The Parallel Originality of Forms

Posted on Czerwiec 30, 2011

The fact that Eduard Ovčáček, Zbyněk Janáček and Marek Sibinský – representatives of three generations of Czech artists – have decided to exhibit their work together[1] is certainly determined to some extent by academic-teaching factors.  At the beginning of the 1990s Eduard Ovčáček and Zbyněk Janáček established together the Institute of Fine Arts at the Pedagogical Faculty of the University of Ostrava. Near the end of the last decade Marek Sibinský graduated from this faculty under the supervision of Ovčáček and started to teach there himself. These institutional factors – although important – would not be so significant if it were not for the fact that they translate into purely artistic ones. Although Ovčáček’s, Janáček’s and Sibinský’s works differ from one another, and, what is more, each of them has his own style, easily recognizable in Czech Republic, there appear in their oeuvre common themes and certain regularities that indicate mutual affinities.

The works of Eduard Ovčáček presented at the exhibition were created as a result of the process of removing from the painting the “burden” of content that was initiated at the beginning of the 1960s. Experimenting and adding to his means of expression self-invented techniques, the artist used symbols, letters and numbers, which he systematically stripped of the culturally grounded meanings. Limiting the signs only to their visual dimension, he arranged them into sets to be analysed only formally. Similar process concerns his work on reliefs which in the course of years evolved into minimalist installations.

Zbynek Janáček’s work also develops in the direction of thus understood “formalization”. The artist makes his work basing on the premises that concern, on the one hand, the structure of perception, and on the other, the process of the shaping the image. Janáček’s pieces constitute, as Martin Mikolásek observed, “the exploration of the precisely defined coloured surfaces”[2]. The artist enters the microcosm of graphic design and observes the rules that govern it; he is interested in the purely formal aspect of the relations between the layers that build up the image.

Marek Sibinský also treats graphic design as a space for experimenting with different techniques of mechanical generation of the image. Despite the fact that his works are far from the abstract forms present in Ovčáček’s and Janáček’s pieces and they often feature strictly figural motifs, Sibinský often focuses on the exploration of the technical possibilities offered by the materials he uses. As he indicates himself, he is interested in the problem of communication in the media-pervaded and technicized society. Therefore, the figurative part of his prints is present only because it suggests the entanglement of a human being and his representations in technological processes.

The work of the three artists is, then, highly modernist, at least if we follow Clement Greenberg’s definition of the term: what dominates them is their formal aspect, which means that the process of their creation can be described as a rational sublimation of form and a search for its objective (in the sense that they do not stem only from personal taste) justification. This objective character of Ovčáček’s, Janáček’s and Sibinský’s work is emphasized by yet another aspect of the way technology is used, namely by repetition. Their works usually constitute cycles in which the subject, by being an explored or “tested” material, is a pretext for technical and formal experiments. As a result there are formed autonomous and complete wholes. They are independent of their authors in the sense that they are not so much the outcomes of expression, but rather the results of solutions suggested by the technique used for their production.

Our intuition tells us to associate these rationalized, technically perfect forms – especially in case of Ovčáček and Janácek – with the achievements of minimalism and op art. Although this association seems to be obvious, it may, perhaps, be too simple. The term minimalism, or op art, should have here only descriptive value, without suggesting a given style or trend in the Western art of the 1960s.

Eduard Ovčáček’s case is particularly interesting here. The compositions of numbers arranged in the shape of geometric figures, which naturally we would like to see as a reference to pop art, op art or minimalism of the 60s and 70s, have not appeared as a result of Ovčáček’s dialogue with Western art. On the contrary, they are results of the artistic and technical developments made several decades ago behind the “Iron Curtain” and without the knowledge of Western art of the time. Ovčáček’s “letterist” prints may be regarded as a typical example of this tendency. Without any knowledge of the Letterist movement in the 60s the artist achieved effects which paradoxically place him at the top of this trend in the world.

If we treat this exhibition as a manifestation of a line of development of Czech art, we are forced to ask about its originality and autonomy in relation to Western art. For sure, it would be risky to regard the work of the artists presented at this exhibition as completely independent of impact from the outside – in the work of each of the three artists we will find outside influences and Western inspirations. Nevertheless, we have to ask – and it is a very interesting problem, although addressed by this exhibition only “by chance” – to what extent the similarity between different styles in art can be merely a result of artistic experiments and the reflection on the nature of the media used in the process of production?  One may phrase this question in a different way: to what extent and when is there possible to occur the same situation as in sciences, when two scientists living hundreds of kilometres away from each other, not knowing each other, make the same discoveries?[3] How and when could an experiment in art bring similar “inventions” made by artists living in different contexts? When do we have to  stop talking about the “migration of forms” and start to wonder about – so to speak – the “original and parallel similarity of forms”?

The exhibition, then, addresses a very important phenomenon. We tend to treat art from Central Europe as an answer to the trends developed in the West. We also tend to evaluate works made in this part of Europe according to the criteria taken from the outside – in short, the higher the opinion of Western critics of given work, the better the reception of it here. The exhibition of the work by Ovčáček, Janáček and Sibinský, by showing certain immanent movement, by emphasizing mutual relations and influences between the three artists, and  – finally – by forming a sort of historical frame, suggests that we should look for the dynamics of the development of art  not in the impact of the patterns of different (including Western) provenance, but in the experiment with the material and the technique used by the artist, as well as in the internal synergy produced by the local artistic circles.

Translated by Karolina Kolenda

This text was publish in a catalogue for the exhibtion „Three” at Pryzmat Gallery in Cracow (30 June- 20 July2011).

[1] Former joined exhibitions took place in Łódź, Havirov and Kiev

[2] M. Mikolásek, Boxy a tisky w GVUO in the catalogue of exhibition of Zbynek Janáček entitled Boxy a tisky, 4.8-26.9.2010 Dom Umění, Ostrava.

[3] Anyway, science is not the only field where these phenomena take place – structuralists were eager to find similar themes in the myths of communities living thousands of kilometres away from each other and having no contact with each other whatsoever.