Artist: Břetislav Malý
The Image as Semi-permeable Wall
At first glance, the monochrome works of Czech artist Břetislav Malý appear to be a form of abstract painting. Malý’s works of the past two years are considerably more self-referential than his earlier pictorial spaces dealing more with internal and structural aspects. But to speak here solely of abstraction or abstract painting would not only be a simplification of the underlying ideas, but would actually miss the point. In reality, Malý creates images that invariably verge on object-ness. Conversely, he “constructs” objects that explicitly reveal themselves to viewers as pictorial presences. Malý’s image-objects form inflection points between two- and three-dimensionality; they pose image-ontological—indeed ontological—questions to viewers concerning each work’s specific status of being.
For two years now, specifically since beginning his Inside color series, Malý employs a unique, even palimpsest-like approach in building up the body of his works. Maly separates canvas, frame, and paint from one another as painterly agents in order to reconfigure them into new relationships of altered “proportions.” The individual components are, so to speak, decoupled and made autonomous; each one begins to mutate independently, becoming thicker, thinner, flatter, more spatial.
The artist uses graphite as the sole pigment—as the only color—for his paintings, dispersed and incorporated into layers of resin and then polished after each layer has dried. The result is a highly reflective work whose dark mirroring has the capacity to aesthetically incorporate, one might even say depict, the surrounding space in the form of reflections. Nevertheless, these works do not function as black mirrors. The surface reflections are too idiosyncratic, too differentiated, and also certainly too irregular. Applied in layers, the graphite pigment also retains its own anthracite color, so that the overall work, which not infrequently also deviates subtly from the square shape, appears almost steely and metallic, thus pushing it toward object-ness.
The painterly process, the layer-by-layer application, drying, and polishing of the graphite, plays a critical role in the visual appearance of the particular image-object. Malý’s image-objects not only open up the question of how spatial and image qualities are defined, but also represent a temporal dimension. Each image-object, in its layered, palimpsest-like construction, is also an accumulation of time per se. Malý’s image-bodies therefore are also a translation of the process into what’s manifested, of the temporal into the object. In these juxtapositions, the works also open up a temporal dimension for viewers; these appear as excerpts of an image-forming process, as different stopping points along a process-oriented continuum.
Břetislav Malý’s work raises not the question of whether we are dealing with an image or an object, but also where the potential image effects are localized. On/in the work, in terms of its actual hue, or on the work, in the form of reflections, or more optically, in the eye of the beholder? Beyond these image-ontological challenges, the darkly reflective square shape can invariably also be read as a kind of non-image. It denies the gaze, the viewing of it, and in a certain sense throws the viewers’ gaze back on themselves. Indeed, epistemologically speaking, it affixes a question mark to the very urge to see and recognize visually.
When viewing Malý’s image-objects up close, the pictorial quality is seemingly thrown more into doubt along the particular edges of the work. Malý creates an image support comprising multiple layers of canvas, whose own making or constructed-ness is no way concealed. On the contrary, the layers of canvas, some of which are fraying at the edges, resemble a damaged mass of fabric, whose metallic presence also gives them an alien, almost android-like appearance.
The welded image supports, viewable from the side or below in a large number of Malý’s image-objects, counteract the sovereignty of the image surface and undermine its aesthetic autonomy. The function of the frame, the iron construction, reveals itself not only as a substructure of the work, Malý also allows it to deviate from the function it serves and thus become an aesthetic counterpart to the surface effects. This dialectic of conflicting autonomies between pictorial and object-like provenance imbues Malý’s works with an inherent aesthetic tension. This potential ambiguity is purposely maintained. Each work thus functions as a kind of dispositif of pictorial and object-like interpretative modes. Of interest here is not an either/or, but a both/as well as.
In the series Situation in square I-III (2022), Malý confronts viewers with a configuration of three, square image-bodies of equal size, whose shared presence is seemingly the focus of their commentary. Viewed pictorially, the reflective qualities of the images differ significantly. Malý polished the graphite surface in Situation in square III to a far greater degree than in the other two square shapes. Standing before the works, viewers can largely recognize both the impression of the exhibition space as well as themselves. The inherent color of the graphite, as a result of the polishing, also appears darker than in the other two. The image therefore not only offers itself up for view, but the perceivers themselves as well. It makes the viewers see, so to speak, to “recognize” themselves. If Malý’s images or image-objects are understood as a semi-permeable wall that creates a relationship between the inner-workings of the image and what lies beyond, the surrounding space, then this highly reflective work is clearly oriented toward what lies outside the image, the room in front of the image, which is mimetically inscribed via the mirroring effects.
The other two works in the series, Situation in square I and II, are far less glossy. Here the artist only slightly polished the graphite layer, i.e. the final layer of pigment dispersed in the wettish layer of epoxy resin, which is simply applied with a brush and not poured like the underlying layers of graphite. The graphite thus retains its own hue and its mottled, dull luster. In these image-bodies of built-up graphite layers, Malý creates an interior and exterior, an in front of, behind, below. Viewers not only see the outermost layer of graphite, they can also see, depending on the degree of polish, into the deeper graphite layers underneath. Similar to tempera painting, the layers of the image turn out to be layered spatially. The light interacts with these layered bodies in differentiated ways. One’s perceptual impression of the image is determined all at once by deep-light effects, by the innate hue of the pigment, and by reflections. This triadic relationship forms the actual material of Malý’s compositions, which he explores in varying proportions from work to work. Maly’s image- space is in no way homogeneous or coherent; rather, it is itself a composite, ontologically layered.
