JAN MERTA, ONE of the most important painters on the Czech scene, is rightly at the focal point of the interest of domestic and foreign galleries. His work acts on many levels of consciousness, creating an almost painful desire for the discovery of unity. He is a personality all the more interesting for the fact that a range of critics and theoreticians find themselves in a difficult interpretative situation when face-to-face with his works – it is difficult to putanameto the stamp of his imagination.
Interpretation of his works, as with a range of other artistic pieces, naturally begins at the point where he alters our perception of things. These we recognise – either due to shape or the title of the work – via similarity to the familiar. This recognition awakens joy, but this alternates in the more patient observer with repeated uncertainty, because the images are shifted contrary to convention, and this shift has an infinite number of directions – the work is co-authored by the viewer, who is given an impulse by the artist to open up possibilities.
In 1996, Jana Ševčíková and Jiří Ševčík wrote a short, but apt text titled “The empty centre in a pollen cloud”.1 In an interview with him I also came across his interest in the phenomenon of the centre: “The centre is either everywhere, or there isn’t one,” Merta says. The perspective of an individual may contain several views at once if he is capable of also penetrating through that of others. According to the Ševčíks, Merta’s “painting does not capture an unchanging substance, but a transformation in which the centre is constantly freed.” In relation to the lightness of his small paintings on paper and the strength of his large paintings, the Ševčíks write that, according to Merta himself, there are necessary “mitigating circumstances; otherwise the greater unity would become unreliable and terrible. The mitigating circumstance is like a fox’s tail that we see at the centre of one of his pictures, while the body of the animal is outside of the format.”
In Merta’s pictures with the motif of a vessel (collars, hats, clothing, facemasks, funnels, cups), primarily at the end of the 1980s and firsthalfofthe1990s,theseobjects appear to be empty, but it is that pure inner space that Merta, together with the observer, fills with meanings.The volume of things becomes the beginning of germination of sedimentary memories, which overlap with present experiences. The artist often paints objects lighter than the background; they emerge out of an uncertain space. The earlier works from the 1980s are opaque (Blue Figure , Three Crowns [1985-1988], Packages [1987-1989], Large Vessel , Vessel in a Red Field [1987-1988], Basket ), while in the works of the first half of the1990s,it is light that forms them, that gets inside, enters them and puts them into motion (Spanish Collar [1990-1992], Grey Cup [1990-2003], Triple Collar [1991-1994)], Joint Clothing [1992-2003]). The objects begin to levitate, approach the viewer, pass by; they are translucent, semi-translucent. This process was an intuitive search for something in the imagination and in the world, which the artist himself only put a name to retrospectively. As the Ševčíks say “when he turned the painting he had painted, he discovered that he had painted a vessel that was empty.”
Self-recognition is carried out by the shortest route through the surroundings. We reflectour selves thanks to our understanding of the thoughts of others, thanks to confrontation with the surroundings as we perceive them. In these types of paintings, Merta leaves things their shape, while eliminating their conventional function and meaning. En route to the centre of the painting, meanings link to each other in unique constellations, thereby ridding themselves of the fog of universal meanings − the artist wants to track down the originality of his own existence. That which remains in the inner space of things is the very experience of purifying.
Marek Pokorný2 perceives as the watershed the painting Large Shopping I (1993), in which a shopping bag becomes at the same time a rising wing; the similarity here opens up ambiguity. There emerged a whole series of shopping paintings (Mountain Shopping [1993-1995], Mountain Shopping [1993-1999], Red and Blue Shopping [1992-1998]). As Pokorný writes, Merta’s work does not contain “analogy, similarity directed by appropriateness, but similarity in a strong sense of the word, similarity as a fundamental principle of our orientation in the world.”3 “Shopping bags rise up against the sky like angel wings, or are depicted in such a way that they resemble mountain peaks; they definitively liberate Merta’s creations from the residue of signs and carry them as far as the threshold of illumination, a vision of the wholeness of the world in a concrete thing, in a concrete figuration of a thing, inagesture or persistent mental image.”4
This purifying in paintings that are more unambiguous in terms of theme is a process that has not desisted even in the longer period, in which we find a certain shift: Mertavibrates the space that is made transparent; his paintings absorb the past in order to enclose the future. They appear fuller in theme, but at the same time more difficultto put a name to. The process of drawing back the curtain of meanings is no longer the main theme of the work, but nonetheless it remains essentially in its structure. Merta uses metaphors as media, which draw the viewer beyond the routine of custom to a more original world. By means of similarity he finds deeper links of experiences and through them continues towards wholeness, towards the illumination of constantly elusive truth.
