East Contemporary

Prague City Gallery: Jan Jedlicka

Prague, May 20 – September 5, 2021, https://www.ghmp.cz/

When I decided to see this show, I was expecting it will be a slightly boring and traditional one. The kind of show with canvases hanging one next to each other on the wall, without much more interaction. But nevertheless, I wanted to see it, because I was intrigued the Jedlicka´s methods of collecting materials and creating pigments from specific locations and then using those to produce abstract but very structured paintings. This sounded like a conceptual approach, that has its charms for me. The artists creates a catalog of pigments, but at the same time, because the collection takes place in time, also records time as it is passing. So, I was in a mode of expectation when I entered the exhibition space.

Upon entering, I was first confronted with long rows of Jan Jedlicka´s photographs. In the first room, it was random snapshots of a landscape taken out of a train window. Basically all of the photographs in following rooms documented his journeys and stays between his Swiss home, Italian weekend house and occasional holidays in other locations, e.g. Great Britain. Photos of landscapes, beaches and his crumbing villa.

Detailed attention was paid to the print techniques, transforming this snapshots into luxurious artistic products. One room was also dedicated to graphic works, where, I suspect again photographs or drawings documenting his countryside walks were transformed into aesthetic objects.

Other photo or video works retained their snapshot nature, for example the photographs from a Halloween party in some British pub. Or the video and still images from some Swiss banker´s “think tank” retreat where Jedlicka did a “residency”, showing servants emptying trash bins and pushing food trolleys. Or a video of kitchen staff from his favorite pizza restaurant on the way from Italy to Switzerland. I wondered what all this has to do with pigments and canvases that I was expecting.

I would estimate that 2/3 of the show was wasted on the aforementioned works. I am still thinking why this was the case. My theory is that this was the self-perception of Jedlicka, who simply wanted to have a comprehensive show documenting everything he ever created, no matter how pointless it appeared to the visitor. I can understand that everything on show was somehow important for Jedlicka, as part of his life experience. But any sane curator should have stopped this kind of ego-trip and suggested a compromise, like limiting the snapshots to one embarrassing corner instead of spreading them out like this. Jitka Hlavackova (curator) unfortunately did not have the balls to do this, it seems. I even suspect this might be because of financial reasons if Jedlicka provided the funding and the curator did not have the power to contradict her customer.

After this rather disappointing part of the exhibition, where the only things that slightly raised my interest were a couple of pencil drawings documenting Jedlicka´s countryside walks and the graphic works that were at least formally well made, I finally reached the last two rooms of the show. Here I could finally observe in detail what actually made me visit this show, Jedlicka´s pigment paintings.

I see the pigment paintings as the core of Jedlicka´s works. They are also a product of the walks around his different residencies, but in comparison to the snapshots, they are built onto a more elaborate conceptual framework. Collecting rocks, earth and plant materials, crushing them into powder, mixing them with other substances and applying them to a canvas. The sequencing of color fields on the canvases seemed to be random, probably simply based on the time the pigment was collected. The arrangement into grid-like forms was simple, but effective. In some cases, the grid was visible, and the result looked a bit like a stained glass window. The grid was never totally perfect, it was a bit bending, and I liked that too, hinting at the human agency behind it. In other cases, the grid was implied and the different colors were depicted in rock-like shapes. Maybe as reflection of the original rocks from which the pigments were collected. The colors of all the painting were muted, oscillating between brownish, reddish and grayish hues.

The pigment paintings of Jedlicka did not disappoint me. They looked simple at first sight, but they had a depth that drew the spectator in the longer he observed them. On one hand, it was the many brush strokes, one could feel the labor that went into them. On the other hand, it was the material qualities of the pigments that, although similar in color intensity, made every individual field react slightly differently to the light they were reflecting.

I wished a much larger part of the show would be devoted to this truly meaningful artworks. I am sure there would be additional artworks that would support or provide further context to the pigment paintings. Maybe even a couple of photographs contextualizing the environment, in which the pigments were collected, diary entries, etc.

In the end, I was not disappointed by this show. I was only annoyed with the first 2/3rds of it. The Prague City Gallery on the second floor of the Prague Municipal Library is a very calm space, with good light. It is a pleasant atmosphere. Encountering Jedlicka´s works in the last two rooms of the show was inspiring and somehow calming.

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