San Francisco

Franta Skala

Franta Skala, a young artist from Prague, fashioned the objects in his “Headlands Seahead” show almost entirely out of flotsam and jetsam that had washed up on the beach while he was in residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts outside of San Francisco, but the guiding sensibility—in its mixture of gnomic whimsy and golemic dread—was unmistakably Eastern European. In fact, some of these same objects have been chosen to represent the Czech Republic at the Venice Biennale later this year.

Skala was a member of the secret organization known by the initials B.K.S. (the anagram translates to “The End of the World Is Near”) since it formed in 1974, and since 1986 he has been associated with the Tvrdohlavi (“The Stubborn”) group. His overriding concern has always been with the subtle transformation of natural materials, at which he has an uncommon talent. In this, his first U.S. solo exhibition, natural and political history are curiously entwined.

At the entrance hung a series of photographs picturing the artist as a sort of wood-goblin emcee or balladeer, cavorting in the trees wearing a broad necktie, striped jacket, and inconceivably large butterfly belt buckle, singing into a kelp-frond microphone. Under the photographs hung a miniature, driftwood, dugout canoe loaded with kelp seedpods. Next appeared Hatchery (all works 1992), a rough-hewn wooden cradle with curved, pointy legs. The cradle was transformed into a musical instrument by the addition of rusted harp strings stretched over its opening and attached to rustic tuning keys intertwined with freeze-dried, snaky kelp-fronds, their Eraserhead seaheads straining up through the strings. Across the room was another hatchery, this one made from a pair of only-in-Eastern-Europe, brown polyester, bell-bottom trousers suspended from the ceiling and crawling with kelp embryos. The enigmatic Magic Game Table, with a driftwood gaming surface dotted with molded figures or formations, resembled a Surrealist landscape or set for a Beckett play, the landscape and figures dominated by a curved-wire-and-string gallows growing from the center of the table.

The centerpiece of the show was Society—a group of about twenty pod-people, with kelp pod-heads and palm-frond bodies. Each head was delicately carved with incised facial features, and each face was different. Half of the androgynous pod-people held babies, others held musical instruments. An Orpheus/Oedipus hybrid in the lead seemed to be jabbing flutes into his own eyes. Another leader carried an injured child in its arms, imploring us to help. At this point, one noticed that the room was filled with pod-people. One sat on a shelf smoking a hookah. Next to it hung another figure, garroted and strapped into a leather holster, while across the room yet another lay dying on a shelf-bier.

Skala’s cradle-to-grave tableau seemed to depict a society in distress, in which people’s lives are molded by unseen, capricious forces over which they have no control, and of which they are probably not even aware. A mysterious game is played (by outside observers, by anyone who happens by?) that determines their fate. Among other readings, “Headlands Seahead” was a sobering fin-de-millenium fable from the “new” Eastern Europe.

David Levi Strauss