Inside the Mirror Ball
Remarks on the art of Goran Tomcic
Repulsion and attraction. Glamour and morbidity. Appearance and reality. Surface and depth. Goran Tomcic's universe gives off such confusing, illusionist sparks that at first glance one finds it hard not to stumble over its interpretation, blinded by the many splinters of refracted light that fill the space like a revolving disco ball.
"Depth, in a pictorial, plastic sense, is not created by the arrangement of objects one after another toward a vanishing point, in the sense of the Renaissance perspective," wrote German-American painter Hans Hofmann in ‘The Search for the Real' (1948): "but on the contrary, by the creation of forces in the sense of push and pull." At this time, of course, Hofmann was not familiar with the kind of three-dimensional effects created by Goran Tomcic using fragments of holographic paper. But his theory of "push and pull" seems as relevant today as it was sixty years ago, in particular with regard to abstract painting and abstract elements in art in general. In almost all of Tomcic's visual works, be they installations or flat pictures, the demand for an optical to and fro is a permanent concern. Rather than being about geometric shapes and materials alone, however, his brand of push and pull also causes its themes and content to constantly pulsate in a push and pull of mental perception. Sometimes a strong, emblematic image-a flower, a dancing skeleton-leaps into the foreground; at others, such iconographies are concealed within the minimalist grid of the composition. This special form of push and pull, then, is one that applies equally to form and content. It permeates Tomcic's collages and environments like a program. At one point we see only ornaments and patterns, then we see emotional and critical messages again. Maybe this also makes it easier to initially avoid the often existential content in these works and to concentrate on the glittering world of their materials. But this avoidance can never last, and it is soon replaced by a sense of horror-as in the entwined skeletons of Eternal Embrace, the series of death dances on red (Danse Macabre), and the collages on the theme of September 11, 2001. Here, playful kitsch and disciplined seriality are intended not to lessen the ultimate depth of perception, but to act as a calculated contrast. A disco ball hangs in Plato's cave and merely delays realization of the dilemma.
With its shimmering, playful aesthetic and affinity to minimal structures, Goran Tomcic's work bears an almost uncanny resemblance to that of Felix Gonzalez-Torres. The sparse, cheerful existentialism of this artist who died young is something that exerted an early influence on Tomcic's own artistic production. As with Gonzalez-Torres and his accumulations of candy, the quantity of identical elements in Tomcic's work causes a shift to a higher quality: a few heart-shaped sequins are worthless trumpery, a million are the abstract idea of a "Shimmering Heart". Goran Tomcic's artistic use of kitsch is perhaps best explained in terms of the campiness outlined by Susan Sontag in her "Notes on ‘Camp'" (1964). It is a complex vision of the world based on artifice, stylization, eclecticism, trash, and kitsch-a perceptual mosaic in which high and low culture are no longer subjected to hierarchic categories. No visual phenomenon is too trivial for use-be it trading cards, stickers, sequins, or plastic flowers. These are ideal conditions for Goran Tomcic's total artworks. In his installation Passage (Leipzig, 2009), for example, he hung a room with strings of yellow and pink acrylic balls. The light, carefree impression created by these pompoms was immediately undercut, however, by the addition of a small number of photographs. The blackberries squashed in the palm of a hand reflected vulnerability and transitoriness: "push and pull." The same proximity to the inexhaustible and age-old theme of the memento mori is cultivated by Tomcic's long-running series of Danses Macabres. Having spent much of his life in the United States, one would assume an influence on the artist's work from Hispanic culture, most especially by the grotesque cosmos of the Mexican Dia de Muertas, the day of the dead, where the presence of death in life is effusively celebrated in play and popular art. Yet Tomcic sees himself more as a European and thus more influenced by Europe's visual and spiritual culture. Since the great voyages of discovery and the age of the counter-reformation, however, the development of Catholic finery is a global phenomenon whose rich diversity still exerts an influence in both religious and popular culture. Especially in the way it deals with death and transitoriness, this religious art displays a positively universal desire to sublimate decay and the afterlife by elaborate aesthetic means: one has only to think of the cult of relics, where bone fragments of saints were given a presence that attempted to lessen the horror of death via rich ornamentation. Tomcic's work can be interpreted in the context of this tradition, too: for all their seductive magic, they repeatedly remind us of the fragility of our existence. Before our eyes, glittering fragments form a paradoxical, ephemeral iconography of the inscrutable that is liable to break apart again at any moment. "I create a spiritual mood via decoration," the artist explains.
But this does not mean he has elevated a composed, explosive superabundance of materials and forms to his one and only stylistic means. Again and again, references to Minimalism and repetitive concepts exert a disciplining influence, perhaps also a calming one. At the same time, he boldly engages an artistic collision which in the 1970s would have counted as the worst possible crime against stylistic purity of the avant-garde, since contamination with elements of mass culture like pop and kitsch were heavily scorned in Minimalist circles. In the meantime, this pure doctrine has been constructively enriched by many younger artists, especially in the United States, as with the metabolic, parasitic growths of Tara Donovan, an artist held in high esteem by Tomcic. What remains is the attraction of serial, minimal structures that ensure a certain formal stability in the uncertain cosmos of stylistic pluralism and post-modernism. At the same time, the effectiveness of such "Primary Structures" is playfully undermined. Goran Tomcic is a master of this: his grid-patterned fields are meticulously planned, but their consumer-oriented material calls rationality and impenetrability into question-as with his piles of silver boxes that come across as alluring and uninviting in equal measure. But their cold, fractal geometry does recall the theories of Robert Smithson, who saw crystallization processes as metaphors for cooling processes at work within civilization (Smithson, "Entropy and the New Monuments," 1966). Icy solidification as found in Smithson's art was to be interpreted as a social phenomenon and the resulting social order as a consequence of natural laws. The difference in proportions notwithstanding, this interpretation opens up parallels between many of Goran Tomcic's works and the "American sublime" in Smithson's Spiral Jetty, which Arthur Danto interpreted beyond purely formal considerations (The American Sublime, 2005). Ultimately, in spite of its scale, Spiral Jetty is a decorative ornament that can be seen as an allegory on the futility of human endeavor. Often it simply disappears under the water of the salt lake and when it surfaces, its stones are covered with glittering salt crystals-magical and cold at the same time. The icy sparkle that surrounds the skeleton lovers in Goran Tomcic's Eternal Embrace is no different: a touching monument to the fragility of existence, an exalted act of defiance toward transience.
Susanne Altmann is an art historian, curator and critic based in Dresden/Leipzig.
Translated from German by Nicholas Grindell