New York

Milan Kunc

Robert Miller Gallery

That was not the right thing to say. A man with artificially waved hair pointed a long index finger at her. “That’s no way to talk. You’re all responsible for what happened. You, too. How did you oppose the Communist regime? All you did was paint pictures.”

––Milan Kundera,
The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Like Thomas, the protagonist in Kundera’s novel, Milan Kunc has experienced the effects of politics on one’s life and project. In his work, Kunc, a Czech defector to West Germany, has always revealed an acute political sensibility, mixed with a certain whimsicality that takes his art past the dogma inherent in so much “politically aware” art being made at this time. Kunc’s project, not entirely unlike that of Soviet dissidents Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, seems to place an ultimate faith in the power that art can have in human life. Whether Pop or Realist or anti-Modernist, Kunc’s work carries with it a political message without a specific agenda.

In this small exhibition of nine manipulated photographic works, Kunc made his strongest statement to date. Recalling the art of both John Heartfield and Kurt Schwitters, these works go beyond the rhetorical depiction of a politicized existence. That the option of art can have such intense power and validity in these pictures is a testament to Kunc’s optimism. Untitled (Men with flying bananas), 1985, features a black-and-white photograph of two men standing knee deep in a wheat field and staring off into the distance, which Kunc has painted with acrylic and transformed into an absurd, typically Kuncian scenario. In its odd way it looks something like a scene from a Czech Grapes of Wrath, but Kunc has embellished his picture with three strategically placed semipeeled bananas floating in the air. The work playfully nods to both reality and fantasy. Whether or not the bananas really exist is beside the point; that they exist in the picture and that they make a difference is certain. Kunc’s young men take their optimism where they can find it.

The infiltration of Western and Pop culture into everyday life is both the theme and the strategy of Kunc’s project. In each of two works that feature photographs of women attending to their chores at an ironing board, Kunc has subverted the image by superimposing an overt reference to Modernism. In Untitled (Ironing board), 1987, a woman stands at her ironing board folding a grid-patterned tablecloth over which Kunc has painted a vivid Mondrianesque motif. The work’s splashy attempt at wit and candor is heartfelt and is executed with the deft hand of an artist who knows what he’s painting about yet never takes himself too seriously. Kunc uses a similar tactic in works that explore the contradictions between modern social systems and concepts of freedom and emancipation. Untitled, (Ducks with USSR flag), 1978/87, depicts a flock of ducks huddled close together in a bleak landscape, waddling on a sandy riverbank, while another flock appears to be approaching from upstream. Just above them, Kunc has painted an image of the Soviet flag, with its logo reversed and slightly tampered with. The ducks in Kunc’s picture are metaphorical exemplars of a population fighting social and political conformity. What is interesting is the ambiguous nature of the ducks’ actions. Are they marching off to state-sponsored war or running toward freedom? It is left up to each viewer to decide, much as any moral decision in the real world must be made by each individual alone. Kunc’s work always refers back to a personal struggle with individual freedom. Here, his subtle alteration of the Soviet symbol—which, to Western eyes, might appear as an almost negligible bit of rhetoric—may represent an act of defiance against an oppressive state, and thus a courageous assertion of freedom.

To “paint pictures” in our times takes an incredible leap of faith. In light of the realization that there can be no “political art” but only a self-reflective stab at humanism, Kunc’s work takes on a visionary form. The power of our actions in our dreams rather than in our lives is a melancholy fact of life. Making a move toward a “real” idealized existence also comes at a price. In life, a belief in action (and thus the potential for change) often gives us the ability to carry on. For an artist, this optimism can take the form of the continuation of or dedication to a project. Making art has always been an attempt at overcoming the given. While accepting the limitations of his art form, Kunc’s pictures reflect a truth in purpose and an ultimate faith in the ability to transcend the human predicament.

Christian Leigh