Brno, Czech Republic

Jiří David

Wannieck Gallery

In Prague, where Jiří David lives and works, he is already widely known. Zare (The Glow), 2000, the glowing neon crown of thorns he constructed above the roof of the classical exhibition and concert hall Rudolfinum, and Heart on the Castle, 2002, a gigantic red neon heart above Prague Castle, the center of power of the Czech Republic, have both left a lasting impression. He also continually attracts notice with his critiques of Czech cultural politics, published in the local press, decrying the country’s provincialism and dilettantism, which he feels have forced its artists into harmful isolation. Yet the true scope of David’s work is not widely understood. His recent exhibition, “I Do Not Remember, It Is Dangerous,” was astonishing. Who knew David was capable of such sensitivity? While still maintaining a level of reserve, the work presented here gave viewers access to the artist’s innermost thoughts. Can this be the same David whose thundering voice we hear in his interviews and articles?

In the past, David has usually created installations and photographs, but here he showed nothing but paintings—large canvases, about eight feet tall and often more than thirteen feet across, nailed directly to the wall. The canvases aren’t primed; the paint is applied directly to the coarse surface of the canvas, giving these pictures a sense of fragility. This effect is intensified by David’s technique: Often the paint spills over the surface or has been spattered on. Motifs appear against vague, transparent backgrounds: a burning boat, a bloody wooden stool, a swinging ceiling lamp, a horrified face (perhaps a child’s), a shoe, a spoon, rubber boots. They are startling in their emphatic presence, which stands in opposition to the background’s swirling colors. And because David is an artist with a well-developed visual memory, his work includes not only images taken from his own life but also visual monuments of modern architecture and décor of the ’50s. These objects, often painted with razor-sharp precision, appear as if emerging from the formless mass of memory. In fact, memory is a major theme in David’s work, much as in the work of German artists such as Thomas Zipp and Markus Selg, where memory suddenly becomes the present. This way of encountering memory differs significantly from the stance of modernism, which aspired to a clean break with the past.

Naturally, this understanding of the past has consequences; in this inquiry into the workings of memory, the medium of painting, with its weight of tradition, has taken on a special meaning. One of David’s largest canvases, I Do Not Remember, It Is Dangerous, 2007—which lent its title to the show—displays white vertical stripes. Each stripe bears a numeral. Behind the stripes one can glimpse a building, a car—or is it a tank? Between the stripes one can see tiny pen drawings, visible only when one stands quite close, of nudes taken from the history of art, portraits, and, in one case, the head of an owl, along with a golden toilet paper holder that looks as if it were glued to the canvas (but it, too, is painted). Remembering can hurt—this is one of the things David’s skillfully painted pictures have to say to us.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.