral motifs found in nature or, less often, like motifs found in man-made environments built by human hands and machines. The wholes are nevertheless fully abstract, and the collages are all arranged as triptychs with pieces that are logically added to one another like puzzles. However, these pieces could function in other combinations too, which goes to show that the artist has envisioned essentially endless possibilities of variation, both within individual collages and within the entire series. But what is particularly fascinating to the keen observer, apart from the result of the process, is the process itself, which is (intentionally or unintentionally?) well hidden rather than self-evident. For it to be appreciated, one should engage in conversation with the author and make a conscious effort to understand his principles and intentions. The key to Sobota’s collages is that he does not preplan them, except in the broadest of senses (like choosing the triptych form), he does not make sketches, and he does not test his compositions before “attacking the surface.” His process – although chiefly geometrical – is also highly intuitive, much in the vein of abstract expressionists, although his end goals are very different, even opposite to theirs. It behooves us to think about the level of creative confidence and self-control that is needed to make such refined compositions directly – not by cutting and pasting pieces of paper one on top of another, but by the inverse action of gradually cutting pieces out of several layers of paper pasted on the base surface of the collage. Intuition does seem to be the key idea (and tool) in thinking about Sobota’s work, and it might be appropriate to regard his artistic process as “intuitive geometry” that approaches abstract art from a profoundly different position than that of the artists mentioned at the beginning of this text. Sobota’s work can therefore be interpreted as a very personal synthesis of different traditions within abstract art – from the highly modern to the postmodern; from constructivism, op-art and abstract expressionism to analytical painting and to other “even newer” tendencies that appeared after the long period of international modernism had ended.

Finally, suffice it to say that the individual adventure of this unique author, who realised early on what he could and wanted to do, is also a guarantee of his lasting presence on the Croatian contemporary art scene (and beyond, as witnessed by his international exhibitions and residencies) and an indication of upcoming syntheses that will certainly play a part in the future development of abstract painting in Croatia.


Tekst: Bojan Krištofić

Photos: N. Ivanović