In the Studio with David Maljkovic.

Words by

Riccardo Pillon

In the Studio with David Maljkovic.

In your studio, a collage of postcards and images is neatly pinned next to your paintings. Chromatic charts, with the chosen colour palette for each painting, are methodically classified by date and hanging on the walls. Can you tell us a little bit about your studio life and what this space means to you?

We understand the studio to be a symbolic place of production and experimentation, but it is also, in some way, part of the artist’s daily geometry. In these routines, rituals of sorts, the studio is not only a physical but also a mental space within an entire corpus of activities. Different spaces are condensed in the studio; the space of your work, the space that surrounds it, as well as cultural and even geopolitical space.  

You are a multidisciplinary artist, whose practice varies from film, collage, sculpture, to painting. Do you have a preferred medium you like to experiment and play with in the studio?

The studio articulates the processes within your work and is a generator of sorts, that facilitates the creation of new experiences. These processes reflect various relationships and artistic problems, and one has to reach for different tools and media to solve them. Regardless of the medium itself, however, the studio is certainly one of the testing grounds for their processing.  

How does your creative process start? Does it follow a linear path, from research, to sketches and finally painting, as your studio might suggest, or is it a more spontaneous and intuitive flow?

I think that different natures of the gaze influence the relations of understanding of a particular artistic problem and the actual process of solving it. Yes, you could say that, in my case, there are certain processes and preparations, but when we talk about the very approach to painting, there is no specific strategy, I think that you cannot inaugurate an idea to the painting, it emerges from the painting itself – that is, an idea about the painting is derived from the painting.

David Maljkovic, In the Pictorial Code, Quetzal Art Centre, 2023. Courtesy of the artist; Quinta do Quetzal, Portugal; Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam; Rialto6, Lisbon; Sprüth Magers; and T293, Rome.

Your current solo exhibition at Centro de Arte Quetzal, Vidigueira in Portugal presents a new body of work where you focus on the language of painting and pictoriality. Can you tell us a little more about this exhibition?

Well, I would say that the exhibition establishes a marking system that embodies the position of the painting in the practice itself, and it follows its displacement into other media. It does not just represent an overview of recent paintings, but it showcases a particular idea about painting, and its action and meaning in a broader context. I would say that it is not about a series of works per se, but about different positions of pictoriality. Its creation and constellations within the exhibition make up its language and potential meaning. When we discuss the set-up, we are not talking about the architecture of the exhibition, but a network of relations that attempts to position all these causal sequences and movements in different directions, and all these relations are not there to signify something, but to establish new values.  

The title of the exhibition is “In the Pictorial Code”. What is the code you are trying to decipher with this body of work and is it the sole responsibility of the painter or also of the viewer to solve it?

The materiality of the code itself is not contained exclusively in the painting, it meanders within the practice itself, various media, and a wide reference field. From painting to painting the code behaves differently. This code can be understood more as an observation lens or a prism that is not there to name or instantly explain everything, it creates and takes away meaning at the same time.  

You explain how in this body of work, you, the artist, play ‘with the idea of painting as a guardian of time and the painter’s position as its witness’. Can you tell us more about this and what exactly is the role of a guardian of time in today’s world?

I have always believed artists do not only work in time but also in times. They are mediators of the time in which they live, by which I do not only refer to language, in fact metaphorically speaking, the painter is a witness of colour which is inimitable. One might say that artists simultaneously act or are immersed in three temporal planes – the past, the present and the future, but are also a representative of their own temporality.

David Maljkovic, In the Pictorial Code, Quetzal Art Centre, 2023. Courtesy of the artist; Quinta do Quetzal, Portugal; Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam; Rialto6, Lisbon; Sprüth Magers; and T293, Rome.

Since when have painting itself and its core meaning become a main subject in your practice?

