Ivan Pinkava emerges from traditions of modernism unfamiliar to most Americans. We in the West have been nurtured on formalist and ahistoric art theory, which tends to be disassociative of biography and milieu. We take solace in banality, are seduced by spectacle and obsessed with technology. The enduring spirit of American art linking the work of Pollock, Johns, Smithson and Warhol is the succession of ‚acts‘ – not so much a ritual, but a record of process in the ledger of a secular universe. Our art world is contoured by academic politics and disciplinary formulae which have narratized the complexity of art history and distanced audiences from the diversity of influences on artistic production. The aesthetic umbrella which preceded Pinkava, however, slowly opened over decades of isolation in Eastern Europe and like many of his generation the work is encrypted by that history even if it does not explicitly reference it. Westerners are also not likely to decipher the Slavic eye which has been conditioned in various ways to folk tradition, and religious ceremony. It´s not easy for us to imagine the culture’s geographic suspension between West European influences on one hand and the Middle East on the other, between Christian and Islamic religions and Latin and Slavic tongues. Few such phantoms are available to American artists like those that Czechs draw upon in their aestheticization of the world.
One may assume that Eastern European artists who came of age during the Velvet Revolution and the toppling of the Berlin Wall, view ideology and aesthetics as experiential, even anecdotal, rather than rhetorical. The critical contours of much Czech art before 1990 was often a tactical response to the realities of having to either disguise dissenting expression, hide it totally, or exhibit it abroad, sometimes under an assumed name. While today’s art is not explicitly about the experience of censorship and the production and exhibition of works in secrecy, there is still covert evidence of the ‚underground‘ in art like Pinkava’s. This isn’t an art of protest or subversion, but rather a psychology of art which has emerged from a once restricted cultural discourse to grapple with post-revolutionary and post millennial culture. It is the progeny of artists who took great risks to sustain individual expression and a tradition of avant-gardism against all odds. The attitude and intention is in stark contrast to the relatively blase art in the West which is dominated by a blurring of public and private spaces and an obsession with celebrity.
The vestiges of conflicted identity which Pinkava unveils more than a decade after the Velvet Revolution are mystified and masked. They relate alienated subjects on the fringes of approved society. The theme of the outsider and the disenfranchised subject is in synch with a modernist tradition exemplified by the anti heroes of underclasses in conflict with mainstream culture. Here the youthful dissident and visionary who simultaneously represents the dispossessed child and consumed worker, aggressively demonstrates their difference vis-a-vis the mind-numbing banality of suburbia and the drudgery of post-industrial employment. But the artist does not turn them into victorious punks or counterculture sellouts. Pinkava is superb at expressing their ennui, their guilt and their transgressions. They have shaved heads, scarred flesh, and emaciated bodies. They glower, beckon, and beguile the viewer with black and white skin that appears to be their natural color. It’s difficult to tell their ages, their occupations, their ethnicity, or anything about their lives outside the artist’s studio. He zeroes in on their undraped figures with unsparing details and flavors them with theatrical lighting that textures their musculature and makes them appear otherworldly. The closer he gets, the more romantic and uncanny is his expression of victimhood.
Pinkava elicits myth to provide an aura of the classical to his subjects. It also allows him to ruminate on the relation of fiction to accepted truths. In „Abel and Cain“ two twin brothers press cheek to cheek as if against a mirror. Which is illusion and which is truth? The image ridicules our faith in indisputable originality by reminding us that one of the universal markers of human singularity can be a mere reflection of another. Is the interchangeability of the innocent Abel and his deceitful brother a critique of the biblical foundation of good and evil or just about the difficulty in choosing between the two? The disquieting delicate posture of the two brothers introduces a repeated objective of unsettling our pre-conceived notions of sexuality and civility.
More disturbing is his unabashed „Pieta“. Mimicking the configuration of Michelangelo’s inviolable sculpture of the Virgin Mary and the dying Christ, two androgynous nudes defiantly embrace. One remains confident and confrontational while the other clings submissively. The upright figure smiles slightly as if to provoke our disparagement. Their icy, slender bodies parody the Vatican’s flawless marble and make a profane analogy to Olympian deities. There is an atmosphere dense with carnality and idolatry. Somewhat more ambiguous is „Narcissus“ where a waifish adolescent glares callously at the camera as his innocent reflection floats in a corroded antique mirror. This is an elegantly composed print that departs little from the classic fable of self love. The sulleness of his expression can only be due to the surveillance of the camera which interrupts his musing. Our curiosity is analogous to the youth’s fatal obsession with ideal beauty. We steadily become voyeurs of Pinkava’s reveries and complicit with the vacant gazes which meet our own. The issue of victimhood is ratcheted up several notches in „A potom poznaji, koho probodli“ (They shall Look Upon Him Whom They pierced..). The artist presents nothing but an anonymous pair of enfeebled legs hang down the center of the picture as if crucified. The disembodied figure’s shadow is burned softly into the rear wall. A wooden foot rest, which is the only detail of the cross, supports the feather weight of its puppet martyr. Here we cannot fully participate in the tragic proportions of the image. Instead, the body, the wound, the crime and the conspirators are the subject of speculation. Similarly, the gospels don’t indict the faithful of murder, but condemn the reader of sins of ignorance and silence. The image appears to make Pinkava more sympathetic with the messianic parable than he is in the narrative elements of the above works. Perhaps the artist is alluding to contemporary culture’s habit of propping up and than eliminating one hero after another as a hedge against its own weakness and self-loathing.
Myth, decadence and the uncanny are played out in images like „Satyr“ where a gold-toothed young man with a head full of closely cropped curls smiles rakishly. He has an open shirt and a chest full of dried poppy plants. The same model appears with poppies again in „Hypnos“ and reflects a small series of young men clutching Bacchanalian fruit and plants. In „Hypnos“ our model falls peacefully asleep with his mouth smeared with the notorious seeds.
Pinkava draws from the boudoir portraiture of his countryman, Jan Saudek. His work also calls to mind the Pre-Raphaelites, whose painters and poets reacted against the materiality of Victorian England and looked enviably at the Medieval world. The unconventional dress and props, and the idyllic homoeroticism parody the archetypal family portrait which also relies on staging to convey intimacy, normality and domesticity. But the members of Pinkava’s family are mostly seated alone or with a lover who is in some sense a clone of the other. There is an unnerving silence as well as a feeling of fatigue and deferred desire. The subsequent theater of lost souls is the royal court of sublimation. It is a story that struggles to reconfigure memory and subjectivity even as it is clothed in signs of absence and concealment, – riddles, mythic texts, and secret rituals. Such exoticism may be detritus from a past when creative activity and the frustrations of unprotected liberties drove artists inward. Perhaps in images like Ivan Pinkava’s we are sifting through the karmic residue of one of the century’s most onerous social experiments.