Surgeon, Interpreter and Magician in the Stretching Movement (Andrea Průchová Hrůzová)

Repetition is the mother of wisdom. A repeated joke ceases to be a joke.

Repetition may be understood as one of the central motifs of Petr Dub’s work, as evidenced by his frequent expression through seriality. A series of paintings, a series of themes, or a series of details, playing an even more important role as they remain hidden in the general discourse of the repeated. This is how the artist’s sets of paintings of the last few years have played with the human eye and attention. As the titles of the projects themselves indicate, such as the Repetitive Paintings from 2020 and 2021, or the form of the latest series of objects 213.81 kg (Potential Causes and Tips), or the paintings suspended on digital scales and derived from a single original, the artist creates a space in his expression to be actively entered into by his viewers. On the one hand, he refers to the currently digitally technologically driven seriality, on the other hand, he prepares the field for individual perception. It is as if we are becoming part of a perceptual pun or an artistically controlled test, in which we demonstrate our capacity to absorb detail and a sense of the particular in an era of mass-driven sameness.

In addition to following the principle of creating in series, repetition in the artist’s work may also be perceived as a gesture of dangerous tension. Expressing the moment of stretching the canvas until bursting is imminent, as we literally see in the cycles entitled Gravity? (2013) or Hyperhybrids (2013). These are canvases with shar bumps emerging and rising from the thick paint layer underneath, testing the strength of the canvas material and our imagination. Paintings that allow the images to transform into expressive abstract sculptures. Objects resembling the unfinished moment of cutting through a painting with a knife from the unseen side of the canvas. The canvas seems to be at the verge of bursting. And this would reveal what is hidden inside or behind the painting. But what is it in the case of Petr Dub’s work?

On the one hand, it may be argued that we are facing a void. On the other hand, it may be alleged that we will experience a mass of signs. However, these seemingly contradictory ideas go hand in hand in the artist’s work. Emptiness and over-saturation are combined in a reflection on the emptiness of contemporary cultural, artistic and social movements in which the author is interested. Massification and commodification as the building blocks of the golden gate of modernity in Petr Dub’s series allow us to penetrate from the side of popular culture into the environment of contemporary elites. We experience a sliding movement, in which we enter the exclusive space of elitist art from the multi-screen cinema for the nameless masses. A status for a status. A can of Coke for a glass of real champagne. Petr Dub consciously balances between the two spaces. He stands at the top of this gate separating the masses from the elite and pop from exclusivity. He slides from side to side without ever collapsing into just one of these positions. He knows that both are actually just a game. A construction standing on fluid, cultural and social sands, shifting sometimes more and sometimes less clearly, yet always remaining in motion.

At first glance, Petr Dub may appear as a modern Benjaminian figure of the creator-surgeon in this process of tension (with) mass entertainment and elite art. When the cultural theorist Walter Benjamin, in his famous essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936, in Czech: 1979), speaks of the massively expanding medium of film, he likens the figure of the director to that of a surgeon who, with precision, assembles details into a new whole. He disassembles and reassembles the perceived reality, which he puts together and presents into a new form of visual communication. Although Petr Dub mostly works with the “traditional” and “cold” medium of painting at the beginning of his projects, his work resembles the surgical precision and purity of the surgical process. He constructs, stretches, paints, folds, interlaces, composes, and stitches. And for this purpose, he uses a myriad of different materials. For example, when he densely layers colour on top of colour in the Underpaintings series (2014) or explores the possibilities of the morphology of the painting as an object in the colour-coated works from the Black Eye series (2019), the taste of which is literally awakened by the cake-like lascivious Madame Madame.

However, the author also treats the cultural past and present in a similar manner. He returns and enters it. Just as a surgeon carefully chooses the instruments with which to perform an operation, Petr Dub finds moments in culture and society which he allows to reverberate in his work. Frequently, these are collectively painful and sensitive topics. After all, that the case of surgeries in which “one cuts into the living flesh”. Only the patient is under anaesthesia at the time, while the whole of society cannot be anesthetised in this manner so simply. In a series of interventions in public space entitled History Repeats Itself (2020), the author touches on the issue of the relationship to the socialist past and its cultural, especially architectural heritage, whose qualities are being forgotten with the speed of the material degradation of its physical traces. However, he does not perceive architecture singularly. He always sees it as embedded in the broader context of the public space into which he ventures in order to stretch it in a new way in relation to the past: to create a new physical and interpretative movement within it. This is the case, for example, with the conceptual design President Semafor ( 2017), dedicated to the realisation of an architectural trail through the city of Zlín, formerly Gottwaldov, during which new links are produced between both material objects, i.e. buildings and monuments, while their cultural and political meaning and context are activated and re-situated. The map of the city is literally revealed here as a map of cultural memory. It is full of ideological potholes, bends and dead ends, which we have to negotiate with one another even thirty years after the time of a crucial political transformation.

