‘I only paint what I see’, says Vladimír Kokolia, one of the Czech Republic’s most established contemporary artists. For most, seeing the ordinary and the everyday’s an act of involuntary dismissal. For Kokolia, seeing the everyday’s wonderment. His first UK exhibition, Epiphany, hosted by the Ikon gallery in Birmingham, is a precious lesson in looking and seeing. The works on show cover a variety of media and a wide time span, offering a synthesis of Kokolia’s broad practice. Drawings, installations, videos and paintings explore novel ways of looking at the images around us.
Epiphany offers an unmediated experience. Much in line with the vision of the artist who feels discontent at ‘the human compulsion towards incessant labelling’, there aren’t any information panels or labels on the walls. Chronologies and narratives have been abandoned. In order to enhance seeing, the curators avoidextraneous deterrents. The only reference remains the images themselves. Visitors must do without props and rely on their sight. However, for those in need of bearings, the artist’s drawn a map of the exhibition with dates and titles.
From man to nature, turmoil to serenity, the works line a revelatory journey. Made in the mid-1980s and part of Big Cycle, the almost one hundred drawings inhabiting the first room are grotesque depictions of hell. Human figures in black ink devour each other, time’s suspended. Although they were created when Czechoslovakia was in the grips of Communism, the artist refutes contextualization. What we see is a microanalysis of human nature at work. The artist has zoomed into it, under the skin of history, and captured timeless conflict, violence and absurdity.
In the same room, this unrestrained tension spills over in colour. The monochrome Storm Center (2001) picks up this turmoil in strokes and hues of blue. A vortex is at full throttle, its dynamism all-engulfing. The neighbouring Branches of Ash in Backlighting (2016) is more than a black canvas. By varying one’s viewing position, the rushed brushwork vibrates and reveals almost imperceptible traces of light. Branches of trees animate the black chasm. The intensity of the experience depends on the viewers availability to abandon themselves to the paintings’ guidance. Seeing ceases to be a granted right but a privilege. As the images gradually become fragmented and abstracted, tranquillity settles in. The majestic rooms of the Ikon gallery enhance the solemnity of Kokolia’s nature paintings.
There’s a subtle dissensus, as he’scaptured humble fragments of the everyday that reject lofty appellatives. Sunset (2005) is a mental image translated into paint. Light and colour meet as though filtered through the stained glass windows of a cathedral. Reds and blacks punctuate the softness of warmer coloursin labyrinthine constructions. Interconnected lines and planes suggest a self-contained universe where everything’s related. The image of the sunset’s a world in itself. Kokolia painted most of his nature works in Veverské Nnínice, the small Moravian village where he lives. They’re infused with his closeness to nature. As someone who’s practised tai-chi for a long time and has deeply engaged in Eastern philosophies, Kokolia’s centeredness comes across in his vision. He offers a spirituality within reach. One just needs to know how to look.
The last room articulates Kokolia’s spiritual approach especially well. It’s a camera obscura installation, with images projected upside down. The artist doesn’t concern himself with the search for truth but accepts the given image. For Kokolia, everything we see is real, no matter how it’s presented. There’s no need to go any further, we must stop in our tracks and take it at face value.
As visitors we have to make our own way through the gallery and leave with the fruits of our own labour. In Kokolia’s own words, the visit must be akin to ‘stealing, snatching’ an experience. The artist wants to turn us from passive spectators into active participants. It’s the only way to welcome the revelation. Once we let go of our preconceived ways of seeing, Epiphany’s a guaranteed conversion.
Epiphany is part of a series of celebratory events marking the centenary of the founding of Czechoslovakia in 1918 and the Prague Spring in 1968 taking place this year in the UK. It runs from July 4th to September 9th at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham.