December 4, 2023

The Alchemist: Jakub Španhel’s 2011 Prague exhibition

by Jessica Stewart

On the heels of Jakub Španhel’s 2011 opening at Dea Orh Gallery in Prague, and on the eve of his departure for Berlin to paint for the next six months, I caught up with the artist to discuss his work. As the title suggests, nearly all of the pictures on view were produced this year. Though only 35, Španhel has long been recognized as a key figure in the Czech contemporary art scene. The artist now appears to be at a crossroads, working toward a departure from his best-known and darkly radiant nocturnal scenes.

Whether utilizing a model, his own photographs, postcards sent by a friend or images from the internet, Španhel told me he wants his subjects to be real, to exist in the world. Yet through his working process, he radically transforms them: sometimes into liquid, as when he pours water over a previously painted form, or into radiant light, through the application of metallic paints. With a palette reminiscent of precious metals and gems, the four pictures of Trevi Fountain at Dea Orh range from a subtle suggestion of depth and space to pure surface. Turquoise plays off silver, copper, and gold, and in the most visually arresting of the group, Španhel has rendered the Roman landmark as a diaphanous golden haze.

Similarly, with two lush nocturnal scenes titled Museum in Berlin (perhaps the Hamburger Bahnhof, though the artist declined to specify), gold and copper pigments bathe the canvas in an incandescent glow. The brilliant sheen makes the architecture literally shimmer as though molecules in motion were made visible. Perhaps Španhel is prompting us to contemplate not only our awareness of the two-dimensionality of the painted surface, but deeper phases of matter.

With his architectural series (of petrol stations, churches, central banks, and now museums), Španhel produces a number of paintings simultaneously, returning to the individual canvases when the mood strikes. As he doesn’t make preparatory sketches, but paints directly onto the canvas, his self-assessed failure rate is much greater when confronted with the female form. The artist discussed the nudes as his proving ground: painting from the model gives an immediate result. They also contain an unresolved tension, perhaps born from a continued resistance to the realistic life-studies dictated by his years at Prague’s prestigious Academy of Fine Arts. The artist applies a veneer of ugliness to the beautiful young women he paints, giving them mask-like faces, or sometimes literally defacing them. Though voluptuous, his women become like stone: impassive, and markedly devoid of both softness and expression.  This is particularly intriguing in contrast to his buildings, in which stone has an eminently malleable appearance, hard edges disintegrating into ether.

Blue Nude, the strongest of those on view here, is complete in its incompletion, without articulated hands or feet, and only traces of facial structure buried under a wash of red paint. Through its title, the work invokes Matisse’s famous nude from 1907, and the rich blue and brilliant red conjure the French artist.  Another monumental Nude shines forth from deepest black, gloriously luminescent, as if dipped in gold before alighting on the artist’s settee. Yet she appears a hollow mannequin: by transforming her flesh into gold, Španhel has drained her of life force.

This interest in coal-black and brilliant metal extends throughout his oeuvre, and can be traced to his childhood. Though a long-term resident of Prague, he is a product of the Ostrava region, known not for its architecture or natural splendor, but for its coal mining, steel industry, and metallurgy. Španhel revealed that visits to his babicka (grandmother) in her flower shop would mean traveling through dark industrial wastelands toward the verdant greenhouses, and he links his often dark and apparently dying flower pictures (another ongoing theme) to this contrast.  It is the resulting tension—between darkness and light, unsightly and beautiful— which has made his work challenging and provocative. One Rose from 2010 seems almost aggressively painted, as if the artist were actively resisting the lure of beauty. A second flower picture, an expansive vision in tones of pink which contains the merest suggestion of blooms, feels like a distended Odilon Redon.

A roller painting entitled Mushrooming, which suggests deteriorating celluloid, demonstrates a rather different style. Interestingly, the first image Španhel created more than ten years ago using this technique was of flower pots and it was inspired by a warehouse containing thousands of the vessels. Clearly the influence of his babi?ka runs deep, and with this mushroom image, he has tackled a profoundly Czech subject. Searching for the woodland delicacies is a national pastime, combining woodland walks with foraging and the hunt for the elusive. The tradition, usually passed down from a babicka, does not lend itself to inexperienced experimentation (as the saying goes, you can eat every mushroom… once).

This group of 13 paintings, on view until 13 December, provides a platform from which to consider the new direction of this talented Czech artist. The Dea Orh gallery is simultaneously presenting a strong show of abstract landscapes by a better-known British painter, Richard Harrison, but Španhel’s paintings make a deeper impression. While I hope that he doesn’t abandon his nocturnes, we can look forward to what 2012 brings.

With thanks to Jakub Španhel and his friend, patron, and interpreter, Tibor Hledík.

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