To Be a Lamp

Pavla Pečinková
Viktor Karlík

“As a lamp, I would yearn to shine beyond the spot the engineer had set for me,” admits Viktor Karlík, a visual artist who has established himself within the Czech art scene as a distinctive figure with non-conformist views and attitudes, both personal and artistic.

Although he lacks a formal academic education, Karlík has achieved professionalism in a number of fields. He devotes his time primarily to painting and sculpture, but his range of activities includes graphic art and printmaking, graphic design, photography, editing and publishing, as well as curatorial projects focusing on the work of unknown or underrated authors. Over the last few years he has sometimes accompanied his visual artworks with his own poetic texts. “He creates as a result of internal pressure caused by an excess of artistic invention, which constantly leads him to new experiments,” said Egon Bondy, the legendary authority of the Czech cultural underground, when characterising Karlík’s work.

The underground was in fact the environment in which Karlík embarked on his artistic life at the beginning of the 1980s; he did so entirely unofficially, outside of the normalised cultural scene regulated by the directives of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. He initiated his activities in the samizdat sphere when still a student at the secondary graphic art school in Prague’s Hellichova Street, co-founding the ‘subterranean’ music group Národní třída (National Street), in which he was active as one of the authors of texts and as a vocalist; together with Jáchym Topol and Ivan Lamper he published and edited Revolver Revue, the most significant cultural periodical of the Czech underground, which is published to this day and still maintains its independent stance and critical approach. He soon became the most distinctive visual artist of the underground in Prague, which up to that point had developed mostly in the area of music and literature (Karlík’s work was exhibited in apartments and other private spaces; among other places, in the 1980s his paintings decorated premises frequented by the group The Plastic People of the Universe, whose arrest in 1976 had been an indirect impulse for the initiative Charter 77).

The early period of Karlík’s work was characterised by a wild radicality and negation of academic conventions. Karlík reacted to the outwardly hopeless existential perspective given by the “outsider” position of the underground by adopting a furious tempo of life: he took part in boisterous bohemian parties and destructive happenings, and his paintings and sculptures of that time are typified by an excess of internal emotional pressure, obsession with artistic work and an inexhaustible potential of energy and imagination. He painted fantastical visions and spectrally stylised self-portraits referring to the work of Josef Váchal, the self-made artist and heretic, whose starting point was symbolism and expressionism. He created occult idols and fetishistic artworks, altars and caskets, barbarically wild sculptures, ranging from the ornamental to the psychedelic, combining demanding classical techniques, such as encaustic, relief prints and cuts and gold plating, with assemblages of profane materials and found objects. In the mid-1980s his impulsive expressive execution to some extent resonated with the work of the postmodern generation of artists which reacted to the impulses of Neo-Expressionism and the transavantgarde. The Czech “New Wave” began spontaneously with unofficial exhibitions entitled Confrontations (Konfrontace), but quickly extended beyond these confines into the public art scene which the Communist regime was no longer fully able to control. In April 1987, Karlík took part in the sixth Confrontation exhibition, as yet held in a private space in Prague; in March 1989 he introduced his work to the wider public for the first time at an exhibition entitled Past and Future (Minulost a budoucnost) in Prague’s Vinohrady Market (Vinohradská tržnice). He differed from other members of his artistic generation significantly, however: his distinctive attitudes could not find a footing in the official sphere, nor did his “wild painting” respond to the postmodern theses of the time. Karlík’s work does not tend towards an emptying of artistic signs and symbols and the questioning of the autonomous meanings of artistic statements, instead remaining connected to original expressionist starting points and the principles of personal existential testimony.