As a mirror, the image—a reading the artist does not explicitly strive for—has the capacity to make the viewer visible as a perceiving subject. Without seeking to stray too much into psychoanalysis, it almost functions as an “I-former,” which shows me in the space, but also, as a dispositif, arranges me (in front of the image). The mirror not only shows, but positions and isolates at the same time. Regardless, the dark mirror is anything but neutral. It challenges the gaze, brings the gestalt, even the subject, into play, lending its own blackness a potentially almost metaphysical weight. What does this mirror, what does this blackness want from me?
The spatial effect, or rather the spatialization of the image produced by the overlaying of the image’s (graphite) layers into the depths, is intensified to an even greater degree by Malý’s almost sculptural approach. Whereas Situation in square I and Situation in square III still appear predominantly pictorial and flat, Malý gives the center work, Situation in square II, an explicitly sculptural presence. In Situation in square II, the frame seemingly grips the work, supporting and undergirding it in the form of two thin vertical steel frames. On the other hand, Situation in square II makes explicitly visible a quasi-architectural painting substructure. Viewed from the side, the image breaks down—especially image-ontologically—and truly becomes something else. The view from the side, almost in the manner of a schematic template, allows for a different reading. Malý autonomizes the frame, turning it into a three-dimensional, cross-braced support structure. Situation in square II, still a monochrome, sfumato-like gray image when viewed from the front, thus turns out to be a cubic object that, despite or perhaps because of its massive appearance, appears to extend subtly from the wall out into the room.
Malý subjects the viewer to a scenario of aesthetic variances, no, of differentiation. Similar aspects, or ones that appear to be the same, turn out to be not at all similar. Malý’s understanding of the material is in no way authorial. He does not seek to inscribe himself directly into the material. Rather, from one work to the next, the artist’s characteristic and lab-like approach creates conditions that allow for a merging together of materials and other process-relevant aspects. The artistic act here is more about the creation and setting of a framework for action, the creation of a specifically staked-out artistic dispositif.
For Line (2022), the most unusual of the works presented in Mimetic Deflection, Malý chose an extreme pictorial form. Here, the square shape of the work has been stretched three meters high, practically into a line, so to speak. And yet the artist treats the steely object as an extended painting support; as usual, he builds it up as a layered image that confronts viewers as a reflective vertical form. The work’s radically slenderized presence conveys a certain unease, a kind of disquiet. In this regard, the towering pictorial object achieves, in an exceedingly post-minimalist fashion, an almost expressive aspect. It confronts viewers as a figure, larger than life, so to speak, and yet “malnourished”; it addresses them physically as spatial counterparts, almost bestowing upon them the role of protagonists.
Břetislav Malý works with the phenomena of conversion between two- and three-dimensionality. He seeks out that instant when the object being perceived is decoded as an image or more as an object. Thus, the way the object is installed and positioned, i.e. the presentation of the work in the space, also become essential constituents of the semantics of his work. With Malý, one might speak art historically of a kind of post-minimalist questioning of and around the medium of painting, also of process art, which nonetheless seeks to manifest itself in the form of a work. However, these “coordinates” of defining the image, of categorizing it art historically, are essentially all patterns of interpretation that are added in hindsight. Especially with regard to Malý’s background as a painter, it seems more pertinent to approach his anthracite image-objects not only in terms of reception aesthetics, but to consider them with regard to doing and acting.
In terms of production aesthetics, Břetislav Malý explores the work by taking up and modifying its basic components, color, support, square shape. The reducing of parameters to the most important, easily workable ones is deliberately radical. The simpler these image-generative “protagonists” are, the more representative and ontologically significant their “interference effects” are. Seen in this light, Malý does not create similarities, rather each of his image-objects reexplores the balance between object shape, color structure, and layering in a very specific way, as a system. It is precisely this varied weighting of processual agents that allows the work to appear at times either more object-like or more pictorial. Read as process, specific questions also underlie Malý’s work: What is an image? What is an object, a sculpture? What, or more precisely, when, at what point in the period of perception, in what spatial and semiotic context, does an image, a sculpture become recognizable (to us) as such? To be sure, the question is not directed toward the underlying essentialist assumption that the pictorial quality of the image is innate per se or bestowed by genius, but ultimately toward an essentially contextual, interpretative, and certainly a reception-aesthetic perspective as well, because the image here is not simple; it wants to recognized as such, understood as such.
The perceptual-theoretical question of where the aesthetic effects are localized—i.e. be it on the image, in the image, in front of the image, in space, in the space in front of/facing the image—ultimately culminates in Malý’s work in an ontological, even philosophical question. In facing the almost blurred, matt-graphite works, viewers in the sfumato also seem to lose themselves in the luminous depth of the image. But also, in facing the highly reflective blackness in Situation in square III, viewers may feel unsettled and challenged about their own viewpoints.
Seeing, the form of seeing that Malý demands of viewers, is not an identifying, recognizing one, but a form of seeing that penetrates and transcends the image and can in no way be reduced to the visual alone. The shimmering and oscillating of the image layers as well as their interference effects ultimately become an analogy for the indeterminateness of seeing, the medium of the gaze itself. Viewed thusly, Malý challenges viewers not to blindly trust their own seeing as well as what is being perceived simply as a given, but—and this with respect to each individual image—to engage anew in the process of perceiving beyond familiar readings and classifications.
Text: David Komary
Translation: Erik Smith