Photo Credit: MUO-031899: Željko Lapuh I: fotografija
From The New York Times, June 12, 1994, Section 14WC, Page 16
“AT Noel Fine Art here viewers become acquainted with a Croatian painter, Zeljko Lapuh, who goes by his last name only. He comes with a clean slate. This is his first exhibition in the United States, and the only available writing on him is a short essay in a catalogue from a Zagreb gallery. Each person has the pleasure and the challenge of adding up the parts and discovering what Lapuh’s art is about.
People, oil on canvas, year unknown
It is an art of nuances and subtle modulation. It is also very quiet painting, which is a disconcerting trait in art made where a notoriously brutal war is ongoing. But though the characters that star in Lapuh’s canvases might look placid, it is soon evident that they are well armored. Lapuh was born in 1951 in Split, which is on the Dalmatian coast across the Adriatic Sea from Italy. And it is Italy that appears to furnish him with much of his artistic inspiration.
Many of the figures in his paintings have faces with abstract grooves in them, and fencing masks come easily to mind. When a regular face occasionally appears, though, it is like an evolutionary leap and therefore startling. These faces are the strongest indication that Lapuh has immersed himself in DeChirico’s metaphysical period.
The seated angel, oil on canvas, 1993-1994
In 1917, during World War I, DeChirico began to paint mannequin figures with blank faces, sometimes in togas, to suggest a glorious past. He set them in uninhabited cities in which the buildings cast long shadows. DeChirico’s style is a sort of proto-Surrealism, and it fits the mood of unease that now inhabits the former Yugoslavia very well. But Lapuh’s taking over of DeChirico’s metaphysical idiom is indirect. It results in something original because it is tempered by another unexpected historical Italian strain.
The Zagreb catalogue brings up the Italian Renaissance painters Fra Angelico and Piero della Francesca. Fra Angelico (1387-1455) seems to be the most pertinent to the works here because of their extreme simplicity. In 1436, Fra Angelico embarked on painting about 50 frescoes for the cells of the friars of his Dominican Order in Florence. These wall paintings have a simplicity and directness that can also be found in Lapuh’s paintings along with hints of the sweetness that make Fra Angelico a beloved painter.
A third force enters the mix. It is another strong European influence, that of Magritte, the Belgian Surrealist. Magritte is famous for practicing a sort of visual sleight of hand, for making the universe improbable. A painting of his might be rendered so that all the elements in it seem to be made of the same stony substance. Likewise with Lapuh, the figures that embody hope for humanity seem to emerge out of, and be a part of, the barren, rocky landscape that surrounds them.
But unlike Magritte, Lapuh isn’t interested in trompe l’oeil. His painting style is very soft and transparent; each brush stroke is clearly visible and seems to have been laid down like a gentle wave. The fact that the artist caresses his figures sends a strong message of compassion.
Noel Fine Art is a long, narrow gallery, and the way the paintings march down the wall on either side has something purposeful about it. Although there are more than 14 paintings in this exhibition, one thinks of the stations of the cross — the mood is that elegiac. But unlike the story of Christ’s Passion, there is little overt drama in Lapuh’s works. The most that there is, perhaps, is that one of the figures has shed his mask and assumed a human face. If a viewer does not sense a religious content, there is still nobility present. Most of the figures are rendered in the style of classical portrait busts, meaning that they are severed at the waist. Using this comparison, Lapuh’s are figures from the past being memorialized. But the other way of interpreting the figures persists. If they are seen as partly emerged from the ground, they are vital and living. The ambiguity between cold statue or living presence is a compelling one.
In any case, Lapuh’s are emblematic figures. They wear literal emblems; their chests are articulated in different ways. They bear different geometric patterns like the devices that knights in the Middle Ages wore on their armor. Though the meaning of these different abstract patterns eludes the viewer, he has more to work with in the shapes that project from the figures’ backs.
One of the “Guardians of the Labyrinth” has organic, plant-like forms behind him. The Croatian god of fire “Ras” has spikes, which, in Lapuh’s stylized vocabulary read as tongues of fire.
Lapuh is a monochromist and rarely strays from a uniform gray or brown. But often a little roseate color appears. This is another sign of optimism. And in an artist this simple and direct, who comes from a place we are anxious about and whose artists we are eager to hear from, such signs can be savored.”