Misa Nikolic launches Historiæ – curious arts

Collage of work by Misa Nikolic

Art and Design Grad debuts self-published reflections on painting

Misa Nikolic (’14 MA) has just commenced the PhD program in the History of Art, Design and Visual Culture at the University of Alberta. Wednesday, September 24th marks the launch of his book project, Historiæ, that he’s been working on for some time. I caught up with him to discuss the book, his practice as a painter, and how his creative writing feeds into his art making process and research focus as an art historian.

Q: Is this collection of text excerpts from within your academic career, or is it related to your research interests in any way?

Historiæ, and my earlier publications, are actually more of an extension of my art practice. I am a painter and in the past when I’ve published anything its always been more connected to my identity as an artist. Some of the essays I completed before I arrived at Historiæ as an appropriate format for them, but most of the content has been written singularly for the purpose of this project.

Q: Tell me about your practice as a painter and the nature of the specific dynamic between your painting and writing?

As a painter I have a specific subject that I’m interested in but it’s a vehicle for asking questions about painting, and the writing is another platform for exploring these interests. When I began the Funbook series I didn’t think about the writing as having this purpose, and instead invested in writing as more of a satirical gesture. I actually had a lecturer on campus that really liked it, and perceived it as part of my practice in fact, so that encouraged me to own it more, in a way. That was part of the reason that I continued in the form of artist books afterwards.

Painting of factory smoke stacks

Misa Nikolic. Factory #1 (2000). Acrylic on canvas. 54”x36”.

Q: Could you clarify the nature of the Funbooks? These were the precursors to Historiæ. As such, what is the relationship between the format and content of the Funbooks and Historiæ? What has been carried over and how has the tone changed?

The original Funbook was styled as a satirical newsletter. It had articles, pictures and contributors at that time, so it was more collaborative, a bit more irreverent, and directed towards and for a specific group of people.

Once I graduated with my MFA from UBC I found that I wanted to revisit the art theory that I hadn’t quite been able to get around to reading during my studies for one reason or another, and at the time I was particularly inspired by a piece of writing by Hannah Arendt in which she refers to Walter Benjamin’s desire to write an essay using only quotations, and I thought to myself ‘I can do that’.

So after a year and a half or so of research I produced an essay comprised solely of quotations and it made sense for me to turn the resulting Funbook into a house press. At that point, I was interested in printing Funbooks independently, either in limited quantities or by print on demand, which has become easy to do. I realised that certain projects would never see the light of day otherwise: books of poetry, artist catalogues, artist manifestos, what have you. Historiæ is a direct sequel to an earlier book I made called Annales in 2003 – it plays upon the same ideas and concept – the idea of creating a unique narrative by aligning excerpts from divergent texts in a certain chronology.

Q: Given the connection between your painting and writing, do you have any plans for an exhibition of your painting?

Misa Nikolic. Historia (2014). Cover detail.

Misa Nikolic. Historia (2014). Cover detail.

I do not have any specific plans, as I am concentrating on coursework right now. Within my practice, and as an artist, I try to be oblique when discussing my painting rather than trying to convey a specific or singular meaning, which doesn’t leave room for the viewer’s interpretation. Though the writing is artistic or experimental rather than scholarly, the connections to my painting are tenuous and intentionally so: the writing doesn’t explain the paintings, and the paintings don’t illustrate the writing. I want the writing to stand on its own.

What was the timeline from for Historiæ as a project,
from start to finish?

Its been in development for quite a few years, but if I were to commit to a similar project in the future exclusively, without any distractions or additional obligations, it would probably take three or four months. Originally in 2003, when Annales was published, I envisioned it as one of four volumes in a series (Historiæ being one of them) and established titles for each. Over the years, however, the number of titles got whittled down to two, and Annales and Historiæ just stuck out as the standout titles to proceed with. I’m at a very different stage of my life and career now (publishing Historiæ) in comparison to eleven years ago in 2003 when I published Annales. If the additional two volumes I’d originally planned for come forth that would be ideal, but I can’t say when they’d be ready.

Misa Nikolic. Historia (2014). Pages 24-25, detailing format of text.

Misa Nikolic. Historia (2014). Pages 24-25, detailing format of text.

Q: Tell me about the influences for your specific structure of writing  and where does the influence stem from?

I was originally inspired by aphoristic German writing, for example by Walter Benjamin and Friedrich Nietzsche, and even writers such as Guy DeBord, who also writes in an aphoristic style that creates a linear progression of thought but also stand alone paragraphs or excerpts. I wanted to apply this style or format in my own writing.

