Joseph Vod­lan’s calm art at Slove­nian mis­sion

The Washington Post Sunday - - MUSIC - BY CELIA WREN style@wash­post.com Wren is a free­lance writer.

Joseph Vod­lan re­mem­bers the mo­ment — about 70 years ago — that he be­came an artist. He was 5 or so years old, and play­ing with fig­urines made from pine bark at his fam­ily’s home in Slove­nia. World War II was in progress, but this sum­mer morn­ing was calm. As he was bending down to pick up a fig­urine, he was sud­denly cap­ti­vated by a ray of sun­shine beam­ing through a win­dow, quick­en­ing the col­ors in a pic­ture on the wall. His mother was call­ing him, but he did not hear her.

It was one of those mo­ments, Vod­lan re­calls, “when you go in a trance or some­thing — you are to­tally ab­sent.”

Af­ter that wa­ter­shed mo­ment, Vod­lan, whose work is now on view at the Slove­nian Em­bassy, be­came keenly at­tuned to col­ors and light. But it wasn’t a fore­gone con­clu­sion that he would be­come the in­ter­na­tion­ally ex­hib­ited artist he is to­day. His par­ents ex­pected that he would run the fam­ily farm.

But Vod­lan had other ideas. He took up draw­ing and paint­ing in his spare time. And when he fin­ished sec­ondary school, he de­cided to go abroad for the artis­tic ed­u­ca­tion he thought he could not get in his home­land, which was then part of com­mu­nist Yu­goslavia. “We were not a com­mu­nist-ori­ented fam­ily,” Vod­lan says by phone from his home in Char­lotte, N.C.

In 1957, he em­i­grated to Aus­tria, where he stud­ied at an academy in Linz, earn­ing money on the side by work­ing on con­ser­va­tion projects, in­clud­ing the preser­va­tion of 12th- and13th-cen­tury fres­coes. Those gigs taught him the im­por­tance of us­ing durable ma­te­ri­als, and more.

“Any artist, even a con­tem­po­rary artist, must be fa­mil­iar with tra­di­tional art, the old art mas­ters,” he says. “Be­cause that’s how you de­velop the feel­ing for form, for color.”

In1963, af­ter grad­u­at­ing from the academy, Vod­lan trav­eled to the United States. “When I was a lit­tle boy, I saw a pic­ture of Ge­orge Washington, and it made an im­pres­sion on me,” he says.

He spent time in Cleve­land, where there was a Slove­nian com­mu­nity that in­cluded artists. He later moved to the New York area, find­ing that he could make a good liv­ing as a graphic de­signer while pur­su­ing his own art projects in his spare time.

Over time, his style and ap­proach changed, as seen in the em­bassy ret­ro­spec­tive. In Vod­lan’s early years in the United States, his inse­cu­ri­ties and anx­i­eties found ex­pres­sion in dark col­ors, such as in the all-gray tones of a 1964 work, a paint­ing of two peo­ple em­brac­ing, on view at the em­bassy.

The col­ors are rel­a­tively sub­dued in a se­ries of paint­ings Vod­lan cre­ated with fresco pig­ments on pa­per in the ’ 60s and ’70s. Some look ab­stract; oth­ers sug­gest hazy, dream­like land­scapes. The fresco pig­ments, he says, inspired him to evoke the “primeval and nat­u­ral.”

Some of his oil paint­ings from the past two decades dis­play much brighter hues, as well as play­ful cu­bist el­e­ments. One of the works — 2010’s “Melody,” an ebul­lient con­fig­u­ra­tion of col­ors and lines — was dis­played for a time at theU.S. Em­bassy in Ljubl­jana, the cap­i­tal of Slove­nia, as part of the State Depart­ment’s Art in Em­bassies pro­gram. His work also has been ex­hib­ited in gal­leries in New York, Ljubl­jana, Buenos Aires and else­where.

Not all of Vod­lan’s work at the Slove­nian Em­bassy is two-di­men­sional. On one wall hangs a 1983 bronze re­lief of an el­derly woman smil­ing wist­fully. It is Vod­lan’s mother. The artist cre­ated the re­lief with the help of photos af­ter his mother died.

“It was a painful work,” he re­calls. “While I was work­ing, my tears were com­ing down.” But he’s proud of the piece, be­liev­ing it bears wit­ness to his mother’s strength and ten­der­ness. A ver­sion of the re­lief ap­pears on her tombstone in Slove­nia.

Vod­lan sees a com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor in all his work. “In my art, there is never a vi­o­lent move or frus­tra­tion,” he says. “It is al­ways con­trolled with calma ttitude.” That qual­ity re­flects what is, for him, am­at­ter of prin­ci­ple.

“In my opin­ion, art is sup­posed to ex­press tran­quil­ity,” he says, so “the viewer is pos­i­tively in­flu­enced.”

Art by Joseph Vod­lan. On view through Sept. 11 at the Slove­nian Em­bassy, 2410 Cal­i­for­nia St. NW. Mon­day-Fri­day, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Free.

www.washington.em­bassy.si.

JOSEPH VOD­LAN/EM­BASSY OF THE RE­PUB­LIC OF SLOVE­NIA

Joseph Vod­lan’s “Melody,” on view at Em­bassy of the Re­pub­lic of Slove­nia.

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