Jiri Kovanda: Prague Summer

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Published July 17, 2009

 

Though he’s one of the most famous Czech artists and a leading figure on the second generation of Czech Actionist artists, Jiri Kovanda has been overlooked in the United States for the past 30 years. Maybe it’s because the artists with whom he is most often compared—the Vienna Actionists in Europe, American Conceptualists Chris Burden and Vito Acconci—are burned into the collective psyche for producing ‘70s-era art at its most explosively macho. Kovanda’s practice has always been relatively gentle, and romantic: The “actions” he’s staged and documented include kissing through glass and scratching away graffiti hearts with his fingernails. Kovanda’s practice is all sotto voce. It’s about finding importance in simple, day-to-day, transitory gestures.

A mid-career retrospective generally involves two galleries honoring an artist concurrently: Right now, New York is getting a chance to experience the work of Kovanda at three locations. The main exhibition, 1, 2, 3, is a joint solo show at two Chelsea galleries: Andrew Kreps and Wallspace. The second exhibition, at Ludlow 38, is a two-person show with fellow Eastern Bloc artist Július Koller. The pieces on view at Andrew Kreps were produced from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s; the art at Wallspace was created in the past two years.

The exhibition at Andrew Kreps leads with black-and-white photographic documentation of actions Kovanda performed in the 1970s-many of which are so visually inconclusive that it’s hard to see exactly what method or manner of action took place. The most indecisive images (which, significantly, are often snapshots of people or interiors) are the least explained of all the works-they are given no titles or explanatory text to guide the viewer. These works are followed with charming, quixotic drawings and collage Kovanda made in 1977, just prior to, or in conjunction with, the timing of many of the actions.

The show at Wallspace features a slew of commercially-produced household objects (ketchup bottles, bricks, flashlights), re-contextualized as Conceptual artworks. “Untitled (Equilibrium)” 2007 Is visible from the gallery entrance: it’s a tantalizing bag of what appears to be Pepto Bismol-colored candies dangling from the end of a string. The string, secured in loops in the walls at various intervals, winds its way around the circumference of the gallery’s two rooms. Dangling from the other end of the string is a hammer. As an exploration of the aesthetics of physics, the piece delights with its sincerity. The viewer is left once again left to recalculate the effects of simplicity on a culture devoted to higher and higher degrees of complication.


Andrew Kreps Gallery is located at 522 West 22 St, New York. Wallspace is located at 619 West 27 Street. Ludlow38 is located at 38 Ludlow Street, New York.