Kateřina Šedá

After thirty-three years spent supervising inventory in a state-run home-supplies store in Brno, Czech Republic, Jana Šedá (1930–2007) retired and began to drift into a diminished old age. Widowed and living with her son and his family, she withdrew into asocial immobility, oversleeping, rarely speaking, and spending most of her waking hours watching TV. Her granddaughter, Czech artist Kateřina Šedá, began interviewing Jana regularly about her past and eventually cajoled her into making drawings of the hundreds of items she used to keep on the shelves of the store.

More than five hundred of the six hundred drawings that the grandmother created, beginning in 2005, were displayed in Šedá’s recent exhibition titled “It Doesn’t Matter,” the translation of Je to jedno, Jana’s verbal response to virtually every inquiry. Almost every drawing is the same size, all are done with a black felt-tip pen (two drawings have touches of color pencil), and, except for a few introductory sheets that list objects in a kind of index or inventory, each has the name of the item written (in Czech, of course) accompanied by a rather perfunctory drawing of that object, often in the multiple sizes the store carried.

The project seems to drift uneasily among the realms of art therapy, social practice, self-taught art, and family chronicle. A five-minute video accompanying the exhibition illustrates the rather coercive and hectoring nature of Kateřina’s intervention—her grandmother clearly would have preferred to be left alone, or at least to do as little drawing as possible, and responds somewhat reluctantly to her granddaughter’s prodding. Art therapy sometimes works like that. But, willing or no, draw Jana Šedá did—the numbing plethora of sketches, stacked here in row after row, provides a visual litany of the goods you might have encountered in a hardware store in Brno in, say, 1972. Rakes, coffee pots, and brushes, and a variety of wrenches, nut spanners, mops, and hundreds of other items accrete in numbers that begin to suggest a kind of mania, the obsession of a self-taught amateur. While the repetitive renderings that record the range of sizes in which most of these items are offered seem likely to have a print source, they also suggest a summation of the stuff that Jana Šedá chose to remember from a lifetime.

The exhibition, though, was presented as the work of Kateřina Šedá, not her grandmother, and begged to be interpreted less as the discovery of some visionary portraitist of mid-twentieth-century hardware than as a representation of an artist generating work through social activity. Kateřina Šedá literally made these drawings happen, sensing their potential more than their maker likely did. Her facilitation of their creation and preservation, however manipulative her approach, is as fully causal as the hand that wielded the pen.

James Yood