In the storefront window of Artcite (in Windsor, Ontario), a cute, if lumpen, plaster figurine of a boy on a hobby horse twirls round on a record-turntable base at an unrelenting 33 1/3 rpm. The piece is our introduction to “Stupity is Kool” by Sadko Hadzihasanovic an exhibition that turns on this idea of youthful ambitions. The artist has gamely titled the work in the window Hannibal Ante Portas (the conquering Carthaginian general Hannibal was stopped at the gates of Rome), even though this boy is blonde and wears blue Lederhosen which, given an association with the imperial-military-leader motif of most equestrian portraiture, might lead us to think of Germany’s Nazi youth movement.
The figurine also reminds me of Francisco Goya’s portraits of boys, painted during the vicious Spanish war against Napoleon (1808-14). Goya’s little soldiers stand in one painting beside a toy horse and military drum stiffly posed and attired in either the outfits of Napoleonic pages or of the Spanish aristocracy. Rather than taking sides, Goya concerned himself with the incisive portrayal of boys’ socialization.
Since Hadzihasanovic’s arrival in Toronto in 1993, he has been applying his Belgrade and Sarajevo academic training in drawing and painting to the swill of North American culture. In an earlier drawing, Self Portrait as Antonio B (1996), Hadzihasanovic reinvented himself as the film actor Antonio Banderas playing a gangster role in an American film. In the 1997 exhibition, “The 50 Most Beautiful Guys in the Universe,” he again paid homage to the dapper teen-heart-throb ideal (and again included himself). What Hadzihasanovic seems to be mulling over is his own reincarnation as a New World kid and in “Stupidity is Kool,” he continues playing out various childhood roles.
In Goya-esque deadpan and with a journalist’s detachment, Hadzihasanovic reflects on boys’ coming of age in the free-market setting that Yugoslav émigrés to established Western countries now find themselves in. Hadzihasanovic and his family left the former Yugoslavia in 1992 at the outset of their country’s dissolution into a savage civil war centred on ethnic hatred. In this exhibition Hadzihasanovic does not address the war directly: given the grizzly thoroughness of media coverage that the Serbo-Croatian-Muslim conflict received, any representation of it in painting or sculpture might appear to be terribly thin.
In “Stupidity is Kool,” boys go unconcernedly about their boyish antics on wallpaper backdrops (selected by the artist from discount bins at decorating centres) of soft grey and buttermilk beige the default colours of the 90s, favoured by personal computer designers and some interior decorators. Hadzihasanovic is able to get a wide range of drawing media, paint and collage materials to adhere even to washable embossed wallcoverings, whose motifs range from understated foliate lace to wrapping paper-congested florals. The torn and randomly sliced wallpaper sections pinned to the gallery walls resemble the remnants of wallpapered rooms left on the sides of inner-city buildings after a neighbouring apartment block has been torn down. This effect is encouraged by Hadzihasanovic, who awkwardly scrawls his titles on the wallpaper as left-handed graffiti suggesting a ruptured, even violated domesticity.
Hadzihasanovic works his figures up first in pencil and oil pastel and then washes over the underdrawing in transparent layers of acrylic and, at times, quite juicy oil paint. He focuses on the boys' faces: Hadzihasanovic is very deft at characterization and likeness, and works from his photographic sources with the assuredness of an illustrator. (This is not surprising, as he has largely supported himself through freelance pastel portraiture since coming to Canada.) The art-college flourish of the trailing contour lines that define the rest of his figures is precariously held in check by the strained tastefulness of the budget-rate wallpaper from which the boys emerge.
In these not-so-cozy interior settings, the boys act things out, role play: they mug for the camera, light up cigarettes, flex their biceps or shoot guns. If all this seems innocent enough, a closer inspection reveals subtle collaged or drawn interventions secreted in the wallpaper’s patterning. For these images, Hadzihasanovic will often use whites close in value to the wallpaper’s tone. (Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart maintains there are over 2,000 shades of white to usefully employ in the home.) The collaged bits present a palette of what one might call environmental role-model noise: Spiderman masking tape; teddy bear gift wrap; silkscreened contour drawings of late-night TV host David Letterman; images of the cartoon characters Beavis and Butthead; a thought-balloon reading “I wanna be adored” (a refrain from the late 80s British pop band The Stone Roses); a to-scale rendering of a disposable razor; scraps of playfully painted bubble wrap; an outline drawing of Pinocchio with a fully e-l-o-n-g-a-t-e-d nose that appears to have been used as a paint stirrer. And here, I have only begun to enumerate a list that suggests Hadzihasanovic’s working process of accrual: like ambient directives to children, his found collage material adheres cumulatively and slowly, over time.
Hadzihasanovic not only asks what sort of models are available to boys, but whether or not the eventuality of maturation is even on offer. The collaged presence of such jejune jokesters as Beavis and Butthead, David Letterman and assorted sitcom characters suggests that developmental stasis is a persistent motif in American popular culture. Perhaps the strongest foray into the need to conceive of perpetual youth is A Fragrance for the Boy (1997), based on a Calvin Klein cologne ad in which a young Rudolph Nureyev-type adolescent assumes a coquettish contrapposto with one of his hands gently pushing down his track pants. Unlike Hadzihasanovic’s other figures, the adolescent’s face is left as an unfinished drawing and great care is lavished on the naked torso. The artist’s tachiste brushstrokes of modulated pinks and ochres function as the next best thing to sexual caresses, and go a long way towards convincingly performing the objectification of the boy in the ad. In a comic gesture of complete identification with the young protagonist, Hadzihasanovic has shaved off clumps of his own underarm and pubic hairs and carefully attached them as developed secondary-sexual signage. Hadzihasanovic diligently scratches, drips and paints on the layers of narcissistic twaddle Madison Avenue, Disney, Hollywood behind which rages the contest for a discerning and critical male self.
With the artist’s academic training, his references to consumer culture as well as to equestrian statuary and the civil war in his native Sarajevo, I find myself thinking of Europe and of an equestrian portrait of Louis XIV in Paris’s elegant 17th-century Place des Victoires. This 1822 statue the original was melted down during the French Revolution, as was its replacement in 1815 now presides over a slew of off-the-rack fashion houses: Cacharel, Kenzo, Esprit, Thierry Mugler, Junko Shimada, Stéphane Kelian, et al. There is an appropriateness to the location of a monument to France’s patriarch of solipsism and splendour in the middle of one of Paris’s fashion epicentres. No one, it seems, has yet had the last word in capricious boy-manhood.
C International Contemporary Art 57, February 1998 - March 1998