Clewing about Schovánek

It is a truism to say that a picture can tell a story. But it starts to get interesting when the same is true of an entire exhibition: in this case the individual works function as parts of an abstract vocabulary which combine to form a larger context. It is not important whether they initially seem to “fit together” in terms of form and content. On the contrary: the more diverse the character of the works included in such an exhibition may appear superficially, the broader the spectrum of messages, cross-references and associations becomes as soon as the viewer has immersed himself in this vocabulary, adding together the paintings, reliefs and modified Ready-Mades.
In the case of the Czech-Canadian artist Marek Schovánek, the result of this addition process is always more than the sum of its parts. Schovánek shows us dark landscapes and abstract stripes, letter-paintings, portraits and “images” taken from advertising; taken as a whole, they form a narrative that says a great deal about the state and possibilities of art at the beginning of the 21st century. What is an artist still capable of achieving – whether he paints, creates objects, or both – in the face of the manifold influences which confront him in the cultural and political sphere, on the personal and the social level? And to which, accordingly, he must react?
Schovánek’s reply is crystal clear: the artist must intervene, he is free to denounce or to ironically trace serious, disquieting events back to their often absurd origins. At the same time, according to Schovánek, he must take great care not to act as if he were the first to do so. Over the past decades art has developed so rapidly, trying out all conceivable styles, concepts, ideas and world views, that the artist is left with little room to do anything truly new. Unless he fits into this tradition of action painting, pop and concept art, photographic realism, minimalism, performance and video art. Only then is he able to play with it, create something of his own out of the prop-room, creating associations and spreading messages without provoking accusations of naiveté.
That is why an exhibition by Marek Schovánek initially confronts us with a provocative heterogeneity. All the same, each part has a meaning that is not restricted to itself alone, but rather refers to its surroundings as well, radiating out to them. An image of the destruction of the environment would not be very original in itself were it not for an aspect that signalizes to the viewer: it is only a picture, it’s only painted, a combination of colors and canvas. Thus, for example, the apocalyptic vision of a dead, fire-ravaged forest is flanked by four colorful, completely abstract drip paintings. With the highly concrete presence of their paint they allude to the fact that the picture in their midst is, likewise, a mere product of the artistic will. But that is not all. Clued in to the materiality of the landscape painting by this reference to its painterly aspects, one takes a closer look and realizes that Schovánek has used a special, watery solution. In fact, it is a drink and a symbol – Coca Cola. This is one more step on the road to interpretation: the critique of a world-wide, omnipresent, globalized and globalizing capitalism.
These kinds of interactions can be seen in all of Schovánek’s pictures, no matter how one groups them. This patchwork arrangement reflects Marek Schovánek’s patchwork biography. Born in 1965 in what was then the Socialist Republic of Czechoslovakia, he emigrated to Canada with his parents as a child. He studied art at the University of Alberta in Edmonton before moving to Berlin in 1993 and setting up an additional residence in the now-open city of Prague, where his family still had its roots.
This meandering between the systems, this stroll along the fracture lines of recent history is the subtext that shapes Marek Schovánek’s art. Life and art are both filled with possibilities, eventualities and decisions that ensure that the larger whole is in constant motion. Schovánek expresses this process of dissecting pictures and their interpretations into a multitude of options most pithily in the so-called triptychs. The term is somewhat misleading: these are not the usual three paintings, hung next to each other and interrelated. Here the surface is a panel with rotating mechanical elements such as those used in street advertising to present three different posters in succession.
Schovánek makes use of this advertising technique to link three of his paintings in sequence. To do this, he cuts the paintings in long strips and attaches them to the rotating tubes. The succession of images is powered by electric motors: once one has been visible for a time, the slats make a 120 degree turn, and the second image appears. The process repeats itself, and the third takes its place. As if by sleight of hand, the artist keeps pulling up new images that direct the viewer’s perceptions first in one direction and then in another. Glued on. A smiling advertising Madonna, a poured picture, a stylized landscape, a mutant, a canvas with a blue abstract grid pattern, the St. Hubertus symbol – the formal, the critical, the narrative, these are the components with which Schovánek writes his visual novel. He is telling us nothing less than what art can be. And what it is capable of.
Ulrich Clewing, 2007

Translation Isabel Cole