The exposed gazing of Vladimír Kokolia Author:Miroslav Ambroz Date: 2013-09-27 Size:
Vladimír Kokolia is among the most important and successful artists in the Czech Republic. In 1990 he became the first laureate of the Jindřich Chalupecký Award, the most prestigious prize for artists under 35 years of age.

Vladimír Kokolia is among the most important and successful artists in the Czech Republic. In 1990 he became the first laureate of the Jindřich Chalupecký Award, the most prestigious prize for artists under 35 years of age. Since then he has had more than 80 solo exhibitions in the top galleries and participated in around 300 group exhibitions. His paintings are represented in Czech and international collections. Even though he considers himself to be primarily a painter, notice has also been taken of his various other activities: from soil composting, to writing essays and reviews, which he usually publishes on his blog, to holding lectures, public discussions, workshops and performances. For several years he performed with the alternative rock group “E” as a vocalist and songwriter. A professor and vice-president at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, Kokolia also has a family and maintains the family homestead in a village 200 km from his workplace. He has published several books, and in the past year a documentary feature film was made about him.

Kokolia creates in a kind of seeming chaos, making his own frames, on which he then stretches the canvas himself, in the courtyard or barn, not really having a studio per se. Searching for and finding complex intellectual or mystical meaning in his works is intrinsic for him, even though he denies this. He can be simultaneously introverted and extroverted, introspective in private and then stepping out into the public arena when the need arises – including in literary form: For example, in his recently published book Jení (Is-ing) he imparts his multi-layered views on a range of issues, most of them far removed from art-making and the art world. Kokolia reveals things about himself which people normally do not talk about, and in doing so he is candid and funny. From his texts, just as from his canvases, it is clear that he looks at the world from a completely different perspective than most other people.

His images are unsettling in their ambiguity. His large-scale canvases act like visual meshes in which our eye moves along trajectories which are not intrinsic to our own experience. Two such pictures exhibited on opposite walls may cause us to become lost in their labyrinth. The painter does not create a representation as an illusion or an imitation of a thing, but as a kind of structure, a framework, which calls upon the viewer for a greater degree of concentration and engagement. The longer we look at them, the more ways we find to read them. Heightened attention and effort may paradoxically cause the totally opposite effect – we carefully examine the traces of the brush, the coloured stains on the canvas, but the picture then recedes from us and we do not see it, do not discover it. Kokolia wants to teach us to see through his eyes, and we can achieve this if we are willing to cast aside rigid formulas and allow our own existing worldview to collapse for a while. The result may be that the image appears before us, surprisingly and unexpectedly – a phenomenon that could be called wonderment – a term which he himself likes to use. His paintings are like living organisms with their own inner logic, open systems which are interrelated.

Vladimír Kokolia was born in the former Czechoslovakia in 1956. The era during which he grew up can be characterized as the transition between the communist regime’s hardline Stalinist phase to the brief period of political and cultural liberalization that later became known as the Prague Spring. After years of isolation from the cultural tradition of the Western world, there was a rush to open the door towards mutual awareness. In August 1968, Soviet tanks put an end to this process of renewal, and the country was plunged into isolation for another 21 years. The 1970s was a tiresome, psychically depressing period, with a number of meaningless strategic plans which led to a kind of Kafkaesque dichotomy. Most people kept their heads down and followed a recipe for survival: In public it was necessary to feign enthusiastic support for the ruling regime, then in private one experienced feelings of frustration and hopelessness. Maintaining a loyal public face became the norm, which the middle and older generations justified as an existential necessity. For the younger generation and students, the meaning of such a life was regularly questioned in waves of innocent revolt (music, long hair, manner of dress). The most serious by-product was isolation: not just the inability to travel and to study European or global cultural heritage but also the related lack of information about cultural happenings elsewhere in the world. Many artists, writers and musicians found refuge in an unofficial “second culture” – writing for the drawer, books circulated in typewritten samizdat transcripts, theatre performances and art exhibitions in private homes. In 1989 the cup of bitterness overflowed, and a wave of student protests ended the absurd hegemony of the puppet government.

