Sacred and Profane is Czech artist Jakub Španhel’s first solo exhibition in the UK, organised by Frameless Gallery, in whose low space Španhel’s paintings reach almost from floor to ceiling. Their dark, bold colours contrast with the light interior – yet, the more we find out about Španhel’s work, the more we feel it actually represents something cosy and personal, rather than the dark abstractions of architecture we’re given at first sight.
All the works on display were painted between 2009 and 2015, providing us with an insight into Španhel’s development as a painter in the last six years – the later works containing much richer colours with flashes of gold – especially San Marco, which is one of Španhel’s newest additions to the series, depicting St. Marc’s Cathedral in Venice. It’s the most colourful image on display, hung in a prime position, perfectly underscoring the importance of light in this painter’s compositions.
Most of the works are architectural views, abstracted in greys and black with touches of gold and small flashes of colour. Španhel’s painted them from photographs, and they mostly focus on Gothic and Baroque churches in Prague – SV Barbara for example, or SV Vit – simply because, as the artist explains, Prague is where he lives and there are lots of churches there. Mixed with these are paintings of Banks, like Central Bank of Brazil and Bank of England, as well as two pictures of chandeliers and a petrol station. What’s the connection between these seemingly random subjects?
The answer’s very personal, but philosophical too. On the one hand – the artist explains matter-of-factly – his grandmother was catholic, so the church images are a reminder of a tradition he grew up with. On the other, he’s fascinated with the idea of light on an architectural and a spiritual level, both things being embodied in the buildings. One aspect of Gothic architecture was a focus on stained glass windows, whose eerie atmosphere would evoke awe, thus bringing people closer to God.
Yet, for Španhel, the light isn’t exclusively religious: people, he says, go to church to better themselves. Even if their resolutions only last while they’re physically in the church, they experience this spiritual ‘light,’ this aim to better themselves, through the architecture. Španhel’s church paintings thus contain something of a ‘sacred’ element, but with the irony that the spiritual light is, all too often, site-specific and removed from everyday life.
The banks, petrol stations and chandeliers counter the spirituality of the church paintings, representing the profane of the outside world. Is it a coincidence Španhel started with the series just a year after the financial crisis? Yes, he says, he’s more interested in the everyday than in politics. His Prague patron works at the National Bank, which is where his interest came from, along with the idea that banks, rather like churches, are symbols – for the nation, in this case, rather than a religion. They’re also places where people meet, as are petrol-stations. And the chandeliers? They’re everyday objects too, says Španhel, allowing him to control light himself: he has them in his Prague flat.
It’s strange yet endearing so much emphasis is placed here on the personal and non-political. There’s something lovely about the works: highly finished pieces of fine art that contain Španhel’s down-to-earth and comprehensible philosophy of everyday life. It’s refreshing to see an exhibition where the loftiness so often a feature of contemporary art is dispersed by such an authentic focus on people – their traditions and day-to-day lives – yet never becoming mundane or less than elevated itself.
Jakub Španhel’s Sacred and Profane continues at Project space, 18 Maddox St. Mayfair, until 25th October 2015. The exhibition is supported by the Czech Centre, London.