One of the standouts in the recent Detroit Artists Market's That Dam Box Show was an untitled piece by Miroslav Cukovic. It featured the small metal box given to all the artists, in this case, painted gold. The box was strapped to the top of an upright 2-by-4 with blue painter's tape, a set of earphones dangling underneath. The bottom of the 8-foot board was jammed into a black plastic shopping bag and the whole assembly leaned against the wall. The components were mundane, the presentation matter of fact. Yet the piece conveyed a sense of mystery: Was this some kind of metaphorical communication device an antenna and headset for tuning in secret messages from who-knows-where? Or was it a statement about living in disconnected times, when dysfunctional technology (the headset doesn't work) rules over a trashed earth (the black plastic bag)? Whatever the interpretation, the piece illustrates the way Cukovic makes the familiar seem strange, marking him as one of the more interesting of the young artists now working in Detroit.
A recent graduate of College for Creative Studies, 24-year-old Cukovic has already racked up an impressive professional record, having shown in Toronto, New York and around Michigan. He's also garnered honors, including a residency in La Napoule, France. Cukovic's penchant for making the most of his opportunities may be related to his personal history: As a teenager, his life was turned upside down when his family was only given three days to pack up and leave their native Yugoslavia to emigrate to America. Once in this country, he had to learn English and start high school again. He graduated magna cum laude from Clintondale High in 2000, and he's been taking on new challenges ever since.
Cukovic's desire to re-enchant a battered world with the healing properties of a creative spirit is something he shares with such artists as Joseph Beuys and Kurt Schwitters. It's a sensibility that cuts through Detroit art, from Gordie Newton, Michael Luchs and Bob Sestok to Clint Snider, Scott Hocking and Matt Blake. Where Cukovic differs is that he's more insistent about transcending the local to tap into things that are universal. He's an artist-nomad negotiating a terrain of uncertainty and risk, a postmodern tinker cobbling together the detritus of a globalized culture. This is certainly relevant to the zeitgeist of the erstwhile Motor City, of course, but in Cukovic's case, it's incorporated into a more cosmopolitan point of view. (The boxes supplied to the artists by DAM were made in China, after all.)
A notable piece in that regard is "Last Supper," a collection of monoprints made from remnants of a demonstration Cukovic gave at the Detroit Institute of Arts last spring, in which he ground up a bunch of books. Each monoprint carries the imprint of milled book pages that read like impressions of tree stumps showing their rings. The 12 monoprints correspond to the 12 nations of old Yugoslavia. Presented in a grid as if in a specimen table, the monoprints reference loss both the artist's loss of his homeland and of a general loss of information once contained in printed form. They more deeply evoke the physical origins of the printed matter, calling to mind the connection between nature and culture that our contemporary civilization seems to deny but traditional societies embrace.
Yet "Last Supper" is also an exercise in creative destruction. Things consumed in one process become the foundation for producing something new in another. A sacrifice leads to redemption. This procedure of transubstantiation is Cukovic's magic charm.
Miroslav Cukovic recently returned from a printmaking assistanship at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina.
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