After his studies at a secondary school of applied arts, Vladimír Kokolia was accepted at the Academy of Fine Arts, graduating in 1981. His own creative stance was not shaped by the artistic trends of his contemporaries but relied on the study of classical styles and a search for his own form of expression. During this period he created a series of paintings on the theme of public transport. They show passengers hanging onto straps in trams, crammed into overcrowded trains, and being transported from somewhere to somewhere. Figures doze in the darkened interior of a workers’ bus or are lined up like puppets as they descend by escalator into the depths of a tunnel. A crowd of people pushing through a corridor of a railway station is depicted from a bird’s-eye view, so we see only a concentrated cluster of heads. Human behaviour is synchronized by monotony and routine. The paintings have a bleak colour palette, and Kokolia uses unusual perspectives that give them a dynamic atmosphere. The dismal state of society in the early 1980s was a lively breeding ground for him and led to an extensive cycle of drawings, which he worked on between 1983 and 1986.1

The “Big Cycle”, consisting of hundreds of ink drawings on paper, originated as an intermezzo during a respite from painting (or a crisis) and was in its time a revelation. In brilliant shorthand, Kokolia reduces the individual to the role of worm, preposterously standing up to fate and struggling for his own existence. Figures perform some monotonous and formulaic function, as if according to some stencil. They find themselves in impossible and inextricable situations. Their strenuous efforts to disentangle themselves are an expression of pure (often comic) futility: “I am fascinated by the gulf between the utter matter-of-factness with which we accept our daily routines and the obvious senselessness of it all,” Vladimír Kokolia says about his inspiration for the cycle. The drawings immediately took on a dimension of political commentary, because they exposed society’s need for a formulation of the uncertainty of the situation, to reveal the absurdity with which no one knew how to cope. Simultaneously with making the drawings he transferred the motifs to prints, mostly linocuts - a medium well suited to the immediacy and raw expressive power of the imagery. Kokolia discovered new expressive possibilities and tried out various technical interventions or processes while printing. The technique itself had still another dimension: Linoleum was something easily and commonly available (it was used everywhere as floor covering), but because it was also a method with which printed matter could be duplicated, the state tried anxiously to keep it under control.

In 1984 he became part of the alternative rock group “E”, for which he also wrote short, vivid and semantically charged lyrics. The trio (guitar, bass guitar and vocals) quickly became legendary. Their concerts had a close-knit and magically captivating atmosphere, thanks also to Kokolia, who performed as a singer wearing a silver band across his eyes (to mask his innate shyness). The band released the albums “E Live” (1990) and “I Adore Nothing” (1994).

Still in communist Czechoslovakia in the mid-1980s, he came to taiji through a partial coincidence. A few years later, while he was trying to exercise according to some antiquated books, during his residency in the United States he met the teacher Gene Chen, and after Chen’s death he became the disciple of the Master Zhu Tiancai, one of the most famous representatives of the Chen style taijiquan. In the 1990s he even taught taiji to the public. In his own words, the practice adjusted his movement patterns, not only during painting and concert performances, but also in daily life, as he had to learn to walk and analyse gravity again.2

