Jiří Kovanda: Jan Merta, Jiří Kovanda
27 January – 24 February 2007
Jan Merta’s work, in all its diversity, is unified by a restraint and concentration that remove his images from any clear stylistic classification. Born in Sumperk, Czechoslovakia in 1952, the painter now belongs to the most renowned Czech artists of his generation because of his calm originality and independence.
Merta presents his simple motifs in a stylized fashion, almost like drawings, which transports the pictorial transformation into the foreground. In doing so, he easily masters different canvas formats and the interplay between the two-dimensional application of color with gentle but precise brushstrokes and obvious complexity. Painting based in concreteness seems to continually dissolve into abstraction. In the large-format image “Red Slum”, which portrays a densely built-up residential area, the facades of houses or reflective window surfaces appear as colored stains that recur in a rhythm on the canvas. In other paintings, the border of a surface that seems abstract might reveal the mimetic reproduction of an object. Merta is never exclusively interested in the isolated representation of objects, but always in their relationship to their surroundings. In the pictorial spaces he creates, motifs fuse into backgrounds. Image planes are never clearly separated, but penetrate one another. This does not stem from a mere simplification, but also from Merta’s choice of vantage point and perspective. As in picture puzzles, the image’s layers shift their position in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes the motif dominates; sometimes it seems to be absorbed by the background. Spectators cannot decide what they see at first or cannot make the decision without further information. They require time to comprehend the spontaneously salvaged theme of the painting, which frequently only becomes accessible through the title of the work.
Merta’s motifs always emanate from his immediate everyday environment. He generally pursues themes for years and treats them in variations. He often works on his images for a long time, and the changes in his works during this period often reflect the transformation of his attitude as he grapples with them. Hence, the first works from Merta’s series of building images allude to distance and a certain rejection. In contrast, the most recent, which are also included in this exhibit, convey a deep self-absorption in their theme. This is translated into a pictorial vision of social reality.
Above all, Merta thus seems to pursue the question of how context and perspective shape the things pictured in his art. He displaces the possibility of explicitly charging his content and interpreting it as something fixed. Instead, he allows a possibility for creating something more general between painter and observer that resists detailed representation.
Jiří Kovanda was born in 1953. Like Jan Merta, he is Czech and lives in Prague. The discovery of this concept artist, who for a long time mostly lacked an international audience, has up to now culminated in his participation at this year’s Documenta. Despite this, Kovanda has already had a considerable influence in his own country’s art scene since his first performances at the beginning of his career in the mid-1970s. His keenly conceptual, artistic expressions are barely recognizable as such and teeter on the border of the invisible. He is fascinated by the ephemeral. His works assume a de-aestheticized form. Their strengths are based in a substantial usualness. Kovanda demystifies the figure of the artist and liberates the creative process from ossified, automatized practices. The performances that open his works obey terse directives and are little more than scantly perceptible interventions into everyday behavioral norms. He later transfers this form of minimalism to the world of things. His wood objects subsequently probe what conditions make an object into a work of art and differentiate it from an everyday object. One group of these works are ready-mades, for example pieces of furniture that Kovanda found and only minimally processed. In essence, his canvases do not show painting, but rather its citation. On the basis of the principle of collage, he combines materials and information torn from their context into cryptic, often humorous statements. It is precisely through the clarity and simplicity of his interventions that Kovanda refers unambiguously to modern or minimalist icons. Kovanda chooses a standpoint between citation and distance vis-à-vis these art historical positions with affectionate interest rather than irony. His objects can be understood as a translation of these references into a contemporary language or an interrogation intro their current relevance.