Galerie Sechzig in Feldkirch, Austria, is currently showing My Own Reflection, an exhibition of paintings by the Yugoslavia-born and Paris-based artist, Mihael Milunovic. Blending his ongoing focus on social and political issues alongside his interest in geography, machinery, or classical paintings, these visuals represent the reinvented, transformed, and somewhat mystified versions of his personal observations of our reality.

First-hand witnessing all the changes happening in the past few decades on the always turbulent Balkans, Milunovic early on developed an interest in the dynamics between the politics and social movements, and the nuances that can shift, slow down, or accelerate them. In an effort to explore such intertwined and complex systems, over the years he resorted to everything from painting, drawing, and photography, through large-scale sculptures, installations, to sound and video. Yet, his painterly practice is still the pillar of his artistic output. Starting from the premise that an open mind is continuously inclined to learn more and accept new ideas, information, or realizations, his paintings serve as a form of communication between him and the viewer. By decontextualizing everyday objects, symbols, or situations, Milunovic is constructing a unique vocabulary built from insignia, hints, and suggestions. Borrowing the atmosphere of the exploration, adventure, or geography novels, the work provokes curiosity with a sense of detachment through the depiction of often surreal scenes filled with ambiguous clues representing the violence, repression, and manipulation of the present day.

We recently got an opportunity to talk with the artist about this body of work and get a further insight into what’s hidden behind these enigmatical images.

Feast 210x140 oil on canvas 2021

Sasha Bogojev: Was this body of work conceived as a whole and what would be the connecting thread between the works?
Mihael Milunovic: My Own Reflection is the result of some ten months of work, and not all the works created are shown here. My work usually functions through lectures of narratives I do propose, so yes, there is a connecting thread. It is the one of perception and projection, both of which I find vital in the understanding of the so-called “ objective” reality. First, in choosing the viewpoint, and another one, in working out our imagination and intuition, especially about the future.

I’ve noticed some recurring elements such as fire or faceless characters, is there an idea behind reusing those in multiple works?
They are actually not faceless. Throughout the years and series of my works, I developed an array of characters and their categories. Most of them are there to reveal inhuman nature within the formal human envelope. These characters actually betray what is inherent to humans: shitheads – compassion and consciousness, elipseheads – solidarity and love, diamondheads – sharing and honor.
Fire Is a very important subject I do use very often, and it is for me an element of transfiguration and transmutation, whether it is shown as a raised principle to follow or as an acting force of changing of the world we know, into a new one.

The Painter 114x146cm oil on canvas 2017

The show is about your reflection on crucial issues but how or why do you go about keeping things ambiguous?
I never use local codes or local jokes, I address issues that are globally present. The ambiguity lies also in the understanding of perception – ruins that I represent in some of the works are for me also the creation of humanity, not solely a result of destruction. The worlds that are in friction, are placed in my works in sharp contrast and they do interact in alternation. The ordered world is creating chaos, chaos Is creating new relations, and so on.

How often do you use exact symbols or represent imagery and why is it important to keep things confusing?
Symbols are sometimes leading exactly to the source from where they were found, and sometimes not. In some pieces like in the Chewing Gun, it is more a comment on how praised relics and would-be objects of horror on the adverse side can be devoid of their first symbolic significance and reduced to an aura of a toy. The confusion is already created by social networks, and I intentionally cover the tracks, in order to challenge the intelligence and experience of the viewer. Because the more they try and the more they know, the more they will get from my work.

Is there a particular favorite in this exhibition and can you elaborate on that?
It is definitely the Feast, this painting somehow embraces it all. There is a group of people attending a feast and the women are only looking feminine and human from the outside, but they are not sexually neither defined nor eroticized. They can well be some kind of cyborgs. They are driven by their instincts and by the fulfillment of those. The shithead in a green tuxedo is a dark power figure, a mastermind. He owns the place, he also owns the cyborgs. He’s reaching to grab and devour the last small marzipan man on the platter. The food is idealized in a stereotypical way, but the pig, which is a mere construct and not a prepared animal, reveals the ambiguous nature of the set. The calf halves on the left are “transformed” on the right into a minimalist sculpture – the raw flesh is sublimated in a new higher category. Finally, the blurred vision of the ruins in the back plan of the painting is clearly saying that they are divided but in a strange symbiosis. Although this can be just a picture within a picture or a projection on a screen.

Productivity 210x140cm oil on canvas 2021

What is your motivation behind building such a complex narrative?
I like to redefine the dystopian discourses, and to overlap the truths and conspiracies alike, leaving an open field for the spectator to adventure himself behind the scenery of what is understood…

Can you tell me a bit about the direct influences or inspirations that informed this work or your work in general?
I like to read a lot, and some of my recent reads include Jean Yves Jouannais’ The Use of Ruins and Michel Onfray’s Metaphysics of Ruins. I take loads of photographs, and I re-watch the movies I’ve seen as a kid, mostly from the ’70s. I am also very keen on old visuals and magazines I buy at flea markets. I have my own “sacred” list of artworks I like, and they can range from Bosch’s Garden of Delights and small retable pieces of Fra Angelico to De Chirico, Fussli, Velazquez, or Delacroix, not to mention myriad of contemporary painters such as Mark Ryden or John Currin.

Do you have any special connections with the New Leipzig School as the works feel very much along the lines of those?
I must say that the first time I’ve seen something from New Leipzig School was in a book, where I saw works of Neo Rauch and Tillo Baumgartel, and I immediately understood them. When I saw Neo Rauch’s paintings in real life I had that rare feeling that every time when I am in front of them I do receive some kind of behind-the-matrix teaching, something deeper than aesthetics and more fundamental than just the art of painting. Regardless of the contextual part of the opus and origins of painters of New Leipzig School, which are very different than mine, I feel very close to them. Funny enough, today my paintings are hanging shoulder to shoulder with those of Neo Rauch and Tillo Baumgartell in Collection Solo in Madrid.