In the second half of the 1980s, after a short pause, he returned to painting as his main expressive medium and created a series of paintings which immediately established him as the most outstanding figure of the upcoming generation. Initially he transposed figural motifs derived from his cycle of drawings, but he did not find their narrative quality satisfactory in that medium. What could be expressed in a single line was not transferable to painting. He employed a mechanism that he had discovered while making the series of drawings and prints: the linkage of motifs. Through repetition and multiplication, the effectiveness of the message is amplified. Through mirroring, combining of two or more perspectives, propagation and looping of a motif, Kokolia creates a multi-planed spatial structure – a matrix, expanding infinitely in all directions. There is no end and no beginning. The size of the canvas thus stops being a limitation, because it is no longer the final frontier; it only contains a sample of the whole, which can continue freely beyond its periphery. Although individual motifs may be based on quite mundane subject matter (opening doors or mice running through a field), these events are transformed into an abstract structure relating not only to phenomenal reality but also to other levels of meaning with universal relevance. “This manner of expression is no longer based on singularity and temporality, but on the principle of infinity. One does not encounter just a segment of reality or a particular moment in time, as in the drawings, but falls straight into the world of timelessness and the eternally recurring circle of life.”3

His work from the late 1980s is distinctive for its application of ornamental structures. He also continued to develop the motif of the human figure, which, however, he rid of any narrative context or meaning. Investigation into the process and conventions of seeing in relation to one’s immediate surroundings led to experiments in observing figures from uncustomary perspectives (the paintings “A Head From Inside”, 1986, “Nude With Four Breasts”, 1989). From this developed the whole of Kokolia’s later objective: to express through the traditional medium of painting the perception of reality in a totally nontraditional way, liberated from convention. With similar passion he painted, for example, empty space, light, steam and other transient and intangible matter.

In 1989, the Velvet Revolution ended two decades of the totalitarian regime’s period of “normalization” and led to the opening of the borders, which until that time had been hermetically sealed. Dramatic changes in society ushered in, among other things, the emergence of independent galleries, and President Václav Havel initiated an award for young artists named after the prominent art theoretician Jindřich Chalupecký, which was won by Kokolia. As part of the prize he received a three-month residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts in California, and he extended his stay in the Bay Area another three months. Two years later he was the only Czechoslovak artist represented in the prestigious Documenta exhibition in Kassel, Germany.

Shortly after his return from the USA in 1992, he became the head of the Graphics Studio II (studio of experimental printmaking) at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. In his more than two decades of teaching, he has fostered quite a number of remarkable talents. His methods of working with students are rather nonstandard, often using paradoxical or subliminal impulses that can steer a susceptible student towards independent expression. Gaining experience is given priority over a mere gathering of information. To facilitate communication with students, he even published the “Gr2 Glossary”, which explains concepts he commonly uses.

In the world of contemporary painting, there are not many artists who deal systematically with perception. Usually people don’t even think about “seeing”, considering it to be something completely automatic, a purely physiological function. In fact, it is an extraordinarily complex process which encompasses not only the phase of seeing but above all the subsequent sorting and processing of information. The organization of perceptions is also subject to projections and visual anticipations – to readiness. We are limited by what we already know; the eye notices primarily objects and shapes for which a label exists. Simply put, seeing is the chronic tendency to perceive the world as an image. To look as if for the first time, with an “innocent eye”4, was dreamed of a hundred years ago by Paul Cézanne, considered to be the father of modern painting.

Kokolia wants to go even further, however. Conscious of the fact that everything originates in the mind, he wants to also “see the seeing” – the whole process of the loss of “innocence” – and to move somewhere between untrained looking and subjective seeing encumbered with all of its clichés. The process of seeing was the theme of his inaugural lecture at the Academy of Fine Arts, in which he called attention to a generally neglected category of perception: “staring into space” – which is considered to be the opposite of focused attention.

During “astonished looking” or “wonderment”, something of the observed phenomenon flows into us, as if carried by a current, without it necessarily having been previously named or verbalized. “I have the distinct impression that just such empty looking is the default setting for our vision. It is the most fundamental state, the ‘container’, the womb, the landscape, the pilot frequency, the Tao of looking, only on account of which individual forms arise,”5 says Kokolia.

Looking at the world is inextricably linked with the ability to look at paintings. To read a picture means to mobilize our memory and experience, to test out all alternatives and associations and to decode them. The viewer and the picture are in a mutual relationship in which the observer completes the meaning, the story, and where misinterpretation, lack of appreciation or misunderstanding have the same significance as understanding. Kokolia obsessively fears that communication between paintings and the audience is inadequate and that their accessibility also involves “enlightenment” of the viewer. He tirelessly discusses this at exhibitions, at workshops, and through social networks. During his exhibitions he paints right in front of the audience in the rooms of the gallery. In the interest of communication, he also sometimes dips into popular or “discredited” forms. For his largest exhibition, at the Brno House of Arts, he took out satirical ads in the newspaper: “A unique opportunity for positive vibrations directly from the source! Progressive work with a subtle energy – instantaneous transmission of knowledge to select visitors – a wise response to every question within 15 minutes.” In this exhibition, which he conceived as a close-out sales event, he presented hundreds of works and for the two months of the exhibition he lived, cooked, engaged in discussion and worked directly in the gallery.

Through periodic questioning of “certainties”, he has in a way demonstrably shown that the only thing certain is uncertainty. It is typical of him that no sooner has he adopted a particular position, has managed to precisely articulate his vision, he moves beyond it, because everything must be said once again, but differently. Kokolia essentially cogitates by means of opposing views and reflexively resists any definitions. He oscillates between complementary poles, from an emphasis on the importance of individual “manual” contact with the art work to computer-generated printing, from a noncommercial, introverted artist to holding a commercial fire-sale of his studio, from solitary composting in his garden to making official appearances in the media. He has no problem with being self-deprecating – because even that can be a strategy to prevent mannerism, stagnation, or clinging to the same themes. He intuitively avoids getting into a situation where he would just mechanically repeat himself – which is indeed the most insidious malignant disease commonly infecting artists who were once so fresh and promising. Only in this way is it possible to keep alive the “message” or “problem” that he wishes to “filter” through his paintings.

Just as unique as his view of the world is his signature style. Thus he need not even sign his canvases, yet they are easily identifiable. Individual brush strokes are applied in such a way that the visual and haptic contact with the surface of the canvas is not disrupted. The paint is applied thinly with a semi-dry brush, creating on the surface a foundation for further spatial planes. A smooth texture and the neutral tone of the underlying gesso almost always permeates the painting. He has developed a style of painting or drawing with a brush using one continuous stroke (almost nonexistent in the European context), whereby the line proceeds at various “depths”. It is precisely the creation of “planes” within the painting that has become his way to express the penetrability of depth, which is characteristic of an important line of his work in recent years.

Some of his paintings contain only a few traces of the brush, nearly imperceptible, which slightly disrupt the balance of the static background and draw the eye with their unobtrusiveness, their subtlety. They are pre-images of a sort, as though deliberately left unfinished – it is up to the viewer to “complete” the image. Other paintings are so dominated by dark colours that we can discern almost nothing in them – our eyes need a moment to adjust, and only then do we start to make out colours and shapes. Kokolia has also experimented with various lighting possibilities, from coloured lights to darkness, illuminating the work in split-second bursts so that the resulting image (afterimage) forms fleetingly on the retina. The contrast between light and shadow is the basis for the “camera obscura”, which Kokolia used in his installation at the Václav Špála Gallery in Prague in 1991.6

In his paintings he wants to convey the impression of spatial depth as it was articulated by Maurice Merleau-Ponty: “I live in it from the inside; I am immersed in it. After all, the world is all around me, not in front of me.”7 For example, he paints “corner pictures”, which contain a pictorial space between them; on other canvases he applies a repeating structure, a raster or irregular grid, which during prolonged viewing can create the illusion of depth. He adapts the principles of stereoscopic images, which he considers to be a kind of outmoded genre. (They produce a 3D effect because of their continuously repeating pattern. If we view such an image and simultaneously focus on an imaginary point behind the picture, there is the impression that the picture has depth. This is due to the fact that the left and right eye see different repetitions of the same pattern and the brain then combines the two patterns into one, which, in relation to the surrounding pictorial information, seems to be shifted backward.) In addition, he also works with special technology (lenticular printing) that enables very easy, “user-friendly” 3D depiction8. His aim in these works is to draw the viewer into the picture and to teach them, in a way, to look at normal images. The best agent or adversary for him is the technique of oil painting. He says about his approach:

“I usually paint some snapshot, some distinctively illuminated scene I glimpse somewhere, even peripherally, and which then remains in my head. It tends to have a differing measure of concreteness and resolution, but it always carries light in a unique way. Sometimes I can hit upon it, but more often it comes to me “without work” – the image floats in my mind simply because in competition with all other images this one has unaccountably survived. I am merely its agent and, if all goes well, also merely its painter. That my pictures may look like lianas, mazes, or winding footpaths still has a source somewhere else. Their mesh is nothing but a screen through which the image percolates during the painting process. To a certain extent it is possible to separate the structure from the motif itself, something like isolating a photograph from the raster, pixels or grain of the film. Sometimes it turns out as a complicated and laborious maze, which liberates me from quick expression. Painters have at their disposal immediate and thus somehow authentic expression – but they can also work relentlessly on something monotonous and impersonal and, oddly enough, into this tedious work, via some unchecked side roads, appears more mystery than could be achieved with the expressive gesture.”9

From narrative drawings on small sheets of paper he progressed to nonobjective large-format paintings and, more recently, to watercolours depicting trees, painted spontaneously and in a somewhat more readable manner. Kokolia observes trees with an unguarded, enthralled gaze, and in his watercolours is stored the energy of this gaze, like heat in coal. The watercolour technique, allowing for only a quick, immediate rendering without the possibility of revision, seems to feign as if there is nothing complex lurking behind it. Yet the informed viewer could justifiably feel unsettled as to whether the artist is in effect trying to say that when we fix our eyes “somewhere” it is only a subjective illusion. Indeed, rays of light land upon the eye upside-down, reflected from the object under observation - therefore, the trees are actually “looking” at us. This, incidentally, is claimed in the words of the painter Paul Klee, who once wrote: “In a forest, I have felt many times over that it was not I who looked at the forest. Some days I felt that the trees were looking at me, were speaking to me (…) I was there, listening (…) I think that the painter must be penetrated by the universe and not want to penetrate it.”10

Kokolia shows us that today, at a time when we are inundated by countless visual assaults, wonderment need not be elicited by something “extraordinary”, but quite the opposite – by something seen hundreds of times. A tree is a fascinating object, with its complex structure, its arrangement in space, its constantly changing polystratification of leaves. Observation of trees has inspired poets, philosophers and artists throughout history. But going out into the open air and trying to paint them is not viewed as something altogether normal these days. The situation in contemporary art is such that a painting of an ordinary tree would not be comprehensible outside the context of some sophisticated conceptual project. Landscape painting, once so popular, particularly in 19th-century European art, has gradually become synonymous with kitsch, and it is recovering from this lack of esteem only very slowly. Perhaps this is also one of the reasons why Kokolia turned to this motif, for it systematically addresses areas that are “on the edge” or those that involve “viewer participation”. He explains his motivations like this:

“For me, the landscape is always so far away, it’s impossible to grasp. So I would rather paint just the air, since that reaches to here, all the way to the nose and the pupil of the eye. And the air also carries with it colours, and with them also shapes, and when I paint it somewhat faithfully the whole thing even winds up looking like a landscape. (…) Sometimes during the attractive force of looking I float away so irretrievably that I’m afraid I won’t come back. But basically, I take a sly satisfaction just in looking – I enjoy the way things look – and on top of that I still get to paint this simple pleasure. What else to do with it? After all, one would expect that painters enjoy looking, even to the point of obsession, and then also to paint it – so it seems simple to me. (…) This method excites me because it is so regular, so normal. Fifteen years ago I wrote about “normal painting”, and I still miss it, I still see how something extra gets added to the mould, something about which the artist thinks, it is precisely this, out of all possible things, that makes it art. But I don’t exclude that with landscape paintings there exists an increased probability that they won’t have very much in common with art. They will just be ordinary paintings and trifles. So what?”11

