On the painting, its form, and bizarre titles (Nina Michlovská & Petr Dub)

An interview with Petr Dub by Nina Michlovská

Your exhibition Another Way of Not Painting Paintings at the Gallery of Fine Art in Cheb last year was the first time I saw your Jordan Green and Cheyenne Silver paintings from the Porn Star Selection series (2013-2015). The first thing I thought of was Curved Space. They reminded me of Václav Boštík’s painting, which I know very well from the Roudnice gallery. In his painting it’s as if the pulsing dots have scattered in all directions, trying to escape the canvas and go deeper into space. Purely by chance on the next floor up, in the permanent exhibition in Cheb, there was another of the four Image of a Field canvases Boštík painted in the summer of 1970 at the symposium in Roudnice. It was a powerful visual experience, and I immediately thought of showing your work alongside Václav Boštík’s Curved Space, in a small exhibition that would be about dialogue rather than confrontation. A dialogue about things purely to do with painting, like the form (and in your case the format) of a painting and the treatment of the picture plane. Things that Václav Boštík was always interested in, as we can see in his notes for the catalogue to his 1967 exhibition in Roudnice, and things that you too have been working on in your paintings.

When I was thinking about the paintings at your exhibition, I definitely didn’t think they were inspired by Boštík’s painting. Not in the slightest. But I thought that although the starting points for your and his art were diametrically different, you both ended up with similar visual forms. And then when we met in your studio to see the Porn Star Selection paintings, including Jordan Green and Cheyenne Silver, you said that anyone working in abstract painting sooner or later runs up against Boštík. What did you mean by that? Do you think you both focus on similar questions about painting?

I think that’s a pretty accurate description. For me the planned exhibition is a way of comparing outputs that are formally similar but are based on entirely different foundations. Personally I read Boštík as a lyrical poet, almost a zen master, while in my work I’m trying to capture our contemporary unease. Over the last 100 years the status of the painting and art as such in society has become fairly complicated, and for me working with formalistic abstraction nowadays means playing an intellectual game with a multitude of concepts “beyond the painting”. From the historical contexts to the present situation, when “we have eyes but fail to see”.

Can you remember when you first came across Boštík’s work? What impression did it make on you?

It’s funny, but now you ask I realise it was Václav Stratil’s reinterpretation of his work that led me to Boštík. When I started at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Brno I came across Václav’s photographic reproductions from the Boštík series (199?), and I found them strangely unsettling. I think Boštík’s legacy was seen quite differently twenty years ago, and in that respect Václav Stratil was a prophet. He saw a brief interval before the discovery of an artist who has now become a commercial icon at art auctions in this country, and he managed to take something from him while it was still possible. So as with much of my work there was a conceptual element behind my first encounter with Boštík.

Behind Václav Boštík’s work there are profound reflections on his art, and more generally on the relation between art and the world around it. When he painted Curved Space at the Roudnice symposium he was mainly thinking about the picture plane and picture space. Unlike his contemporaries such as Jan Kotík, he always tackled the issue of the picture space and picture plane purely through painting, and he never tried to go beyond the painting and produce three-dimensional objects, which has been a major theme for you for several years now. How did you come up with the idea?

When I left university I had an artistic and existential crisis. I felt I’d been coasting for the last six years, so I decided to give the box a good shake, turn it upside down and tip out something new, or just throw it all away. The result was an interval of several years when I worked more on site-specific installations in the Unframed and Know-How series, when I worked with canvas fixed directly on the wall without a frame, but eventually I realised I was mentally addicted to working in the studio. So I went back to my degree project, Reframed, and I started formally purifying things I’d done as a student that were somewhere between paintings and objects. By then I’d experienced how paintings behave “outside the frame”, and that helped me get past the idea that the surface of a painting has to be done in a specific style or even with a concrete motif. And it opened a new chapter when I started seeing the painting more as a social symbol than as a formal square plane that has to be worked by painting it. The transition to a three-dimensional object was then just a logical way of creating my own alphabet of symbols.

Your exhibitions and sometimes also individual works and series often have quite unusual titles referring to various social phenomena, such as Rehabilitation in the Context of Out-of-Court Settlements of Consumer Disputes (Kvalitář, Prague) and The Aesthetics of Seduction (Galerie Dům, Broumov). That’s also true of Porn Star Selection. But at your exhibitions visitors find abstract and often almost minimalist works. Am I right in thinking that you work with a kind of metaphor you use to point to problematic social phenomena, or how the art world works?

