Thursday, March 3, 2011

Photography's post-revolution evolution

The exhibition "Mutating Medium" at the Rudolfinum is a 20-year survey mapping changes in the use of photography by Czech artists since the 1989 revolution. Ironically, much of the most compelling work in the show comes from photographers who have not altogether abandoned the medium's history and traditional qualities.

In the past two decades, monumental societal changes, a flood of impulses from abroad and the digital revolution have combined to fundamentally alter the way Czech artists employ photography. Yet despite all the technological advances, and even with analog photography in its death throes, a significant contingent of Czech photographers remains rooted in the country's rich Modernist tradition. Some are exploring - through conceptual approaches or more classic methods - whether the potential of classic photography is truly depleted.

The show boasts about 150 pieces by 20 artists and artistic duos, and curator Pavel Vančát has organized the show into five "chapters": Pictorialists, Strategists, Manipulators, Non-photographers and After Photography. These are not closed categories; there is considerable overlap, and a conspicuous number of works are not photographs at all.

Vančát's stated aim is to "trace the evolution of Czech art over the past 20 years as seen through the prism of the photographic medium." Conversely, the show also charts the metamorphosis of photography in the specific context of Czech art.

The chapter "Pictorialists" - a term denoting pre-Modernist art photography that tried to emulate painting - begins with two paintings from the early 1990s by Antonín Střížek, executed in a straight-forward realistic style with amplified colors. This artist programmatically uses photographs as a tool in his painting, so his inclusion in this section turns historical Pictorialism on its head by showing paintings based on photography.

The legacy of the best-known Czech photographer working in the Pictorialist tradition, Josef Sudek, is most apparent in gorgeous contact prints by Václav Jirásek and portraits by Ivan Pinkava (overt homages by Filip Turek and Michal Kalhous appear in a later section).

Pavel Baňka's photo montages also link to Czech Modernist traditions. Pinkava's portrait of the compelling Czech artist Václav Stratil daintily holding a magnolia to his face segues into the chapter "Strategists," where works by this key figure of pre- and post-1989 Czech art appear.

By using photography as a device, whether as a component of installations, to document performances, or as a substructure for examining cultural and personal identity, these "Strategists" helped change the way photography is perceived in the local context.

Also in this section is one of the first local instances of a photo-based installation and a further exploration of self-identity, Milena Dopitová's Four Masks (1992), distanced from viewers by a brick "swimming pool." The duo of Lukáš Jasanský and Martin Polák, well known for their poetic approach to seemingly banal subject matter, first appear in the "Pictorialists" section and surface again here with their "Abstractions" series.

Abstraction in photography is a strong thread in the show, and other examples here include works by Jiří Kovanda and Markéta Othová. Michal Pěchouček also first appears as a "Strategist" with three linocuts based on old family photographs, calling to mind the technique of photogravure and, like Střížek, pointing to the cross-fertilization of photography and other media.

In the space between main exhibition rooms, Zbyněk Baladrán is showing a short archival film superimposed and nearly blotted out with fields of text recalling historical events of 1985, invoking the traditional role of photography as a repository of history and memory.

The "Manipulators" section features one of the first Czech artists to join the digital revolution, Veronika Bromová. Works from her iconic "Views" series from the mid-1990s, which combine self-portraiture with anatomical illustrations, also signal the emergence of feminist discourse in Czech art.

Digital technology also enabled Štěpánka Šimlová to create portentous composite virtual landscapes. Through simple manipulation, Filip Turek's Josef Sudek Revisited substitutes a real egg with a chocolate Kinder Surprise, the only colorful element in the black-and-white still-life tribute.

Nondigital works also have seeped into this section, notably the luminous little contact prints of Jirásek, a large dream-like seascape by Baňka, paintings by Střížek, the "paparazzi sculpture" Photoflash by Jiří Černický, and photos with text and drawing by Daniel Pitín, all of which seem more fitting to other categories.

The term "Non-photographers" (nefotografové; the English term "artists using photography" never caught on in the Czech Republic) began to be used for artists who ignored or negated traditional photographic subject matter. Here we find Jasanský and Polák's "Regional Photography" landscape cycle, Othová's "Mayday" series of geometrical sunburst configurations that recall photograms, and Michal Kalhous' low-contrast cut-out photos (an old stove and a rabbit, among others). Alena Kotzmannová's more aesthetic and enigmatic works also appear here. There is a lot of overlap between this section and the "Strategists."

Finally, the chapter "After Photography" looks at the trend of some artists to reconsider and deconstruct the medium of photography itself. Jiří Thýn's installations break down the mechanics of photography, while his classical still life of pink roses was chosen as the show's poster image, emphasizing an ongoing dialogue in Czech art with the medium's history and its essential qualities. Also in this room is Pěchouček's Filmogram #1, a set of 24 diptychs of striped walls and panels with unexposed black strips of varying width between frames, highlighting a possibility not obtainable with a digital camera.

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