For weeks now ads on billboards, the metro, and Prague trams have advertised one of the biggest exhibitions of this artistic season – work by the internationally-acclaimed artist Jiří Georg Dokoupil at Prague Castle’s Riding School gallery. Lasting until May, the exhibition ‘Dokoupil 100’ should absolutely not be missed.
Jiří Georg Dokoupil was born in Krnov in 1954 and his family was among those to escape Czechoslovakia following the Soviet-led invasion of 1968, when he was just fourteen. Studying art in Cologne and later in New York, Dokoupil was part of the German neo-expressionist group Mülheimer Freiheit that was hailed by critics as one of the most influential movements on the international art scene in the 1980s. Today the artist, who exhibited in the past with Leo Castelli in New York and is represented by Bruno Bischofberger in Swizterland, is at home in many parts of the world: Berlin, Prague, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro. When I met Jiří Georg Dokoupil in the Czech capital earlier this week, he discussed conceptual art versus painting, as well as his own beginnings:
“The very very beginning, as a child, well I loved the Impressionists. Salvador Dali when I was 12 – like everybody else, then Picasso when I was 13 or 14. When I began to study art I moved towards conceptual art. In the ‘70s everyone wanted to be a conceptual artist according to the US or German schools. Conceptual art is about minimalisation of the form and the ‘disappearance’ of the object. At 22 or 23 I was doing installations and performance art with Chris Burden and painting was the furthest thing from my mind.”
“All my teachers hated painting so much that I just had to become a painter, you know ?! Still in love with Impressionism, I became some sort of a conceptual impressionist! You see, the impressionists were always talking about a certain ‘vibration’ in painting and I hope I succeeded in this show. If you look from afar at the objects – it is sometimes difficult to call them paintings and still I’m not sure what they are! It has the quality that if you see them from afar, if you see them up close they are something else. And at a certain distance they vibrate. That is what the Impressionists were always on about. There is something like ‘movement’ and I am very interested in something like static movement.”
And there is something about the medium – convention, greater acceptance - that makes addressing the viewer all the more immediate.
“The painting itself is an incredible invention: it’s a convention. You have a wooden frame with some canvas and you put it on the wall and immediately people begin to look at it! It’s a convention that there is something like this on the wall! I think this is great – this is also some kind of a freedom. If you make an installation and you put a piece of something and you put it in a corner, then it’s more about that you’ve taken something and put it in a corner. But here what you have is a ‘space’ for certain activities, you know?”
In fact, though all 60 or so works on display are referred to as paintings, none were created by brushstroke. Dokoupil, a son of post-modernism, has made it his trademark to invent and broaden unique approaches to the canvas. For example, he famously used a whip to create a slash of paint across the surface, or coloured soap bubbles on a huge scale, creating images that look like deflated balloons, deflated condoms or bizarre life forms - and those form the show’s definitive image. Most famous of all are his soot (or candle) paintings where the artist uses lit candles beneath canvas hung overhead, to create what at first glance appear to be realistic, sometimes banal scenes, but up close break down into abstract forms. A naked women on the phone; a dog on the street; a steam engine coming into the station. Controlling the flame and soot are notoriously difficult – but that is the point. Jiří Georg Dokoupil once again:
“I’m interested in media that you cannot control – so there is always a fight for something that is impossible.”
Dokoupil draws on all kinds of different media for inspiration, working not only in abstract forms but also referencing photographs and film. One part of the show is his series on films, enormous colourful abstract prints from afar, which up close are revealed to be prints – frame after frame – of entire movies.
“You realise it’s about memory. If the memory flashes back, I succeeded. And there is an analogy: these paintings are my tribute to abstract expressionism – the size. But then when you get closer it’s a study of the ‘brushstrokes’. That’s the analogy: you get to examine the quality of the ‘paint’. It’s like the blobs in Jackson Pollack or the edges and division of colours that are always sort of uneven in Barnett Newman. So that was the point and that was what I wanted.”
The choice of films is also not arbitrary - all mean something to the author, though not without humour or irony: there is Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, Buneul’s Un Chien d’Andelou, The Simpsons, the atom bomb, pornography, and the James Bond classic, Goldfinger.
“One of favourite movies, among the Top 50, is Goldfinger, definitely.”
In our interview, the artist, in his prime in his 50s, also recalled studying, working and exhibiting in New York in the mid-80s when he and colleagues were noticed and their stars were first rising. An energy that including drawing inspiration from the city and its music scene then. Jiří Georg Dokoupil again:
“Punk was... you know, I was always suspicious about the hippies. They were always sleeping and they were not sexy. Dope in the long run makes you lazy, makes you a lazybones. The Punk that I experienced was not the English stuff but New York’s Lower East side: stuff like the Ramones at CBGBs and early Blondie. There was a lot of energy in it, and my early work, the early paintings, had a lot to do with this Punk energy.”
Dokoupil 100 continues at the Prague Castle Riding Hall until May 23 – and you won’t forgive yourself if you miss it.
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