A substantial part of my work is based on my conviction that we’re living in spectacular times but have lost the ability to read paintings. Paul Virilio talks about the “aesthetics of disappearance”, that media images of our daily lives change so quickly that we’re unable to turn them into lasting experiences. I’m extremely interested in that conflict. Basically I work with minimalism and abstraction because I like forcing the viewer to look at a practically empty space and find the meanings associated with a similar approach in the present day, when on the one hand abstraction is considered dead and on the other it’s having a surprising renaissance. For me a painting is a reference field where I can measure myself against the viewer’s mind and body, and obviously against the general rules of society too. The titles of my series, installations and objects are an essential way of holding the mirror at the correct angle. Basically it’s about defining the overall trajectory for the potential interpretation of an artwork, to the point where it’s manipulating the viewer. Obviously paintings can exist without any text, but we still need words if we’re to talk about them and interpret them. What’s also important for me in all this is the temporality of painting as a “slow medium”.

The “temporality of painting” and “slow medium”. What does that mean?

When I’m working in the studio I’m often aware that I’ve stayed with painting because it makes me slow down my natural hyperactivity. I have to control lots of materials, work in layers, wait for the paint to dry, check how the individual works in a series relate to one another and so on. It’s quite different with conceptual projects, which can of course take much longer than painting a picture, but for the artist their creation is usually a continuous experience to which we can return solely on the basis of (re)construction. But an art object always has that moment that’s still so important for me, the accumulating of a certain kind of energy, and we can always physically convince ourselves of that again. Painting is essentially a system for the physical layering of memories. According to James Elkins there’s a general assumption that when looking at a painting we can always experience the same physical trembling time and time again. But there’s so much pathos in what Elkins writes that I decided to fight this kind of pathos and that’s the source of my concept of “anti-colour” that I associated with using silver paint. For me on the one hand it’s got the important quality of creating something like a reflector that doesn’t let the viewer get inside the painting, and on the other it’s a substance that dilutes the richness of the other colours. So I complicate the process of layering paint by adding the ability to control the refraction. Metaphorically it’s an attempt to complicate the capacity to accumulate memories, and it’s really about the deliberate denial of painting as an expressive medium. And for me silver in some way lacks the capacity for representation – but we could spend hours talking about things like this.

Why did you choose names like Jordan Green and Cheyenne Silver for your canvases, and why did you call the whole series Porn Star Selection?

The whole series is basically a tribute to a work by Jan Šerých called Indexes. I’ve been following Jan’s work for many years, and this diptych from 2008 quotes words from porn websites. The words are authentic but all sexually explicit words have been left out. What’s always fascinated me about these two paintings is how much emotion purely conceptual text on a black background can express. In the early noughties I became interested in On Kawara’s work, and later when I was talking about his work with Jan I was amazed he didn’t know his work, and these “parallel existences” combined with Jan’s Indexes where my inspiration for this series of paintings named after pornstars’ professional names. Like them, each painting adopts the name of a particular colour. The paintings are never produced with an image of the specific person, and I’ve never actually seen some of the pornstars. I work with similar textual data to Šerých. What’s important for me is the post-production triangle and the attempt to find new interpretations for the names of colours. Obviously none of the pornstars are blue, green, silver or gold, but behind their professional names you can find something much more profound in the relation between aesthetics and subliminal perception. I think adding sensuality to something that’s based on pure spectacle is an exact reflection of our times.

At first sight Porn Star Selection is a series of what seem to be monochromatic paintings with a circular format. Why did you choose the circle?

The circular format has literally fascinated me for the last two years. Unlike rectangles or squares it forces the eye to think about the object as a focal point, or a dot on the wall. The circle is brilliant in the way we naturally focus on its centre, but our attention keeps checking its continuous boundary, which I’m trying to make a theme in my work. It’s a sort of geometrical Ouroboros that works immediately in practically any kind of architecture.

And talking specifically about Porn Star Selection, we can see how the circle relates to various parts of the human body. I wasn’t necessarily concerned with illustrations of genitals or other aspects of the body, but in retrospect I realised that our physiognomy is always soft, because our bodies have a minimal amount of right angles. Just try picking up a circle instead of a rectangle and you realise how nicely it fits into our hands, because the circle has much more corporeality than right-angled geometry, which I think is primarily the outcome of rational thought. Actually it’s just occurred to me that I’ve been fundamentally influenced here by two of Petr Rezek’s books – Body, Thing and Reality and Architecture and Proto-Architecture. This aspect of my work also in a way touches on sculpture, and some people think my art is sculpture.

The expressive potential of colour, form and style: these then are the fundamental constants that – if I can paraphrase the title of one of your exhibitions – are practically associated with the bush you’ve been beating about?

Yes and no. My teachers wanted me to be a painter, and critics and curators introduce essays on my work with the word “post-conceptual”, while I consider myself to be a visual artist because I don’t really like either category or, more accurately, think they’re adequate. From the outside it may seem to be a schizophrenic position, but for me painting is too limited a category and conceptual art is too sloppy a discipline. I quite like the English word “framework”. We could take it in the literal sense, but it also encompasses the idea of a system, a structure, a skeleton or a construction. My work is bit like bungee jumping. Now that I’ve jumped I’m trying – by moving up and down – to get ahead.

See the installation…