Benjamin is self-conscious about this approach and relates it to collage and montage in the juxtaposition of these fragments of text – he refers to them as fragments in fact. This is why Benjamin’s Arcades Project is so powerful – it was a big magnum opus on the arcades of Paris. The arcades were a very bourgeois area to begin with but they declined during Benjamin’s time to gritty unkempt storefronts that attracted a large transient population. In his writing, Benjamin reflects on the Arcades during the 19th century when they were in their prime. For this project, Benjamin collected quotations, his own thoughts, and photographs amongst other materials, and he built a huge archive (to become known as the Arcades project), which has been documented and reproduced since Benjamin’s passing. Part of why Arcades remains so powerful is due specifically to the fragmentary form in which it is composed.

I similarly wanted to take a quotation or piece of writing and remove it from its original context for my own purposes. In doing so you are not taking anything away from the excerpt but you are actually adding something by juxtaposing it alongside similar extracts to form a new narrative. Its the idea of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. I think of Annales (2003) as like Benjamin’s ‘One-Way Street’ (1930) in terms of structure. Looking back, Annales (2003) feels authentic to me in the sense that although it was written purposefully for that project it was not mediated or was mediated at a very minimal level.

Q: What are the key influences with respect to your painting practice?

Stylistically, my painting is trying to emulate the Ash Can School – American painters from the 1910’s and 1920’s. Charles Sheeler, for example.

I’m interested in a realism that’s not a particular realism – not Photorealism, nor Hyperrealism, and not Social Realism with respect to the 19th Century Impressionists, but rather what I like to call painting without affect, which is maybe an unattainable idea but nevertheless fuels my painting to a certain degree.

In terms of representation and realism, I want to play with that boundary where there is a represented ‘thing’ and a thing ‘being represented’: not something that hides the act of painting (as in Photorealism) nor draws attention to the act of painting (as in Impressionism).

I saw a Charles Sheeler painting once in Seattle, a rooftop I think, just a small painting, with precisely that quality, fairly flat, you could see the brushstrokes, but such a realistic colour palette. Sheeler was representing the scene in a very… not exactly Constructivist, but he was representing these shapes in a way that was almost abstract in a sense, but the colours were true to life.

Oil in particular has this quality that is a little translucent, so when you are standing in front of it you are looking through it and the light penetrates it a bit, and a good artist will utilize that, but it doesn’t come through in reproduction. If you look at historical paintings of the figure, the skin is translucent. Painters used that effect to replicate what is actually happening. In a reproduction that’s gone.

Misa Nikolic. Citadel (2004-2005). Acrylic on canvas. 36”x24”.

Painting of the Citadel by Misa Nikolic

Q: What painting projects are you working on in your studio?

I’m working on a series of church paintings from the Boyle street area, a historic area of downtown Edmonton that believe it or not has the highest concentration of churches in Canada. There is almost a church on every block. In many of my past paintings I’ve concentrated on commercial structures and I want to open that up to other varieties of buildings: places of worship, hospitals, schools, dwellings. Buildings whose structure also reflects the underlying function in a very distinct way. It’s a project that I’ve applied for funding to pursue.

Q: You are studying towards a doctorate. Briefly, could you describe your research interest(s)?

I am doing a methodological analysis of the Marxist Eduard Fuchs, who wrote extensively about caricature and erotica. He was a German scholar active between about 1900 to 1930, and one of the first to problematize the political role of caricature. By comparison, most of his contemporaries who wrote histories of caricature limited themselves to factual narratives, and later work tended to follow either a sociological or psychoanalytic approach. I will be attempting to demonstrate that Fuchs’ application of historical materialism, however flawed, is the most appropriate for discussing a cultural phenomenon that is itself explicitly oriented to political persuasion.

Historiæ Book Launch:

Wednesday, September 24
6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Creative Practices Institute in downtown Edmonton (10149 – 122 St. NW)
Brief artist talk at 7 p.m.

Historiæ will be available in a limited edition run of 100 and the books will be available for sale at the opening for $10 each. There will also be editions of past Funbooks in limited quantities. Thereafter any purchases can be made through Misa’s website (details below). For details of the book launch, visit the Facebook event page.

About the Author:


Misa Nikolic is a painter and writer based in Edmonton. He studied painting at the Alberta College of Art and Design in the mid 1990s, followed by an intensive art history program at the University of Saskatchewan. In 2001 he received his Master’s from the University of British Columbia, and an MA in art history from the University of Alberta in 2014. He is now undertaking doctoral studies. Misa’s art practice addresses themes of technology and history, with a particular interest in architecture as it has developed in North America. He has also studied a great deal of philosophy and aesthetics, and has had several articles published on contemporary Canadian art.

For more of Misa’s painting and writing, visit his webpage: http://members.shaw.ca/burnia/

For information on the various events at the Creative Practices Institute, including Misa’s book launch: http://creativepracticesinstitute.com

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