Overdue but not overdone
An artist of many media finally gets her retrospective - in London
Posted: February 13, 2013
Slalom is an assemblage of matches on color reproductions.
By Lizzy Le Quesne
FOR THE POST
The self-taught Czech artist Běla Kolářová's husband, Jiří Kolář, is much better known, and her own remarkable body of work throughout the second half of the 20th century has, until recently, not received the attention it deserves. Co-curated by Raven Row's Alice Motard and the Czech art historian Marie Klimešová, a retrospective at the London gallery makes for a step in rectifying this, presenting Kolářová's career from documentary photography through camera-less photography through her assemblages of domestic objects, offering a vital vision that resonates afresh within theories of conceptualism and feminism.
After a series of photographs of children playing in the suburbs of Prague, Kolářová began experimenting with photographic processes in the 1960s. "Artificial negatives" were made by pressing miniature objects between cellophane squares produced shadow images of brush bristles, unraveled threads, watch cogs, poppy seeds and opaque potato peelings that have astonishing physical clarity and allure. Her photograms, or "light drawings," burned directly onto photographic paper, are forceful, angular abstract markings or hypnotic, whirling circles of black and gray on white, produced by the artist's moving or spinning objects during exposure. Kolářová imaged both the pristine outer form of things and inner, less-distinct energies.
It was through Kolářová's 1966 work Dishes that Motard first encountered the artist at the German art fair dOCUMENTA 12 in 2007: squares of plain and textured glass - variously ornamented with photograms, mirror, hairpins, costume diamantés, plastic bottle caps and fishing flies - stacked upright in rows on plastic plate-drying racks. "I thought it was very, very profound," Motard said. "It has aspects of Op Art and Conceptual Art; it's funny, feminine and very straightforward at the same time." For Motard, this work delicately deconstructed feminine roles within the domestic frame nearly a decade before Martha Rosler's seminal performance film Semiotics of the Kitchen. Motard has brought the work to Raven Row, separating the three racks, placing them in different facings and near a window (where dish-drying racks are invariably found). Light passes through the different opacities and textures of the glasses with giddy, kaleidoscopic effects and shadows accentuate the comic, Venus-flytrap teeth of the racks themselves.
Framed assemblages from 1963 through the 1980s present collections of everyday items: paper clips, pen nibs or bottle caps arranged as cataloguing "swatches" and abstract patterns or into larger versions of the original form. Parts are disconnected from one another and given space. In 1984's Levers and Resistances, tiny springs and catches form an elegant pattern out of tensions broken up and laid to rest, disarmed, giving a kind of respect to these usually forgotten parts.
A strong sense of the human body also pervades the assemblages. Many works feature objects that contain and present the female body: makeup, pins and bunches of hair, hooks and eyes, jewelry beads and broken razor blades. Two striking works arrange the blades into intricate gridlike patterns, creating flamboyant monochromes of surprising beauty.
A series of drawings on paper in a pastel palette of real cosmetics - powders, rouges, lipstick - radically removes the material from skin and examines it as stain. In 1979's Day after Day, rows of identically arranged makeup applications repeat on the paper: an arc of eyebrow pencil, a blotch of rouge, a smudge of turquoise above mascara-covered lashes, all serving as catalog of routine actions. Other images show blank faces in foundation creams, scattered with random patterns of eye or lip details, floating separate from the masks. Presented as a daily function, this sugared color scheme of powder and oil reveals itself as essential context for a woman meeting with the world.
Another shows a woman's face in profile, lightly sketched, seemingly speaking, spitting or breathing vertical torrents of colored lines and squiggles reminiscent of Japanese calligraphy. The makeup transmogrifies further from grooming product through pure color, into language, into art. The woman, represented in cosmetics, exists in addition to them, entering into an active role of speech or creativity.
The works sometimes draw a visceral sexuality from the objects. Klimešová said Kolářová explored the "big confrontation between male and female" through objects and their repeated reference to the "gesture of pressing." In 1983's Large Lever, Kolářová neatly spaces tiny tin keyholes and handles, snaking a looped string through them in a sinister curvilinear shape. The rounded upper end seems to form a breast, with a nipple straining upward; the elongated lower end ripples at the sides to suggest a substantial penis boring down. In other works, pins and pincushions, two-part press-studs and hook and eyes represent interlocking sexual parts. Two-looped hook fasteners wittily depict a diagrammatic rendition of male genitalia.
The show reveals how Kolářová's persistent, private, diaristic approach - collecting, closely observing and arranging personal items and everyday rituals - opens a space for poetic reverie around the felt qualities of the material world. Texts by the curators, the theorists Karel Císař and Matthew S. Witkovsky, and one by the artist herself (commissioned in 1968 by the visionary curator of Czech photography Anna Fárová), affirm the complexity and boldness of Kolářová's work and the consistency of her exceptional inquiry in a field between figuration and abstraction.
Lizzy Le Quesne can be reached at