Softic: Works on Paper
College of Saint Rose Art Gallery, through Dec. 7
in pictures: Tanja Softics Inflorescence.
now it’s not a surprise: For many years, under the guidance
of director Jeanne Flanagan, the little College of Saint Rose
Art Gallery has brought artists of world caliber right into
the heart of Albany with little fanfare and, sometimes, insufficient
The current solo exhibition of works on paper by Tanja Softic
continues this under-the-radar tradition by presenting a solid
selection of large-scale pieces in a strong individual style.
Softic, of Bosnian Muslim background, was pursuing a graduate
degree in the United States when war broke out in her homeland,
effectively making her a refugee by the time she finished
in 2002. But she seems to have landed on her feet: Now an
associate professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia,
Softic’s work has been shown widely and placed in public collections
from New York and Atlanta to China and New Zealand.
It’s not hard to see why. Working on handmade paper in a mix
of media (mainly acrylic and chalk), Softic builds layers
of subtle color and texture as a ground for the interplay
of carefully rendered, somewhat mystical objects that recur
in varying combinations throughout the works shown here. She
incorporates elements of abstraction, softly rendered nature
and hard-edge realism into a dreamlike stew that is both very
comfortable to look at and easily adapted to individual interpretation.
While Softic says in a statement that her drawings “read as
text, where one element leads to and reveals another,” I found
myself more inclined toward getting the overall gestalt of
each piece, absorbing its mood and feeling rather than reading
it literally or sequentially. There is a range of atmospheres
in these drawings, mostly toward the slightly stormy, but
the more recent pieces are decidedly sunnier, exhibiting an
inner glow that suffuses the space around them.
Softic has a personal visual vocabulary that includes seedpods,
tiny sea creatures, plants and root vegetables; human organs,
teeth and bones, as well as those of animals; and man-made
objects, real or imagined, many of which appear to have a
scientific application, including bowls, flasks, syringes
and such. Additional elements are taken from classical architecture,
including columns, floorplans and wallpaper patterns. She
combines the skill of a medical or botanical illustrator with
the soul of a poet to make extremely detailed drawings that
are nothing if not evocative.
But evocative of what?
The inability to pin down exactly what this work is about
is, in fact, a large part of what the work is about. Schooled
in classical Europe, then living in postmodernist America,
Softic appears to be using her art as a laboratory for working
out this aesthetic and cultural dichotomy. Again, her statement
is instructive, as she writes, “I aim to reconcile aesthetic
ideas and pictorial approaches that are cast as opposites
in most of contemporary art theory and criticism.” She then
goes on to describe her works as reflecting both “the traditional
visual arts of [her] native Bosnia and Herzegovina” and “the
experience of living in the fragmented, layered, constantly
These contrasts are present in the work, as is the sense of
them being more about process than about any clearly intended
meaning. In the hands of a lesser-skilled artist, this could
be the formula for disaster, but Softic pulls it off. In effect,
she has seduced us into her world of dreamlike confusion,
using soft color and layered texture and careful crosshatching
on a grand scale, taking us to a place where a sweet potato
and its root system is comparable to a human heart and its
blood vessels, and an unfolding flower has its equivalents
in the form of a section of a Moorish column and the symmetrical
shape of a woman’s reproductive organs.
Softic has put her memories and ruminations on view, but she
does not sensationalize or preach. She says, “I look at and
feel my personal and cultural history and [yet, it] is in
another world.” Looking at her work or reading it or, as I
prefer, feeling it, presents an opportunity to explore her
touchpoints—in moments of recognition perhaps we will become
better acquainted with our own.
The gallery has been painted a soft slate blue to set off
the unframed drawings, which are worked edge to edge and held
to the walls with pushpins stuck through little attached tabs.
Considering that the three largest are each about 6 and a
half feet by 12 and a half feet, this is an effective means
of presentation; the color choice for the background works
well—even in the academic arena, no longer are gallery walls
expected to be pure white, and I say thank goodness for that.