By Betsy DiJulio
Tanja Softic has long been of my most admired contemporary artists; and she happens to live in Richmond where she is Professor of Art at the University of Richmond. I discovered her in a group show at CAC, now MOCA-VA, and gripping lecture when I was education director. Since then, I have followed her work online and even incorporate it into my high school art classes. Imagine my job when Sheila Giolitti, director of Mayer Fine Art, announced a fall show by Softic. And still more when I discovered that I could even afford to purchase a very small piece, currently on “layaway.”
A native of Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Softic studied at the Academy of Fine Arts of the University of Sarajevo and earned her M.F.A. in Printmaking from Old Dominion University in 1992. An immigrant to the United States from former Yugoslavia, her work has been said to “function as maps, landscapes and portraits of intangible aspects of memory and identity.” The title Circle Back is, in part, a reference to Softic returning to the Seven Cities where her career was launched. But, also, because this work spans a period from 2002 to the present, it refers to revisiting her earlier work.
So why is Softic’s work so captivating? For me, it is timeless and unique within the contemporary art world, steering far clear of clichés and trends—she was incorporating exquisitely drawn birds and painted silhouettes before they were “cool” and overused—always evolving and unapologetically celebrating the craft of exquisitely made objects. Just as importantly, no one has a more keenly developed personal iconography of symbols and objects than Softic: plant and pod forms, bones, organs, vessels of pouring liquid, beaded necklaces, insects, vortices, industrial satellite dishes, chain link fencing and even polka dots. She continually “circles back”—or maybe spirals back—through them combining, recombining, and expanding her vocabulary in powerful ways.
Visually and metaphorically layered, the work seems to be about what is experienced, perceived, known, and felt along a vast, non-linear continuum from the universal to the intimately personal. Both the separateness and the interconnectivity of cosmological, technological, biological and cultural realms, dimensions and structures are alluded to in strikingly provocative ways. Still, though, her work has remained somewhat ambiguous in meaning, shrouded in mystery if you will, like a language only partially understood, so that one grasps words, and sometimes the gist, but never the full text, which keeps me “circling back” for more.
Using acrylic paint, charcoal, chalk, pencil, ink, handmade paper and printmaking processes like etching, drypoint and mezzotint, Softic synthesizes beautifully modelled forms with imagery possessing a flat stenciled or silhouetted appearance causing space and surface to dance an intriguing dance. A rich, luscious and, at times, unexpected color palette contributes to the sheer sensual beauty of these pieces: golden ochres, siennas, taupes, olive greens, blacks and grays combine with peach, rosy pink, aqua, and white.
Ultimately and thankfully, Softic’s work is not about whatever we, the viewers, want it to be about. It is about universal truths—both ancient and current—filtered through a profoundly personal, yet expansive and encompassing lens so that we may be included within its circle.
Softic is a recipient of the Pollock-Krasner Grant, National Endowment for the Arts/Southern Arts Federation Visual Artist Fellowship and Soros Foundation—Open Society Institute Exhibition Support Grant. Her work is included in numerous collections in the United States and abroad, among them the New York Public Library, Library of Congress Print Department and New South Wales Gallery of Art in Sydney, Australia. She participated in the 12th International Print Triennial in Cracow, Poland and won a First Prize at the The 5th Kochi International Triennial Exhibition of Prints, Ino-cho Paper Museum in Kochi, Japan in 2002. Recently, she completed print projects at Flying Horse Press, Tamarind Institute and Anderson Ranch’s Patton Printshop.
Tanja Softic: Circle Back
Through October 31
Mayer Fine Art
801 Boush Street, Norfolk