Kateřina Štenclová

Veletrzní Palác

In an exhibition prepared especially for the atrium of the Veletržní Palác, the building that houses the modern art collection of the National Gallery in Prague, Kateřina Štenclová presented a series entitled “Hranice Události” (Event horizon), 1998. The title implies a conflation of space and time, and indeed each of the six works in some sense constitutes a “place/event.” The “place” may be where green meets red, for example, while the “event” might be understood as the physical effect of that collision on the eye and body of the viewer.

The soaring atrium of the Veletržní Palác—the building was originally designed to host industrial-machinery trade fairs—presents a daunting challenge to any artist. Štenclová’s response was to emphasize scale: the internal scale of each piece, the relative scale between the individual works, and the relationship of the whole series to the space itself. The artist continues to investigate color: its temperature, vibration, and materiality. She uses dry pigments to produce an exceptionally dense color surface, and the materiality of her color remains one of the great strengths of her art. In earlier work, as in a 1994 solo show at the Nová síň gallery, Štenclová reduced the format on which she anchored her color to horizontal and vertical hands. In the current work, her pictorial strategies continue to rely on multiple panels to create “phrasings” (in the musical sense) of color. What is new is the way in which she has begun to literally stack individual panels on top of one another to.create real breaks in planarity that work in counterpoint to the pictorial “cuts” made with color itself. Also new is the introduction of diagonal, curving, or arching edges that imply movement against the more static frontality of the monochrome square. Her great achievement in this exhibition may be the degree to which she unites monumentality with lyricism, such that they become mutually reinforcing.

While some of Štenclová’s strategies find affinities in the practices of Mary Heilmann, there are significant differences of historical and cultural context that show up in their respective work. Because of the forty-year Communist repression of modernism it is difficult to draw neat canonical lines in Czech art. It is precisely these lines on which a painter like Heilmann (or, more recently, Monique Prieto) relies as a foil for gestures by turns ironic, playful, or obeisant. Štenclová’s is a “formalism” without Greenberg, without Pollock, Kelly, Judd, or Noland: in short, without Fathers. Her closest artistic relative in her own country (and within the contemporary Czech scene, she is perhaps alone in this) is František Kupka, probably the most important Czech artist of the century—at least in an international sense—whose influence was cut short by war and ideological repression. Because of the magnitude of this historical break, Štenclová’s project has more to do with the recovery of tradition than that of her American counterparts, who are often busy contesting it.

Although Štenclová’s work does not fit neatly onto the present-day “map” of Czech art, her role as “dissident” in relation to this field may ultimately be the most interesting. In spite of her refusal to conform to the dominant politics of the Czech art scene, she remains a real contender. “A contender for what?” one might ask, given the near-total absence of a Czech art market, either at home or abroad, as well as the inadequate acquisition funds at public collections. Nonetheless, with the advent of institutions like the Veletržní Palác (however shaky an institution it may be), at least there is now someplace to aspire to, a top to the ladder. Her arrival there is as important for Czech art as it is for her personally.

Jeff Crane