At the end of the 1980s Viktor Karlík personally discovered Duchamp and reacted to his legacy. Engrossed by the imperceptible boundaries between art and non-art, he attempted to use conceptual approaches and impersonal means of expression. In one of his objects he symbolically put a brush to sleep in a crib, in another he even laid it to rest in a coffin. For a time he abandoned painting as his primary means of expression, and from a starting point of mapping the internal space of his self he arrived at an investigation of the space around him. He worked mostly with found objects, or their traces and imprints. He focused on waste and discarded objects, the devastated fragments of things, recycling them and giving them new life in the space of a painting, sculpture or assemblage. Fixed onto a clean background and framed, they function as aesthetic artistic signs and metamorphose into fish, masks, strange beings and angels. Karlík developed a different variation on the principle of readymade in the graphic cycle Canals (Kanály). He made imprints of the iron covers of hydrants, water pipes and gas mains, conscientiously documenting the place, time and other circumstances of the artistic record. Another artistic position, which strives to return found objects to the role of artistic artefacts, is represented by a series of sculptures consisting of simple mock-ups of typical objects founds on the streets of Smíchov – street lamps, chimneys, street signs, public announcement loudspeakers. These include the Funeral Car (Pohřební vůz) and Incinerator (Spalovna), which in terms of content underscore the disturbing culmination of this apparently cold and impersonal cycle.

Everyday and overlooked objects from the environment of Smíchov, at one time a quarter on the outskirts of Prague where Karlík was born, grew up and lives to this day, remain an enduring element of his work. Nor did the artist ever abandon the paradoxical interlinking of concept with personal expression and statement. That is the basis from which all the cycles in subsequent years ensued. Michael Špirit, the literary critic whose text accompanied Karlík’s book Hands of Poets (Ruce básníků) in 2005, characterised his projects as a remarkable symbiosis of “instinct and deliberation, faithfulness to original starting points and a permanent critical evaluation of the perceived world.”

About halfway through the 1990s, Karlík once again began to focus on painting. In a cycle of small-format still-lifes, characteristically entitled Nature morte (Dead Nature), there once again appear, besides dead fish and other dead animals, found objects that he came across in the streets, picked up and revamped – this time, however, the discarded remains of things or living organisms submissively returned to the surface of the canvas, the deserted space of the painting.

The existentially attuned implication of this cycle is constructed primarily on the meaning of the chosen iconographic elements and the artistically passive descriptive paintings do not yet utilise the full expressive potentials of the medium, whereas the subsequent series of paintings entitled Centre of the Periphery (Centrum periferie), exhibited in 1999, makes focused use of the specific language of artistic stylisation. In terms of their form, these paintings are economical, bordering on austere; the choice of motif is sparing, yet focused towards a maximum intensity of expression. Their hard, angular morphology in its own way harks back to the principles of Cubo-Expressionism, a key period of Czech modern art when the artistic work was still unequivocally understood to be an expression of deep human experience, communicated through the medium of distinctive individual capacities inherent to the artistic sign.

Karlík is interested in waste materials, neglected and ephemeral things that have been abandoned and thrown away, whose time has passed or that have been condemned to extinction. He “saves” them, turning our attention towards them and giving them the possibility of new life. At the end of the twentieth century, the classic disciplines of the visual arts – painting, sculpture, relief techniques - also essentially found themselves consigned to the scrapheap. While the main current of Czech contemporary art continues to focus on concept, installation and new media, developing the juvenile ideal of “art in the age of technical reproducibility”, Karlík on the other hand is maturing towards a full appreciation of the possibilities that the interwar avant-garde movements had so generously rejected. He has already been through his own “end of art” period at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, immediately afterwards returning on another level to “antiquated” techniques such as oil painting, watercolours, linocuts and sculpture. He has developed his favourite motifs with various techniques, naming and dating them as separate artefacts, thus pointing to the forgotten potentials of the autonomous language of artistic materials, techniques and media, on whose validity doubt had been cast over the previous decade (how many times has that happened?). He also started using the patina coated plaster technique, one that had degenerated as a symptom of kitsch or academic art, and over the last few years (since about 2004) he has even been extending the life of his “found” objects, beings and situations by employing traditional bronze casts.

