Visual Arts

EXHIBITION REVIEW: Black Hole Generation: ‘The Kings are Back’ – Returning empty-handed?

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February 24, 2017

Black Hole Generation (BHG) is a Prague-based collective of young artists, whose core members, David Krňanský, Martin Lukáč and Julius Reichel, are now showing eighteen works at London’s small Dot Project Gallery. Having studied together at UMPRUM, Prague’s Academy for Arts and Design, one of the most innovative institutions in the country, BHG undoubtedly aims to present an ambitious, contemporary programme. Yet what we find at The Dot Project may surprise us: rather than conceptual pieces or installations, BHG show twelve large-scale, abstract paintings in bright colours and six prints in the white cube gallery space – a traditional, rather than groundbreaking,  approach to culture.

Krňanský

Work by David Krňanský

Each in their distinctive style, the works can easily be distinguished by artist: Krňanský’s works are in muted reds and blues with naïve graphic forms that largely resemble arrows, crowns and clouds. Each canvas is divided into quarters, creating a kind of shadow-play, or a bright kind of chess-board. Lukáč’s paintings focus on primary colours, overwritten by thick black signs and wild scribble, while Reichel’s are the most colourful works, but also the most restrictive in form, mostly focusing on a variation of squares. Clearly demarcated as each artist’s style may seem, the works are united by their titles, simply numbered as BHG 1 to 12.

The press release explains that BHG examines ‘contemporary culture and its propensity to overload us with visual stimulation.’ And ‘it is as if the works are asking us to decode something while at the same time destroying any progress we might make’.

Where does this leave us? Perhaps we can understand and interrogate contemporary culture better through a traditional medium like painting by forcing us to take a step back and consider what we see? One can’t help but wonder whether, in the ‘post-truth’ era, such a demonstratively obscurantist comment on contemporary culture really is the way forward.

Maybe the paintings could better be described as a reflection, rather than a critical interrogation of the modern cultural scene: in comparison to earlier works by the collective, like the 2016 ‘Pure Hate’ installation in Prague, the group’s focus on painting in this instance seems bland at best, regressive at worst. This isn’t to say painting can’t function as a critique of contemporary culture, but the image’s near-abstraction mostly recalls abstract expressionism, something that called for ‘art for art’s sake’, rather than representing a critical stance towards contemporary life.

Lukáč

Work by Martin Lukáč

What’s more, the title of the show, while conceivably an ironic statement, strongly recalls the idea of the male artistic genius – something controversial for all the wrong reasons at a time when feminist debates are becoming more current in public again. It’s difficult to see how BHG’s artists try to contest all the implications that the framing of their show evokes and, certainly, their earlier, more challenging works don’t entitle ‘The Kings are Back’ to be viewed in the same context.  These more recent works have nothing wrong with them as such: it’s how they’re framed as a critical stance which doesn’t seem borne out by the paintings themselves.

If contemplation of contemporary culture if what the exhibition wants to evoke, The Kings are Back takes a strange approach too it.  All too reminiscent of the  traditional, patriarchal structures of much early 20th century painting, the show, if anything, staunchly underlines that these hierarchies are still in place today: the male artist as a genius (‘the Kings’), the white cube that removes art into some kind of ‘sacred space’, the idea that ‘high art’, so strongly dominated by painting, carries some kind of ‘noble message’. The apparent necessity to attribute higher meaning to the images, which, considered critically, are simply decorative commodities, undermines the greater impact they could have had if simply posed as what they are. Ultimately, ‘The Kings are Back’  shows us that in the image-burdened world of today, painting once more finds itself in crisis, and nostalgically harks back to its heyday, proudly flourishing its shortcomings along with its virtues.

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BHG: The Kings are Back can be viewed at the Dot Project, 94 Fulham Road, till March 20 2017.

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