None of the innovations occasioned by the wheel were, however, more lyrical or wondrous than the bicycle, which offers most of us our first real sense of triumph and freedom. Our initial efforts at riding one inevitably fail: we veer to one side of the path or the other, careen into rosebushes or unceremoniously land on the pavement with skinned hands and knees. If we had not seen other people glide effortlessly by, we surely would believe the task to be impossible.
Despite our tears of frustration and pain, we doggedly try one more time. At the start, this effort also seems doomed to end in disaster. The bicycle wobbles back and forth wildly, as if drawn by a magnet first to the fence on one side of the sidewalk, then to the parked cars on the other. Miraculously, however, this time we keep ourselves upright. The bicycle swerves less crazily, and we are away, the magical soaring sensation making us forget — at least until we reach the end of the block — that we haven’t learned to stop. Suddenly we can fly, it seems, and vast new terrains beyond the end of our street call out for us to explore them.
Dragan Sekaric’s painting Bicycle (1995) contrasts starkly with exhilarating experience of riding a bicycle, because Sekaric’s two-wheeled vehicle is unusual in several respects: the square wheels, the front one apparently made of wood; the old-fashioned configuration of a large front wheel and a small back one; the handle bars seemingly connected to the rear wheel; and the saddle an awkward distance from the pedals, which are attached to the axle of the front wheel. “It seems impossible that one could ride this bicycle,” Sekaric says, “but I know people who have no choice but to manage it.”
As Sekaric suggests in a related image, Journey into a Morning (1998), these people continue their lives almost mechanically. In this picture, a mother walks towards us out of a pallid landscape. With her are two children, one of whom, shrouded and bent forward like herself, she carries in her arms. The other child clings to her leg, the child’s desire for security thus impeding its parent’s movement. This child presents a conundrum: desiring security and comfort, it grasps its mother’s leg, but in doing so prevents her from walking forward and thus hinders her from providing the safety they both seek.
The title repeats the grim irony. Generally, morning symbolizes hopeful new beginnings, but no metaphorical new day dawns in Sekaric’s image. The background is only a featureless, colourless landscape marked by a village in flames; the foreground is similarly desolate. In a way, it does not matter that the child impedes its mother since, as Sekaric says, there is “chaos behind them and nothing in front of them.” The trio, made particularly desperate by the absence of a second parent, is on a journey. Unlike most journeys, however, this one starts and ends nowhere, with no purpose other than for the travelers to avoid staying where they are.
Sekaric’s painting style in Journey into a Morning echoes the picture’s grim theme. The style is not realism in the strictest sense — Sekaric does not intend us to be able to recognize the landscape or the people in it as we could if this picture were a photograph. “There are two types of imitation,” he says. “One reflects that which exists and is visible, while the other type materializes through colours, structure and form that which is imagined or sensed. My paintings are the second type of mimesis.” Thus in Journey into a Morning , Sekaric wants to communicate empathy for the wandering refugees rather than represent the form and colour of the landscape and figures. The bland, featureless grey and brown, ground suggests the hopelessness of their plight, while the hunched posture of the mother and the infant in her arms speak to the way that the chaos around them has beaten them down — a psychological violence that, we sense, has gone on for so long that they can hardly remember anything else. Even here, however, the desperation is not absolute. If the mother in Journey into a Morning truly had no hope left, she would sit down in the mud and wait for the chaos in the background to overtake her children and herself; she no longer would bother to walk forward.
This hope blooms in Sekaric’s latest paintings, such as Blue Flower (2000) and his recent series of Montreal street scenes. Blue Flower is a simple, lyrical still-life of a flower on a table, with only an old coffee tin for a vase. A wonderfully economical gesture, this image shows optimism reawakening. In an otherwise barren setting, the most obvious symbol of faith is the single flower. Allies exist in the least likely places, however, which is why the top of the simple table also is blue. It is the painterly equivalent of a harmony emphasizing a melody through repetition and subtle embellishment.
The Montreal street scenes also communicate this message, showing us the most poetic and evocative side of this city: its venerable, crowded buildings, and the unique bustling, cosmopolitan feel of the old city. It is the Montreal of cheery skies and summer festivals, of jazz and ballet enjoyed in the outdoors. After a long journey, Sekaric remains far from Bosnia, yet somehow finds himself at home.
This sense of hope contained in Sekaric’s most recent paintings returns us to the image of a bicycle with which I began. For even here, one can find some good. The curved form of this fanciful bicycle gives it a novel jauntiness, a unique sense of panache. And if that front wheel is wooden, won’t its corners become rounded somewhat as we ride it, making it smoother and more efficient the further we go? It does seem impossible to ride this bicycle, but that is the nature of bicycles. They all seem impossible to ride and yet we ride them, magically, joyously and often a bit recklessly. “To possess a bicycle is to be able first to look at it, then to touch it,” writes the epochal philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. “But,” he continues, “touching is revealing as insufficient; what is necessary is to be able to get on the bicycle and take a ride.”
Charles Reeve, Ph.D. Princeton University
Art Critic and Lecturer in History of Art
Opening Remarks, Solo show sponsored by KC Mortgage Financial Group, 2001.