With the trained eye of a critic and the hand of a skilled craftsman, Petr Dub eclectically, yet quite consciously, selects cultural signs, themes and practices, with which he deals with his own emblematic precision, in order to make them reappear in the form of a visual encounter. However, it is clear from this description that the author cannot only be a surgeon, but necessarily becomes a cultural interpreter. While using the exclusive gallery space, he enters into a conversation not only with local history and experience, but also with global society and culture. In his work, he does not remain locked in the intellectual pun of solving a single essential issue, although the tension between the original and the copy, the question of the “stunting of the aura” (Benjamin 1979: 20) and its awakening in the age of the digital-technological revolution, seems to permeate the artist’s work. However, this always takes place in the context of an interest in exploring a field other than pure art. And today’s global culture offers plenty of stimuli from which to choose. Moreover, at a moment when its hybrid and fluid nature has taken on an actual form, in which culture has become mixed with economics and philosophy with popular entertainment (Frederic Jameson 1991, in Czech: 2016).
The installation entitled Death of Philosophy: Slavoj, I Know What You Did Last Summer (2014) thematises a key figure who co-formed a new figure of the present, i.e the figure of the “philosophical celebrity”, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. The execution of the head of the human figure in a Spiderman-like body posture is strikingly reminiscent of one of Marx’s millions of unified busts, while the levitating sledge, promising a ride into new dimensions of thought, finds its mirror on the ground in the form of a sledge overturned or wedged into itself. Where and to what does the genre of then and current “trendy philosophy” lead? In recent years, however, the motif of reference and cultural references, characteristic of the form and content of the author’s projects, has found new forms of literal realisation. It is no longer just about creating material and intellectual reference traces, but about the specific processing and reworking of existing objects. The ready-made method of working is particularly obvious in one of the most recent Deus Vult installations from 2022. The gallery space, inhabited by the artist, is bristling with historical and contemporary references, in which medieval motifs of the body (among many others) are mixed with current social issues of the culture (and cultivation) of relationships and caring for them.

If we stick to the Benjaminian beginning of this essay, then repetition as a key gesture of Petr Dub’s work may ultimately be placed in another scenario. The author may be perceived as a magician in it. After all, even in the era of the domination of multimedia experience, he still believes in the traditional media of painting, the object, and their mutual communication within space. And although he often thinks in series and in broader historical and cultural contexts, to some extent, he always enters into communication with his objects as singularities. This still acknowledges the experience of artistic creation and adds a quality of ritual. This means the magical encounter associated by Benjamin with the anchoring of the work of art in tradition through the cult (1979: 22). Now it would be more or less theatrical to write about the artist’s studio as a sanctuary where he indulges in encounters with matter, craft technique, or experiences outside of everyday reality. However, even in this scenario, Petr Dub remains a magician of a specific kind. Rather, he can be described as both a magician and a sorcerer who does not primarily enter the studio as his sanctuary, but ritually inhabits the gallery space. In it, he lets individual objects as singularities step out of their uniqueness and puts them into mutual relations, creating constellations. Sometimes he lets the objects themselves dominate the space, while at other times, he transforms and awakens the gallery space itself in terms of meaning. And to do this, they opts for different methods. In some installations, he uses coloured wall surfaces, rich monochromatic paints transforming the sometimes almost sanitary gallery space into an independent object that speaks to us and to its fellow inhabitants, the art objects, with its own unique voice. At other times, he leaves smaller but equally significant visual traces on these walls that are meant to lead us to a specific experience of the entire space, not just “what we came to see”. And as mentioned in the introduction, we cannot always be entirely sure of what we are looking at. Can we see what we are meant to see and can we really see all that there is to see? Should we be explicitly fooled by our eyesight when the author plays with the principles of certain illusions, or have we deprived ourselves of part of the visual narrative by not giving our own perception enough space?

Whether Petr Dub is more of a surgeon, interpreter, magician and sorcerer, whether he is all at once or whether he artfully alternates roles, his artistic work is primarily that of a cultural critic. A commentator of incisive humour, who, in a gesture of repetition and using the principle of seriality, stretches social reality already moving in extreme positions. He becomes a surgeon in an age that suffers from many open cultural wounds that need to be stitched up, as well as to be opened once again beforehand, this time truly and painfully. He acts as a cultural interpreter in an era in which culture for many still means a struggle between high and low, and he, armed with a broad apparatus of reference, balances dangerously between the two. He is both a magician and a sorcerer at the moment of the next stage of society’s disenchantment. And he’s looking into it all. And he’s having fun since sadness doesn’t sell.