When I received my invitation to Cathy de Monchaux's exhibition at the prestigious Rudolfinum in Prague this fall, I wanted to throw the thing away. A horrific image glared at me from the decency of the white postcard: apparently a sculpture of some sexual organ, both penis and vagina, brutally trapped by strange metal manacles. I deliberately left the exhibition for last on my list of shows to see.
Instead I started with the most palatable show I could find, up at Gallery MXM in Mala Strana, Prague's "Lesser Town" below the castle. On view were the soberly illustrational paintings of Antonin Strizek, a member of "The Obstinates," a group which had gained some notoriety in the Czech Republic in the '80s. Strizek has now settled into mid-life stability, continually reworking his themes in the same style he has employed since his days at the Academy of Fine Arts. Strizek is in love with simple scenes and harmonic colors, and his appealing paintings are naive in the spirit of Rousseau. He seems to have proven himself the most obstinate of the Obstinates by maintaining his style and subject matter throughout his career.
Strizek has made himself into a local master, particularly through his painted reproductions of the glass and bottle still-life photographs of Czech photographer Josef Sudek. This status is further borne out by his recent appointment to the position of professor at his alma mater, the Academy of Fine Arts.
This transition from underground upstart to established master is something of an obsession among male Czech artists, who race to organize their own retrospectives. Milan Knizak, a former Fluxus member, financed and curated a survey of his own work, complete with giant catalogue, at the Manes Gallery. Jiri David, two generations younger but equally aspiring in terms of ambition, has followed suit with his own show, planned for this year.
The Soros Effect
Financier George Soros, whose massive funding of culture and education in Eastern Europe and Russia raises as much suspicion and envy as gratitude, has included the National Gallery of Contemporary Art at the Veletrzni Palace among his beneficiaries. Last year, the Soros Center for Contemporary Art sponsored a massive media campaign, calling for proposals for public art projects, that opened the flood gates for every aspiring artist in the country to take a shot at receiving funding from the well-endowed organization.
As one might expect, the resulting exhibition featured mostly students and young artists. It is composed of 50 proposals selected from among all entries.
Some artists took a traditional approach to the notion of "public art," suggesting murals and sculptures in visible public locations. Many others, however, used more transitory venues -- billboards, magazines, the Internet, even shop windows.
David Cerny, who has also worked and exhibited at P.S. 1 in New York, drew on a familiar European tradition in his design for a fountain, called Urinations. Instead of small boys and cherubs peeing water into a fountain pool, however, Cerny had a central pedestal with grown men peeing outwards at the viewer. This work remains true to the showmanship that first got him noticed.
Tomas and Estera Polcar submitted a project that draws attention to Prague's latest visual blight, a proliferation of commercial billboards -- unfortunately, by adding to it! They propose a series of billboards and metro posters with simple images of common objects such as a chair, a shoe, or a potato, identified with a similarly simple caption.
Gustav Herbich and Yves Klein War and Peace 1996/1962 in "Angel, Angel"
Bruce Nauman Art Makeup 1967-68
Installation view with Beverly Semmes Entrenched Treasure 1994
At the Rudolfinum
A painting retrospective of Georg Jiri Dokoupil took over one of the major spaces in the Rudolfinum, taking on the feeling of a permanent collection -- the Dokoupil Museum. His towering pictures with their magnificent, extravagant gestures were hung high in the walls, dwarfing the viewers most powerfully with his new forms of Abstract Expressionism, a post-modern '80s echo of the greatest American painting movement.
The massive group show in the upstairs space, "Angel, Angel," starts humbly, with two tiny angels, small enough to hold one in each hand, face to face in the tiny entrance room. In the space between them lies all of the tension of existence -- they are peace and war, two polar extremes. One is golden and shining (its by Gustav Herbich), the other deep and blue (by Yves Klein), they are frozen in their advance towards one another, shrinking the small space that separates them.
The exhibition seemed intimate, the works secrets. Small, disgraceful and sharp statements, biting and vicious, they appeal to your sense of pity, their ugliness writhes at your feet and appears beautiful.
Tony Oursler's Fulton has the face of a devil and speaks of angels. Bruce Nauman's angelic model in the Art Makeup films coats himself in different colored cremes -- black and white -- becoming a devil, or an angel, clean or unclean by his own hand. At the end of the film, this blackened angel gazes apprehensively, indulgently, at what he has become.
Many of the works are not overtly concerned with angels per se. But the show's theme is such that a spiritual or mystical air infects them all the same. Cindy Sherman's photos lend themselves to the demonic, while photographs by Andres Serrano on the opposite wall radiate holiness.
Louise Bourgeois, in Robert Mapplethorpe's portrait of her, is a devilish little angel with an enormous dildo under one arm. Will she use it to save the world? She looks clever and capable, in contrast to most of the other artists around her, who radiate feelings of desperation, powerlessness and distance.
Among the other participants were Nan Goldin, whose angels are presented to us as holy but outcasts in the world, and David Wojnarowicz, who is a warrior. His works and words are weapons, but it is hard to say which side of the line he ends on. Satan was once an angel, once the holiest and most trusted of all.
Cathy du Monchaux
Downstairs at the Rudolfinum, the Cathy du Monchaux exhibition awaited. It was fitting that there should be angels above her, because her show could certainly be seen as hellish. With shades drawn and only soft directional lighting barely illuminating her sculptures, the atmosphere was heavy and ominous, as is her subject matter. Its use of brutal and cruel imagery treads dangerously close to gothic melodrama.
Her sculpture treads heavily on a single masochistic motif -- a fleshy, indefinable anatomical part held by wicked caging. It seems more female than not, some borrowed from Bourgeois' vocabulary, some from Hollywood horror.
Perhaps what preserves the work's appeal is the painstaking craft that went into their creation. Each piece is built on a small scale, and obtains scale by repeating itself, as if it is a manufactured piece that has come from an assembly line which joins flesh and metal.
Leaving the Rudolfinum, I ran into two friends on their way to the de Monchaux show. They asked what else there was worth seeing in town, and I had to tell them, "too much."
TIM GILMAN-SEVCIK is an American freelance journalist who lives in Prague.