Contemporary Czech Photography Reconsidered
Štěpán Grygar, Jasanský / Polák, Markéta Othová,
Michal Pěchouček, Jiří Thýn
Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago
Curators: Karen Irvine and Karel Cisář
January 29 - March 28, 2010
MARKETA OTHOVA , Untitled, 2008
Courtesy of the artist and Jiří Svestka Gallery, Prague
50% Grey: Contemporary Czech Photography Reconsidered at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago, brings together the work of six contemporary Czech photographers (two of whom work collaboratively), all of whom reflect on the varied materials of photography and find poetic resonance in a lack of obviously-poetic subject matter. Instead, they investigate the potential for photographic veracity, by pushing the idea of framing and selection to counter any perceived objectivity the medium might have. Instead of creating brightly colored, large, splashy digital works that dominate much of contemporary photography, they make quieter works, generally gelatin silver prints using traditional chemistry and film, a trademark that extends the rich black and white photographic tradition of their country. However, this exhibition does not argue that these artists are primarily influenced by their nationality; rather, it is intended only partly to consider how the pallor of historical circumstance, in this case a stereotypically “grey” post-communist society, might impact artistic production, as well as how a nationalist label affects an artist and an exhibition in a more general sense.
JASANSKY / POLAK (Lukas Jasanský, b. 1965; Martin Polák, b. 1966) have been working as an artist team since they studied together in the 1990s. They were both interested in departing from the tradition of extreme subjectivity that dominated Czech fine art photography at the time, and instead began to pursue a practice based more on discourse. After years of working together on many conceptual, technically straightforward, projects, they were commissioned in 2007 to make art at the European Parliament in Brussels. They noticed that the gifts on display from various nations, artworks that were meant as representative examples of cultural production from the countries, often had the feeling of political tools in their conservatism, symbolism, or grandeur. Jasanský/Polák level the playing field between the works by shooting them all in an unembellished, deadpan style and in black and white. Their perceived objectivism is perhaps a fitting metaphor for the desired diplomacy of the European parliament. Jasanský/Polák also investigate the potential of photography to straddle the representational and the abstract in their series Abstraction (1994-95). By attempting to make images that recall abstract compositions using everyday objects and settings, Jasanský/Polák underscore the cultural knowledge of what an abstract image looks like. Color, often a significant and rather pleasing attribute of abstract art, is siphoned out of the scene, turning the pictures into a more controlled, almost scientific, endeavor. In their critique there is irony, as they hint at the absurdity of making abstract art with photography.
STEPAN GRYGAR (b. 1956) - Compared to Jasanský/Polák, Grygar’s work sits in a middle ground, in pictures where the abstraction and representational elements are deliberately leveled, with each alternately holding more weight. In Street (Prague), 2002, a series of black and white images shot out of a window of the street below during a snowstorm, the images are easily readable, in a manner similar to Jasanský/Polákʼs “abstractions.” But displayed as a series of seven images, the graphic, patterned quality of the snow dominates as the background fades more or less away. In his other works, Grygar builds abstract images for the camera, employing materials such as flour, paper, and light as well as unusual camera angles to create graphic images that defy the flatness of photography and create optically intricate compositions, much in the tradition of the avant-garde photographers of the 1920s and '30s. He is not interested in abstraction for the sake of ornamentation or decoration, but rather as a means for illuminating the perceptual process.
JIRI THYN (b. 1977) also works directly with abstraction, raising questions about the limitations of photography along the way. In his works that inspired the title of this exhibition, 50% Grey (2008), he disrupts the illusion of photography by bringing its science and materials to the fore. In one part of the series, he constructs “negatives” out of layered glass sheets silkscreened with blocks of bright color. He then exposes black and white photographic paper using the color block negatives, a process that creates different shades of grey depending on exposure time. The work is always displayed as two parts, the stratified “negative” and its corresponding photogram, a presentation strategy that reveals the reduction of information that is photography as well as the instability of the notion of the artwork. His title, 50% Grey, is reminiscent of the idea of the perfect negative and print sought after by practitioners such as Ansel Adams, who taught that one ideally exposes for "middle Grey," but that each situation requires a fair amount of tweaking based on the specifics of the scene, and that there has to be room for intuition and experimentation.
MARKETA OTHOVA (b. 1968) - Leçon de Photographie (2007), is composed of seven pictures that depict a white box against a white background. The color of the captured object is no different from its surroundings, so that one would expect it to remain invisible – and yet it turns out to be set off by the shading that outlines the silhouette. Thus, we end up seeing the object in the photograph only due to the difference injected into it by photography. This is also made explicit in the untitled diptych of a floral still life from 2008. Here, Othová has captured one and the same bunch of flowers, first against a dark and then against a light background, with the object thus being captured as light-colored in the first photograph and dark-colored in the second. Combined in a single installation, we tend to consider these two independent images merely as a positive and a negative. The stability of the visual world is most forcefully disrupted in another untitled diptych, this time from 2000. Through painting, Othová links two perfectly distinct photographs in such a way that we consider them identical. Othová has achieved this effect by means of a geometrically reductive painting that leaves only a small cut-out in the middle of the first image ––a segment that appears to fit into the blind spot in the second pictureʼs painted area.
MICHAL PECHOUCEK (b. 1973) - Filmogram #1 (2007) is a set of twenty-four dyptichs of two views of an interior space, shot once every hour for an entire day, for a total of forty-eight exposures. The title of the piece, Filmogram, is a play on the word “photogram,” or an image made by placing objects directly on photographic paper and exposing it to light, thus circumventing the use of a camera and film. By making twenty four exposures a day, and exhibiting them in a row, he makes reference to the fact that film is generally comprised of twenty-four frames per second. Pěchouček is not only a photographer, but has spent most of his artistic career making multi-media works that combine elements of film, painting and performance. Pěchoučekʼs video Pater Noster (2005), references the first two words of the Lordʼs Prayer, and are also used to describe the old-fashioned elevators in Europe that do not stop but continually rotate in a circle, like the motion of a rosary in someoneʼs hands. As the action plays out in the seemingly frozen time and space of still images, it is complicated by the footageʼs up and down scrolling, creating a matrix of duration and direction for the viewer to navigate.
KAREN IRVINE is the curator of the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Columbia College Chicago. She has organized numerous exhibitions including: Audible Imagery: Sound and Photography; Anthony Goicolea; Tracey Baran; Scott Fortino; Shirana Shahbazi: Goftare Nik/Good Words; Jason Salavon; Jin Lee; Paul Shambroom: Evidence of Democracy; Alec Soth: Sleeping by the Mississippi; The Furtive Gaze; and Camera/Action: Performance and Photography, among others. She is a part-time instructor of photography at Columbia College Chicago. She received her MFA in photography from FAMU, Prague and her MA in art history from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
KAREL CISAR is a guest co-curator for 50% Grey. He has been assistant professor of aesthetics and art theory at Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague since 2008. He curated the 5th and 6th Biennial of the Young Artists (2005 and 2008) and the Prague Biennale 2 (2005), as well as exhibitions with Hans-Peter Feldmann, Markéta Othová, Mathias Poledna, Florian Pumhösl and Robin Rhode. A contributor to Camera Austria, Flash Art and Tema Celeste, he is also the editor of Text and Work: The Menard Case (2004) and What is Photography? (2004). He has studied Philosophy at Charles University in Prague and University of Geneva.
50% GREY: CONTEMPORARY CZECH PHOTOGRAPHY RECONSIDERED
January 29 - March 28, 2010
MoCP – Museum of Contemporary Photography
Columbia College Chicago
600 South Michigan Avenue
Chicago IL 60605 - USA