Despite the fact that many of the exhibited works are signifiers of the change of direction or new preoccupations in the practice itself, there is a continuity in the pictoriality that permeates the entire practice, and the very experience of painting has an occasional appearance. Of course, true immersion into the space of painting begins between the late 1990s and the early 2000s, and in that period, I created an entire sequence of painting cycles. However, in this formative period of pushing the limits of one’s own practice, while I was studying at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, between 2003 and 2004, in addition to paintings I created the performative works “Frustrated Painter or Something about Painting” and “Place with Limited Premeditation”. In this crucial period, the practice moved from painting to other media, like video and installations. I could name an entire series of works after this period, for which the experience of painting was crucial, especially certain films and animations, but I would single out not so long ago the exhibition titled “Alterity Line” at the Metro Pictures Gallery in New York in 2018. It introduces, after a significant break, the position of painting within the practice itself. In my recent works, painting no longer plays such an intermediary role between different media, while the return to the painting language takes the main role. This immersion in the painting process and language itself is realised through the procedures of expanding, constricting, and overlapping the syntax of the painting and its protagonists.

The paintings in the exhibition reference disparate images. How do you select your references and assemble different motifs to create a new painting? And how does this process transform them into something alien to their original meaning?

Yes, I use different elements to create new meanings and constellations in the painting, encrypting both content and form, while establishing a motif that refuses to fix them into one finished form. In terms of genre, these methods are not unknown in the process of image construction. Let’s take still life, for example, where the motifs’ different elements are used to build a new whole.  

From an ancient Egypt papyrus, over 1920s modernist graphics and stage designs, to the geometry of the golden ratio, which are the most relevant influences for the creation of this body of work and why?

Well, one might say that both the answer and a series of potential semantic stratifications lie in the manner this question is posed and its listing of the motifs. We can talk about influences in this series of motifs, although not through their meanings but through the moderations of an entire series of painting processes. To elaborate on the previous question and try to clarify the very principles that I just talked about – I would cite the example of the painting “Two Models” which includes two random elements in its search for new pictorial relationships, a costume from Anatol Petrytsky’s ballet “The Red Poppy” and Ljubo Babić’s stage design for the play “Spring Awakening”. Here, two different motifs from the 1920s, which are derived from two sources are treated, in terms of their procedure, as still life. The procedure itself transcends the given contents and removes their meaning, and I would say that this also applies to all other paintings shown at the exhibition.

The technique in paintings such as “In the Pictorial Code”, which the exhibition is named after, show an en plein air scenario with a Cézannesque painting technique. What is the role of pictorial landscapes in your work and in this body of work?

The painting “In the Pictorial Code” constructs a motif set-up in the forest with paintings displayed on easels. The process of painting is determined within two relationships: the background and the motif of the painting. The motif holders, the easels, produce mimicry with the landscape thus creating conceptual cracks, of sorts, for the removal of their meaning and the very act of image construction. This cancellation is also visible in the act of taking a seemingly typical en plein air motif that situates the easels and paintings in the landscape. The painting, however, is constructed in the relationship between the motif itself and the background, that is, the landscape establishes relationships in the painting that are not unambiguous. All these relations of understanding and potential meaning do not point to the motifs but to relationships with them in the very act of image construction. In this example, landscape can be viewed as a starting point that has the role of constructing different narratives in the painting and solving different problems and relationships, but its role here is certainly not that of genre.

David Maljkovic, In the Pictorial Code, Quetzal Art Centre, 2023. Courtesy of the artist; Quinta do Quetzal, Portugal; Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam; Rialto6, Lisbon; Sprüth Magers; and T293, Rome.


The protagonist of most of these new paintings, such as “About the Painter and the Snail”, “His Master's Voice”, and “An Ancient Visitor” is the painter. Once inspired by the figure of a mathematician, another time by an Egyptian physician, it feels like the painter plays an important social role and becomes the epitome of creation. Can you talk a little about this?

