Fotograf Magazine

Double Skála

Among the cultural events in Prague, František Skála’s solo exhibition in the Rudolfinum Gallery became the highlight of the year. Moreover, one of the undoubtedly individual artists of the Czech contemporary art scene did not leave unchallenged the historical and retrospective nature of the prestigious setting, and central to the exhibition were for the most part new sculptures and works created directly for installation in the given spaces. This daring manifestation happily met with well-deserved and broad attention from the public, as the audience was lured by Skála’s sense of poetics and playfulness to places otherwise hard to access in terms of ideas. The exhibition was accompanied also by two books, which gave the exhibition a wider range in terms of both historical survey and genre. The Arbor Vitae publishers together with the Egon Schiele Art Centrum in Český Krumlov brought out a catalogue that can also be simulta- neously regarded as the artist’s very first (!) monograph, and Kant publishers, who specialize in photography, published a book of ”his“ photographs entitled Šark a jiné fotografické cykly (Šark and other Photographic Cycles).
František Skála jr. (b. 1956) has achieved through his work a reputation as a cult figure ever since the mid-1980s, when postmodernism first took shape in Bohemia, after a considerable delay of both time and ideas. Skála, trained as a wood-carver and holding a degree as a ”film and television graphic artist“ soon turned to the use of natural materials in his free creative work, to recycling and a ”secondary“ creativity touched with an almost fairy-tale like imagination. Even his early Lenin in Paris (1983) demonstrates from today’s perspective not merely courage, but primarily an almost unreal level of detachment. In 1987, Skála was among the founding members of the Tvrdohlaví group, and in 1991 he won the second annual Jindřich Chalupecký Prize (for outstan- ding work by Czech artists under thirty-five). Two years later he represented the Czech art scene at the Venice Biennale – following the example of the Romantic poet Karel Hynek Mácha, he walked to Venice on foot, accompanying this concept with drawings from the journey and objects made of material he found along the way. At the same time he also worked on an original and unconventional reconstruction of the Palace Akropolis nightclub in the Prague neighbourhood of Žižkov. Skála’s work bears traces of Baroque and Romantic influences, but to an equal degree also elements of Art Nouveau or Surrealism. He is often an inveterate eclectic, but the central and unifying point of his work is his relentless creativity, which revels in a total mockery of style and material, demonstrating an exceptional sensitivity not only to texture and surfaces, but above all to their cultural significance. Thanks to the Arbor Vitae book, his work now reveals from a longer perspective an almost ”Váchal-like“ obstinacy, and equally striking is Skála’s integrity in questions of work, artistic identity and self-projection. It is as if Skála were not only an artist, but also a malicious designer and performer, a burlesque Czech reincarnation of both Elvis and Beuys, a versatile, many- sided, and yet coherent personality. However, in spite of all his playfulness and zeal, Skála remains a traditionalist, honoring classical values and rejecting many new trends (see for instance his interview in Živel magazine, issue 22). All this is captured in detail and amply illustrated by the monograph-catalogue, which features Skála’s wildly stylized portrait by Václav Jirásek on the cover and an attractive graphic design by the artist in collaboration with Najbrt Studio, with a well- organized chronological survey, a sound biography and bibliography, and the artist’s comments on his own work.
In contrast to the eponymous volume, which mainly presents Skála’s objects and sculptures, the book entitled Šark focuses on work employing the medium of photography; or rather, Skála’s performances as documented through photography. The book is so-called after Skála’s handmade weapon, which he presents in a series of photographs reminiscent of Communist-era handbooks on self-defence, down to the detailed description of the various ways of handling and maintaining the weapon (”…then, using equal strokes, coat the Šark with egg white strained through a ladies’ stocking, brushing from the tip down the handle. Always make single strokes so as not to tear the film of the gloss.“). The titular series is concluded with ”special figures“ that stand out from the overall style of the book, in which Skála draws into the often humorously descriptive photographs various ideal, fanciful shapes. The latter half of the book is again filled with projects based in photography: On (Him), capturing the stylized performances of a solitary forest super- star, Pánská abeceda (Men’s Alphabet), an etude on the theme of the semiotics of men’s zipper fly fronts, Bílý žebrák (White Beggar), a sort of staged antithesis of the Marlboro man, and finally Řeč těla (Speech of the Body), which depicts the artist in a white shirt and boxers, performing with Indian clubs in the middle of a snow-covered field. It is in these seemingly absurd projects that Skála’s integrity shows through, his confidence and his penetrating and at the same time always self- deprecating charisma. As Skála himself puts it in a poem ”ON“ (”HIM“),which opens the book: ”He trashes with jolts that heal/He admits that he likes to dress up/He’s not begging, he’s just standing here…“
In the case of Skála’s ”photographic“ work we must mention the considerable contribution of the photographer Martin Polák, one half of the well-known duo of photographers. This is not a case of ”an artist using a photographer“, but a sensitive cooperation, based on the one hand on Skála’s ability to fabricate and perform, and on the other on Polák’s responsive approach, accentuating the tacit grotesqueness of the materialized concepts. (It is no mere coincidence that the joint works of Jasanovský and Polák at first were often close to Skála’s typical poetics, even though they gradually developed a much more intense form of irony, accompanied by an illusory indifference). Next to the much larger catalogue-monograph, Šark, which has minimal texts, barely even for orientation (there are not even dates to the cycles) seems rather secondary, even though the idea to limit the book to work in a single medium in some places does aptly highlight aspects of his work not so clearly perceived otherwise.
It is peculiar that neither of the books features a theoretical essay about the artist. It is not clear whether the perfectionist Skála is so attached to the original and impeccable form even in his books, whether he remains the best interpreter of himself (his own texts well maintain the stated aesthetic), whether his complexity and protean qualities cannot be readily articulated in theory, or simply whether he has so far not met an empathic enough interpreter. And even though it can sound daring coming from a critical admirer, there remains open a broader probe of Skála’s supremely phantomatic work, its possible placement within a firmer context of contemporary art. It is never easy to be a solitary artist, and all the more so in Bohemia. But it has to be stressed that even from his early beginnings, Skála has managed to capture certain unmoveable tendencies of the present day. In a world of extremely specialized expertise he courageously and deliberately applies the subversive strategy of an erudite ”do-it-yourselfship“, a strategy that does not try to reunite situation or history into a gesture, but on the contrary tries to erode the customary hierarchy – moreover doing so with a sense of humor and love and with a song. And both books are ample testimony to this.

pavel vančát