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What we can learn about creativity from Milenko Prvacki’s solo Abstraction for Beginners

It was surprising how intimidated I felt going into Milenko Prvacki’s latest solo exhibition, Abstraction for Beginners. After all, hosted at iPRECIATION, it was by any means part of the gallery’s regular programming. Yet, Prvacki is renowned in Singapore as a seasoned artist and a prominent arts educator. Then, there’s the fact that I’m far younger than him, and he’s been in Singapore longer than I’ve been alive. 

To be frank, I was worried that the works would be too sophisticated for my understanding. However, Prvacki’s latest solo exhibition gracefully unfolds the complexity of abstract art and imparts an important lesson on experimentation and creativity.  

The exhibition title reads like the name of a Fine Arts module—a small nod to Prvacki’s extensive history as an arts educator—with the works utilising iconic motifs from different abstract art movements, such as Abstract Expressionism, Cubism and Minimalism. Abstraction is best described as art that uses shapes, forms, colours and lines to create works that have little dependence on real-life references.

Prvacki notes how diverse abstract art is, yet artists rarely experiment with all its styles collectively. He noted, “In art history, abstraction has different stages, styles… It could be dramatic or Expressionist…They’ve always been independently developed.” 

Interestingly, what we see as independent styles of abstract art, Prvacki sees otherwise. The artist explains that his ‘dictionary structure’—a term he uses to describe how he processes information—helps him draw links between seemingly disparate concepts. Similar to how dictionaries are not categorised, but rather laid out in extensive lists with connections being drawn between each word, Prvacki does not segregate concepts from one another in his head. 

The result of his ‘dictionary structure’ is evident throughout the exhibition: Prvacki’s paintings feature contrasting styles of abstract art that come together cohesively. “I compiled [all the styles of abstract art], I put everything together in one whole series,” he explains.

To him, abstraction is a deeply intellectual process—each figure and stroke is intentional. 

Prvacki’s ability to forge connections across many different concepts, I suspect, is a result of his rich personal history. Born in Yugoslavia, Prvacki is a polyglot proficient in Serbian, German, Romanian, and English. He moved to Romania in 1970 to enrol in the Nicolae Grigorescu Institute of Fine Arts (which is now known as the National University of Arts in Bucharest) despite having no grasp of the Romanian language.

Settling down in Singapore was serendipitous: in 1991 Prvacki came to Singapore for a short-term assignment in a creative role with a German company. What was meant to be a brief two-year stint led to him staying for decades. This was cemented in 1993, when he was invited to teach at LASALLE College of the Arts by the late Brother Joseph McNally. He eventually became the Dean of Fine Arts and today holds the position of Senior Fellow.

Ironically, he was also not familiar with English back then and impressively picked up the language by reading dictionaries. Arguably, his circumstances necessitating that he learn Romanian and English quickly laid the foundation for his ‘dictionary structure’ and resulting cognitive flexibility.

A lesson on abstract art’s diversity

“My kid can draw that!” or “How is this art?” are phrases often used in discussions surrounding abstract art. Likening Expressionist gestures or simplistic shapes to that of a kindergartener’s drawing highlights how limited the general public’s understanding of the art style can sometimes be. 

The exhibition leans into abstract art’s less-than-stellar reputation, with many works also bearing the title Abstraction for Beginners, transforming the space into a visual textbook. While some paintings subtly integrate various abstract art styles—such as Abstract Expressionism, Geometric Abstraction (the use of geometric shapes on a flat plane to create compositions independent of reality) and Art Informel (Abstract Expressionism’s European counterpart, which emphasised the rejection of form)—others make their diversity starkly apparent.

A tetraptych of four small square canvases, titled Abstraction for Beginners, overtly highlights that abstract art goes far beyond simple shapes and scribbles.

The arrangement showcases four distinct paintings, where Prvacki takes us through abstract art’s diverse movements and techniques. The impasto technique, popular among abstract painters, is featured in the leftmost panel. The canvas to its right contrasts Geometric Abstraction and Art Informel.

Following this is an example of Action Painting, where paint is spontaneously applied to a canvas. The rightmost canvas depicts Neoplasticism, which is best known for departing from representational forms. This urges the viewer to appreciate art in its ‘purest’ form: basic geometric shapes and primary colours.

Each panel starkly contrasts its neighbours, yet together they form a harmonious, unified piece. The arrangement also illustrates the vast diversity of abstract art, underscoring each movement’s complexities.