Indeed, these motifs of the painter have become characters in said paintings, and their roles change in the processes of painting construction. Regardless of the changing behaviour of these characters, calibration of the viewing experience, various roles that the motifs assume – they represent links to the very painting construction. The effects of such pictorial language consist in the process of separation from the motifs, no matter how metaphorical and adopted by the genre certain motifs are, such as those of painters who, as leitmotifs, literally wander through these paintings trying to find their rightful place. These established relationships are preoccupied with considerations about the painting and the given system within it. One of the above-mentioned examples of motif construction in the painting “An Ancient Visitor” appropriates the motif of an ancient Egyptian physician and encrypts it, within the architecture of the painting and in the semantic analysis, into the motif of the painter. The act of painting becomes an act of healing the gaze and the motif itself exceeds its given role – it, in fact, now finds itself in the arena of a completely different reality and pictorial consideration.

In this body of work, can any of the paintings be considered self-portraits of some sort?

Not if we consider the self-portrait in the classical genre sense, however, the construction of the motif of the painter, as a manufactured archetype and its implementation throughout an entire series of paintings and various positions, either genre or historical, and its cancellation through dualities, even repetitions of different metaphors is present to a large degree. For instance, the painting referred to in the previous question “His Master’s Voice” is one of the examples of constructing and cancelling the motif itself. It is conceived as a pictorial event based on the geometries of the golden ratio. The protagonist of this event is a figure taken from an advertisement for His Master’s Voice record label, an official representative of the English company Albert Breyer, which sold gramophones and records. The advertisement was designed by the Croatian artist Sergije Glumac in 1929. Another painter’s voice becomes the vehicle for painting processes.

In this exhibition, not only images are borrowed from the past to become new, but also objects and sculptures from previous exhibitions are brought back and incorporated into the exhibition’s narrative. What is your relationship with the past and the incessant changing of time?

Well, you could say that the key topics and work methods in my practice are the individual and collective relationship to the complexity of time, and I would also add self-referentiality, references to works of other artists, using earlier works and displays as a material, including playing with the nature of the gaze. And in a way, the practice continuously re-examines and deconstructs the homogenised, linear and spatialised understanding of time. Let me, for a moment, drop the subject of my work and instead consider the example of visiting a museum, where we generally go to view the exhibits to see what was before us, which as a notion is correct, but is perhaps wrong as an idea, because we observe the exhibits to discover who we are, which, in turn, points us to what we can do. All these sediments are alive and should be treated as such.

David Maljkovic, In the Pictorial Code, Quetzal Art Centre, 2023. Courtesy of the artist; Quinta do Quetzal, Portugal; Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam; Rialto6, Lisbon; Sprüth Magers; and T293, Rome.

The materiality of painting takes centre stage also in the exhibition’s objects. Why do your sculptures recycle oil paint fragments, rolled painted canvases, and used easels?

The objects in question are derived from previous cycles and various exhibitions, naturally they are here in new relationships and dispositions. One of the vehicles of these relationships are objects – easels from last year’s exhibition in Rome titled “Forthcoming”. The easels function as pictorial visitors, seen not only as the exhibition’s spatial articulation but also as representatives of the disposition of various other spaces, galleries, the artist’s studio, even heritage itself, since the easels were taken from the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb, which I attended. A particular approach to the construction of exhibition language is based on the creation of specific self-referential coordinates that build a marking system and behavioural strategies within the exhibition space. Here, easels, as seemingly secondary objects in the formation of painting and exhibition content, act as literal and metaphorical platforms. From secondary characters that objectify the motifs, they become the main vehicles in a broader sense – understanding the painting.

You realised a video a few months before the opening of “In the Pictorial Code”, where you describe an exhibition, which only existed in the realms of the mind, as if it was real, and explain its narrative. Why did you decide to share this fictional journey with us?

In my conversations with the institution, we talked about our desire to announce the exhibition, and a question that naturally arose in those conversations concerned what we were announcing and in what way. Since I have never been in the space, in the process of preparing the exhibition I created some renderings, and somehow the exhibition came to life in the virtual space, which in recent years has also, in a certain way, become our physical space. We recorded some fragmentary frames of the studio and paintings together with the renderings, and what emerged in the editing process was the essence of these two relationships and the overlapping reality. Well, eventually, the announcement produced a visual essay that includes different positions and spatial relationships.  

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Photography by Hrvoje Franjic