Closely adjoining interpretation of the work of Jan Merta is Paul Ricoeur’s concept of poetic metaphor. Ricoeur expressed the conclusion that the poetic, or living metaphor (one which creates an entirely new context of meanings that can be updated for every recipient) establishes a universal language that offers a deeper intimation of the world than its description, its conceptual understanding. The living metaphor cannot exist without interpretation; it is utterly of a dynamic nature, it allows the observer to experience the fictional world of the work. Acquisition of the meaning of the metaphor evokes a tension between the literal meaning and the context of the new meanings. This opening up, and at the same time elusiveness of the pictorial meaning, demands a concept, according to Ricoeur it evokes in the interpreter (viewer) ontological vehemence – he attempts to understand, to grasp the meaning of the work, because it contains within itself a premonition of unknown areas. There must, however, remain free space for tension arising from the combination of meanings. From the feeling of incomplete comprehension and inconsistency with that which we know, there then arises motivation to understand, the active entry of the person into interpretation of reality (in our case, the work). This re-understanding is facilitated by a detachment from the work caused, for example, by irony, those “mitigating circumstances” of which Merta speaks, or time lag, reformulation. It is about a circulating dynamism of poetry, reflexion and unification.In Merta’s paintings built on the similarity to our wonts and expectations, there always remains an empty space for the view of the observer, a transparency of things as well as an embedding of meanings.
What, then, gives impulse to the compelling imagination of the artist as well as a sense of immediacy in perceiving his images? The presence of the image of time – human chronology as a sense of disclosing reality – was contained, though not prioritised, in the aforementioned interpretations. The desire for unity leads towards the acceptance of one’s own finiteness.Merta’s paintings sometimes take years to develop and in exceptional cases even as much as two decades. Process becomes their creative principle. Events, the stamp of experiences, surface from the pictures, images “hatch” onto the surface, as Merta says. He immerses his pictures in time, pours liquefied images of things into prepared forms until such time as they dry out and can be unearthed. The poetic metaphor establishes a primary dynamism, art as an event. Merta drags a net of meanings, thereby concentrating energy as in a spring. Providing that in the course of creation the spring does not crack, all tension is crammed into a single canvas. The search for unity is carried out reflexively,concentratedly and laboriously.
The above-described emptying out was subsequently replaced by a movement of surfacing, for example in such pictures as Dutch Landscape (1991-1996), Pet (1992-2002), Old Clothing (1993-1995), Cast-off Insignia (1993-1997), Facemask (1991), Cursed Princess (undated), Green Arch (1991-1994), Jan’s Victim (1991-1998). In them, Merta allows purified reality to float to wards him again, in order that he can better understand it.
From the second half of the 1990s up to the present, we notice a series of paintings that construe an event of unanticipated revelation (sometimes humorous) of another face of reality, as is suggested, for example, by the title of the picture From Within (1994-1999). More often than the perspective of a view from the inside out, it is an external view into the inside of things – this is done through cross-sections, cuts, unfolding gouging, and falling off. It would be possible to consider as the most typical Beheaded Iris (2003-2005), a painting of the remains of a stem of a flower in atranslucent, spherical vase, a work with the title Section (1997), where we observe the stringently monochromatic section through a toadstool, the cap of which is delineated by a coloured line, or To Young Artillerymen, Uprooting (1991-1997), where the earth is revealed after the uprooting of the roots of a tree. I might also mention Ideal Glowing One IV (2003), a painting that is strange more for its flatness than forits glowing:it is as if we were looking not at a portrait, but at a cross-section of a face. I also finda sense of a passage through in the picture Cottage Area II. (1999), on a white canvas peppered with its micro-worlds – little cottages. The artist sees them outside of perspective. It is as if he has placed himself above them, while at the same time they are painted from in front. We are again looking more at a cross-section through reality than at its skin.