Karlík’s work has developed in cycles focused on the exploration of the expressive possibilities of a selected technological method and at the same time through periodically returning to central ideas and metaphors, whose artistic conception appears outwardly dissimilar, but is internally linked by a hidden - or open - biographical motivation. It represents a personal diary of sorts, in which the artist intently reflects on the space of his existence, the things in it as well as the events that take place there. Over the last ten years or more Karlík has thus been circling – obsessively and persistently like a moth – around street lamps, fascinated by light.

In their essence, the artworks included in the book The City Lights make internal energy their theme, so symptomatic of all of Karlík’s activities. At one time he expended it through the spontaneous gestures of unbridled painting, now he projects it into the dramatic angles and contrasts of his paintings and prints, or lets it pulsate in the rigid blocks of material.

The principle of light, which has been one of Karlík’s main themes in his most recent period, is already evident in the sculpture Night Passage (Noční plavba) from the mid-1980s, consisting of a little boat with burning candles employing real flames to achieve a magical impression. Since the 1990s, Karlík has been working with light in a less straightforward and yet more simple manner: he makes its presence felt through the use of unimpassioned elements and signs, such as lamps, chimneys, unused or burnt-out matches, cigarette butts, but also lightning, the moon or the stars, which are unsettling in their ordinariness, however.

In Karlík’s interpretation, light - the basic condition of biological life as well as the traditional symbol of spiritual existence - has a real, as well as an unreal existence. He interprets it more as a symbol of life, than spirit. He constructs bronze monuments to the ungraspable, the transient and changeable, and yet eternal, element in which we reside, but which we do not know and are unable to define. Light materialised in Karlík’s objects does not propagate rectilinearly; its paths are sinuous, refracted and unpredictable, deformed by obstacles and collisions. In these hard, ascetic, fixedly bordered shapes we can read a multi-layered testimony about experiencing the world.

Karlík’s metaphors are entertaining, as well as oppressive, they include ironic detachment as well as existential invocation. They bear witness to the enjoyment of the things that the artist encounters, a playful imagination which can change the non-living into the living, the collision of material oppression and the desire to shine and burst into thousands of rays of light. But they also urgently impart the finality and limitedness of human beings, which is often forgotten in the current consumer euphoria and hectic way of life: in Karlík’s work we see the human being standing fixedly in the light cone of a lamp of its own creation, not perceiving any other light; here, lamps transformed into strange beings recount the unsettling story of a revived reality and life made tangible: chimneys kneel down and beg for light; cigarette butts remind us of transformation into smoke and ash.

“Creatures of a day! What is a man?
What is he not? A dream of a shadow
Is our mortal being. But when there comes to men
A gleam of splendour given of heaven,
Then rests on them a light of glory
And blessed are their days.”

wrote the Greek lyric poet Pindar in 500 BC (translation above by Geoffrey S. Conway); despite all the progress of civilisation and technology, his awareness of human limitations remains current even at the beginning of the third millennium.

Karlík is not only returning to traditional artistic methods, but also to a conception of artistic work as personal statement. He entered the art scene within the framework of the underground and he learnt to go against the current, to defend his personal responsibility and inner independence, even if that meant standing entirely alone. Once again, he is placing the principle of artistic production against the strategies of postproduction, which predominate in the representative exhibitions of contemporary art. He does not rely on the attractiveness of new media, which offer limitless possibilities of mediating information, but do not inquire about the meaning of the data transmitted. While computer monitors, lasers and virtual light installations flash in exhibition rooms, Karlík transforms light into material objects. He espouses art that requires immediate sensory contact, personal experience, art which cannot be communicated by reproduction or digitalisation, and attempts to give back its former “aura”. At a time when anything can become art, he makes bold attempts to see if even the classical artistic artefact can once again find its place in this wide-open space.

Translated by Marek Tomin
(in: Viktor Karlík, The City Lights, Prague 2010, s.9-17)

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