Methods and Materials, Building Bridges (2017) comprises 40 individual paintings. Upon closer inspection, the ensemble of canvases unfolds like a tapestry of techniques, presenting a distinct narrative of Prvacki’s exploration with mixed media. His palette leans predominantly towards subtler shades, with these muted hues serving as a quiet backdrop for his spontaneous play with materials, strokes, and methods. 

One panel, for instance, is awash in gentle hues of blue and green, evoking the sea. Here, layers of acrylic paint were glazed over to create a sense of depth and texture while maintaining an ethereal softness. 

Another panel has a gritty texture that’s punctuated with white dots. An intriguing element is the upside-down ‘T’, which is a recurring motif throughout several of Prvacki’s paintings. The ‘T’ shape, Prvacki reveals, comes from the markings found in car parks that delineate each parking spot. While seemingly random, he also explained he draws inspiration from his surroundings. Given that Prvacki drives frequently, the ‘T’ begins to make sense.

My favourite panel in the piece has intriguing textures, which are the results of various mediums reacting together. Wax appears to have been applied to the surface and made to drip in a corner, leaving curious patterns in its wake. 

These paintings look deceptively simple to create. However, Prvacki emphasises that his adept manipulation of different mediums comes from relentless experimentation. He notes, “To discover something, it takes.. years.”

The length of time aside, continually exploring and experimenting can be daunting, as the creative process inherently entails making many mistakes. Yet, Prvacki takes them all in his stride, undeterred by any unexpected outcomes. In the realm of art, he jokes that mistakes are trivial. He quips,

“If a doctor makes a mistake, someone will die. If a taxi driver makes a mistake, someone could also die. If an artist makes mistakes, there’s no victim.”

A lesson on texture and tactility

The exhibition also features something new in Prvacki’s portfolio of work: digital prints. These prints resulted from the restlessness he felt during the pandemic when ongoing renovations in his studio were delayed and limited his creative activities. “It’s a necessity for me to do something every day,” he explains. 

Hence, he jumped at the most accessible alternative tool he had then—his laptop. What resulted was roughly 40 digital prints, featuring collages composed of elements from photos of his existing physical paintings. 

At first glance, I thought they were simply high-resolution photographic prints of his art as there’s an apparent absence of a ‘digital’ feel. In my experience, most digital works, including other digital collages, have an air of artificiality. What I mean by this is that digital brushes and textures, even ones that replicate their real-life counterparts, can be a little too uniform. While digital tools can create shapes and images, the resultant works tend to be a little too neat for my taste.

Hence, the way Prvacki repurposes photographs of his previous art to create collages is a nice touch. The abstract motifs in his works cleverly obscure any trace of digital manipulation, retaining an organic touch that would be difficult to recreate digitally.

To me, the key differences between the series of prints and his physical work are the variations in texture. Though Prvacki’s prints maintain a degree of the organic textures characteristic of his physical paintings, the prints lack the paintings’ tactility: the glossiness of textures, the raised surfaces created by thick swabs of paint, or the graininess of certain finishes. However, exchanging tactility for richer compositions with more visually intricate details preserves the complexity that his works are known for. 

Repurposing motifs from his past works also creates an interesting interplay between the old and the new, reflecting the endless possibilities of Prvacki’s creative practice. It’s as if I watched him converse with his past and integrate his accumulated wisdom into fresh, digital narratives.

A lesson on creativity

While it’s easy for many to dismiss abstract art, Prvacki demonstrates that its allure lies in the artist’s thought process. Creating abstract art is an intellectual challenge, where the creative outcomes are boundless. In this context, Abstraction for Beginners revisits the roots of abstract art, with Prvacki transforming the canvas into a classroom. While he effectively depicts this art movement’s vast landscape, he skillfully weaves many distinct aesthetics together, flaunting his intellectually engaging approach to creating art.

It’s invigorating to witness Prvacki’s relentless creativity, as well as his curiosity to push boundaries and explore uncharted territories. While I came in expecting a beginner’s class on abstract art, the exhibition’s lesson extends beyond that—it’s a message about the creative process. Trial and error is a natural process of experimentation; there is no shame in that. And it is only through experimentation that we learn. Even the maestro Prvacki is perpetually learning, forever adapting and re-inventing himself.


Abstraction for Beginners runs till 8 July 2023 at iPRECIATION(誰先覺). Opening hours are 10 AM — 7 PM from Monday — Friday, and 11 AM to 6 PM on Saturdays. An appointment is required for Sundays and Public Holidays. Admission is free. Click here to find out more.

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