Jiří Kovanda

Galerie Zdeněk Sklenář

In Prague, Jiří Kovanda has long been considered an artist’s artist. His actions and works, and his self-understanding as an artist, have had significant influence over a broad range of younger Czech practitioners. Yet his work has rarely been seen in exhibitions, and some critics have not taken him seriously because of his lack of formal art education. Although he is now fifty-three, this is Kovanda’s first Prague gallery show; indeed, it is the first exhibition to survey the great range of his work. Thus he has titled the show “The First Kovanda Retrospective.”

Kovanda began his activity as an artist in 1970. In the late ’70s, he began doing performances, which he carried out in the streets of the Czech capital. These were barely noticed by those around him, though they have been documented in photographs. This exhibition contains dated and carefully annotated photos of three of these actions. For example, on September 3, 1977, we see Kovanda on an escalator. Underneath the photograph we read, “Standing backward on the escalator, I see the eyes of the people who are standing behind me.” Or underneath the photograph dated May 19, 1977, we see, “In my hands I am carrying water from the river some meters upstream.” Even today, when Kovanda is invited to an exhibition, he carries out a performance that almost none of the visitors notice. In a later exhibition, the performance reappears as a photographic document.

In 2001, Kovanda created a series of tiny pictures with white surfaces; in another untitled series from 1992 he parodies geometric abstraction by building geometric forms out of matches. There are also some pictures whose contents can barely be defined, though their titles are meaningful (Che Guevara’s Sperm, 1998, or The Promised Revolution, 2000). Some of his pictures look as if they had been painted by a child—Consolation, 1989, for example, which depicts a house and a carrot. And there are also pictures containing words or entire sentences cut out from newspapers. The viewer is invited to try and make sense of these. But do they ultimately have any meaning? A 1986 self-portrait is also included in this show: a red oval with tiny red eyes and a small red mouth.

Kovanda’s work also includes a number of banal objects. Using pieces of found wood, he built small pieces that could well be understood as references to—and gentle parodies of—Carl Andre’s wooden sculptures. Indeed, parody, devoid of cynicism or nastiness, can be found throughout his work. Kovanda’s brand of parody is rather sweet: The objects may provoke a smile, but the artist is not laughing at anyone.

Although Kovanda usually works in series, the objects and images in this exhibition are laid out randomly, hung in nonchronological order or placed on a shelf that extends over three walls. Some of the pictures, like the self-portrait, have even been hung under the shelf. A wooden slat supporting a stale dinner roll is placed diagonally against a wall. A bold, precarious construction, but luckily not a heavy steel slab à la Donald Judd. Or might Judd have been the furthest thing from Kovanda’s mind?

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Jane Brodie.