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Vojtech Kovarík

To be a painter in the 21st century is a rather hazardous enterprise: you have to address a multi-secular tradition and yet manage to reinvent the medium.


This is one of the greatest achievements of Vojtěch Kovařík’s work. His painting never departs from the long history of figurative representation. On the contrary, it fully embraces it, to better subvert it.


Born in 1993 and raised in the Czech Republic, Vojtěch Kovařík spent his entire life into iconography and mythology, thanks to his parents, both art lovers that brought him and his brothers to every great European museum, and took them, every summer, to Greece.


Mythology is a fundamental topic for him. The antique one – Tiresias, Achilles, Apollo, the Hesperides, Hercules –, as the modern one – contemporary boxers such as Mike Tyson or Samuel Peter, Hakuho the sumotori, night-clubs – are the recurring subjects of his painting.


Vojtěch Kovařík’s canvases reflect his deep knowledge of art history : schematic figures evoke Picasso, expressive colors bring back Matisse and Gauguin while the work on volume let see Fernand Léger’s influence, especially in that way of suggesting relief in a desperately plane surface. That’s probably because Kovařík first dealt with ceramics and sculpture, and started painting later, only as an autodidact. This self-taught formation let him, in his own sayings, mix oil, acrylic and spray. Self-taught so, but very aware of painting history: his re-reading of mythology sends us back to Picasso and Baselitz, while his rough figures, planted in vegetal backgrounds made of separate leaves, seem to emerge directly from a Henri Rousseau jungle painting, another declared influence of Kovařík.


This reference to Le Douanier, Rousseau, another self-taught artist, is quite interesting. Rousseau also produced a rather “manufactured” painting, artificial in a good way: it never comes close to an illusion, as the painter preferred presenting a world entirely rebuilt by painting, then viewed as an autonomous language.


It is all about building. Building identity. His choice of seizing Greek mythology comes from a necessity, as this group of tales and stories constitutes an important part of the European cultural and collective unconscious. Its characters, even if they are well known, are rebuilt in his work. Physically¸ first: those familiar figures on vase, bas-relief and sculpture become strange beings with blue, green, dark or yellow skin. Structurally then: their bodies are always circumscribed by a frame in the canvas, that forces them to contortion – they always seem defeated by the form of the frame, a frame that is doubled by the artist who systematically paints a fake border.


Narratively, eventually: Kovařík appears to re-tale well-known stories but in a different way, or to add new chapters: the Hesperides, daughters of the Night, transform into vigorous men, so as Artemis who, far from fitting to her frail archer archetype, morphs into an imposing death figure. Conversely, manly characters display postures evoking fragility and introspection.


Sexual archetypes seem to be an important topic of a work that summons such key figures of masculinity building: gladiators, boxers, sumotoris, gangsters, heroes… however displaying them in a rather ambiguous way. Those archetypes are filled with doubt and questioning. Their faces are often blurred (Hakuho, David, Knock-out) or presented as masks (Hermes, Iron Mike, Gladiator), showing their difficulty to claim a firm identity. Goliath is depicted in pink while Prometheus strikes a quite sensual pose.


More than a myth rewriting, Kovařík only went back to the source. There are always several versions of one myth, as truth is rarely unique for the Ancient Greeks. Beings aren’t permanent but are always trying to stick to themselves. Speaking of sexual archetypes, they are quite different from ours: manhood models such as Hercules or Achilles cannot be described as hetero or homosexuals, having partners from both sexes. By re-telling the story of well-known characters, and by showing how much frame goes as far as altering one’s body form, the artist underlines the importance of context regarding gender definition. Yet, his masculine as his feminine figures are always depicted as robust: they remind us of Bourdelle’s patriotic allegories or of udarniks, those model workers shown in Socialist countries’ public art.


This is where Kovařík’s work shines: by marrying those different types of storytelling, the mythological one, the political propaganda one, the contemporary imagery one, but first and foremost, the modern painting one, Kovařík gives birth to a painting that bears the figurative tradition, yet opening a path for an open-ended future. His pictures help this world mutation, and those mutant identities invite us to invent our own, as his Tiresias, who shows us his back. The famous Tiresias, who was, alternatively, a man and woman.


These big-sized paintings, highly immersive, and vividly coloured, are living proof that a young artist can know and love art history, and yet create a new chapter of it.


Courtesy of the artist’s website.