Mladen Stilinovi´c, a Croat who was born in Belgrade in 1947 and lives in Zagreb, is among the most significant artists from the former Yugoslavia and a Central European pioneer when it comes to diverse, conceptually inclined art practices. This retrospective featured a generous, at times overwhelming, assortment of the artist’s seemingly slapdash yet intelligent and probing paintings, collages, photographs, documentary images of public actions, handmade books, objects and installations. Just outside the entrance, a monitor on the wall displayed a video of a frog hopping about. As the frog hopped, it seemed to croak, “Great show, great show!” over and over: an excited frog, an enthusiastic frog, a frog downright giddy about the art you were going to see; moreover a ludicrous talking frog that undercut the solemnity and gravity of a big-deal museum show.

Coursing through Stilinovi´c’s irrepressibly creative oeuvre, which is marked by an interest in language, wordplay, politics and ideological signs, is an impish humor that skewers power in just about any form, whether it be government, corporations, the military, the church or the art establishment, and that also pokes fun at the artist. May Day banners, slogans, flowers and reverent photographs of Communist leader Marshal Tito were once commonplace in Yugoslavia, on the streets and in shop windows. In the group of photographs May 1, 1975 (1975), Stilinovi´c infiltrates this public semiotics with his own handwritten banners and signs, announcing “Ado Voli Stipu” (meaning “Ado loves Stipu,” pet names for his wife and him). While hilarious, this action also pointedly asserted the dignity of individuals amid an onslaught of mass culture and government propaganda. This, incidentally, was one of many times when Stilinovi´c, either on his own or with colleagues—in the 1970s he was a member of the rambunctious “Group of Six Artists”—took to the streets and incorporated makeshift materials into his art, while radically experimenting with fresh ways of presenting that art to the public. His copious, decidedly low-tech, handmade books are part of this process. As you leaf through them you discover treasures, for instance one in which the Croatian words for order (“red”) and disorder “(nered”) alternate on successive pages, each time accompanying a single red line that juts in a different direction.

Oftentimes Stilinovi´c’s work investigates and challenges the whopping social, political and economic conditions he has experienced: Yugoslavia’s ideology-heavy Communist era; the country’s breakup in 1991; the deadly internecine conflicts that followed, and subsequent, sputtering attempts to institute a new capitalist order. Sale of Dictatorship (1977-2000) contrasts five photographs of 1970s shrines extolling Tito with five photographs taken years later of Tito memorabilia ignobly for sale in scruffy flea markets. While the depicted objects might be the same, what has entirely changed is their context and meaning, and as a result this succinct work evokes cultural upheaval and transition. In The Dictionary of Pain (2000-03), the pages of an entire English dictionary in simple glass frames covered several walls. Stilinovi´c used Wite-Out to obscure word definitions, and then sporadically scrawled in the word “pain,” juxtaposing absurd combinations (spaghetti pain, zither pain, zombie pain) with others (utilize pain, slow pain, this pain) that are hard-hitting and evocative.

Throughout his career, Stilinovi´c has downplayed individual and iconic works in favor of an archival and cumulative approach, frequently arranging components in teeming wall-hung installations. Money is a recurring motif, with works in which Stilinovi´c drew on banknotes, scattered coins on the floor and suspended banknotes from the ceiling all responding to the virulent capitalism (and glaring economic inequalities) that constitutes a new ruling ideology in the Balkans. In Red-Pink, from the 1970s, an array of images displayed salon style, the color red (symbolic of Communist fervor, blood, leftist political parties) repeatedly appears but becomes flexible and changeable. Photographs of Stilinovi´c with a red nose and tongue, a painting in which red crosses resemble grave markers, cartoons with bright red speech balloons, a map of Croatia festooned with red blotches, the Nike swoosh and sundry other items amount to a reeling and fractious meditation on what this color means and conveys. Mixing abstraction and representation, image and word, philosophical inquiry and disarming humor, Stilinovi´c’s work remains both urgent and apt.

Photos: Above, SING!, 1980, pastel and photo on paper, 21 3/4 by 18 1/2 inches. Right, view of Red-Pink, installed in Stilinovi´c’s apartment, 1970s.