Kokolia comes out of the traditions of modern European painting, and his heart is probably closest to Claude Monet, with his tireless observation of a particular motif and the breaking down of the image into discrete stains of colour. At the same time, however, he would wish for “Monet’s eye to see through Mondrian’s framework”.12 Thus he affirms the validity of the “discovery of the grid”13 and the progression of a particular stream of modern art from the concrete to the abstract, from the organic to the geometric, from the ephemeral to the eternal and back. The key to understanding the significance of his work, however, is to be sought in contexts far removed in time and place. His manner of thinking uniquely combines European experience with an almost Taoist view of all the world’s problems, symbolized by a fundamental unity and harmony. His philosophical texts give an added dimension to his paintings, for we can view them as guidelines for “reading” his multi-layered images.

Kokolia does not inherently represent or imitate subject matter in his paintings, and it is even possible to say that he tries to capture the opposite of “something”: the absence of a subject. He instinctively wants to resist fascination with one clearly defined pole, so he has learned to simultaneously perceive each thing along with its negative space, to regard a tree in such a way that the eyes are able to see also unnamed shapes, the “nothing” between clusters of branches. There is no here and there, no inner or outer, no “distance” from what is depicted, no perspective, no foreground or background. Nonetheless, they contain some signs, traces or ciphers for the inception of an “image” somewhere between the viewer and the canvas. These images are the visual records of the creative and intellectual process, instruments for contemplation, which touch upon fundamental questions about possible ways to understand the world.


1) It was not until 1997 that a considerable part of this series of drawings appeared in book form, issued by the Trigon publishing house

2) His path was clearly made easier by encounters with Eastern philosophy. After all, it was a time of discovery, when the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was published

in Czechoslovakia and typewritten copies of texts by D. T. Suzuki on Zen were first circulated. Concepts such as “attachment” and “śūnyatā” (usually translated as “emptiness” or “the Void”)

entered into wider consciousness, and to be a Buddhist became a kind of fashion statement

3) Raimanová, Ivana, Vladimír Kokolia, in: Výtvarné umění (Visual Art) 1991, p. 55

4) The concept “innocent eye” was first used by John Ruskin in 1857 in The Elements of Drawing: “The whole technical power of painting depends on our recovery of what may be called

the innocence of the eye; that is to say, of a childish perception of [these] flat stains of colour; merely as such, without consciousness of what they signify — as a blind man would see them

if suddenly gifted with sight”

5) Kokolia, Vladimír, Wonderment, inaugural lecture, 1996, the Academy of Fine Arts

6) In this context it is interesting to point out that the first surviving mention of the principles behind the pinhole camera or camera obscura belongs to Mozi (Mo-Ti) (470 to 390 BCE),

a Chinese philosopher and the founder of Mohism. Mozi referred to this device as a “collecting plate” or “locked treasure room.” The very term camera obscura (“dark room”) was first

published by Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) in Prague in 1605.

7) About Things, 2010, Dialog vědy s uměním (Dialogue Between Science and Art), Civic Association, České Budějovice

8) The technology used to produce pictures with the illusion of depth was created in 1940

9) Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, Eye and Mind, p. 309

10) The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader: Philosophy and Painting, ed. Galen A. Johnson, trans. Michael B. Smith (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1993), p. 12

11) Kokolia, Vladimír, unpublished letter, around 2003

12) Kokolia, Vladimír, No Problem, exhibition catalogue, Topičův salon, Prague, 2013

13) Rosalind Krauss explains grids as structures “impervious both to time and to incident,which will not permit the projection of language into the domain of the visual, and the result is silence.”

in: Krauss, Rosalind, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986

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