Merta’s journey of metaphor in this period also sets out through similarity towards symbol; the objects no longer mirror only the personal memory of the artist, but also entire cultural memory, the tradition that the artist is rebuilding. Merta’s pictures become the boundaries of a peculiar, symbolic space. In cases where the metaphor in his work evokes a pre-conceptual experience, the image is as if sunk, but on the contrary, if symbolism is overly contaminated by the conceptual schema, then reason is subjugated to fancy.
The conflict between concepts an dimaginings creates the structure of the cycle 11 Moralities (2005-2008), which expands the meaning of sentences similar to idioms thanks to its correlative pictures. A pair of paintings – one with text, the other with the artistic subject – constructs a new framework of meaning. Sometimes it is more direct (the text Do not threaten the stability of the net is accompanied by a painting of two empty cups standing next to each other), sometimes more complex (the text Protect the prerequisites of growth is connected with a painting of some sort of organic structure).
Since about the beginning of the millennium, the artist has been more frequently immersing himself in the system of language and concepts – titles, texts accompanying pictures or literarily grasped depiction co-creates the reading of his works. Among the most extreme is certainly the picture Karl Heinz Stockhausen Conducts his Symphony Cyklon B (2010), or the entire exhibition Stockhausen’s Symphony in Zdeněk Sklenář Gallery in 2010. The story that lies behind the creation of this work is reflected in the title and was also available at the exhibition as a short text. It became a set of instructions for interpretation, or a direct part of the work. Merta here polemicises on the statement of the composer, that the events of 11 September 2001 constituted the greatest work of art of all time. Various concepts of art come into conflict, but confrontation remains in a conceptual consideration; the painting is weakened to an illustration of the issue. A similar situation also occurred at the exhibition Spirit and Matter (Geist und Materie) in the Rüdiger Schöttle Gallery in Munich (2010), where Merta in one room exhibited a Stockhausen painting together with five portraits of young children, and in a second room combined the paintings Spirit and Matter. Munich Spectre (2008-2009), European (2009), Echt (2008), Self Portrait According to Rembrandt (2010) and Mountains (2010). According to his intention, the link of the works was the dichotomy between idealism and reality, especially apt for the location of the exhibition, i.e. Germany. The more the transformation of experience into the work and from the work to the viewer is driven by reason in art, the more difficulty we have in getting to the underlayers of symbolic language. Together with Ricoeur we can claim that we can findt he symboliccore referential reality as a living matter beyond the conventions of concepts. If Merta replaces the imagined with concepts, he directs the picture less towards its substance; the conceptual character here, however, is not at the same time so compact and self-sufficientinorder for the image to be completely excluded. If Merta’s works stand for themselves, moulded by a range of establishing similarities, they tell much more of the nature of thought than when they are subordinated to logic. Imagination and consideration in art must be in a happy ratio, as Immanuel Kant claimed5.
In other works of recent years, Merta also richly develops the afore-mentioned current of event depictions. Personal memory serves as a repository of new reconstructions; temporal detachment creates a mycelium for the reformulation of images. Most of all Merta uses the theme of a return to his childhood. Some pictures directly contain within themselves the depicted motif of the movement backward – for example in the paintings of Sputnik (Before Launch [1999-2004], Before Launch II , Return III ) or in the work European (2009) depicting a red bird of prey perching on a shaved head or the picture Summer Afternoon. Departure (2009), which shows a quiet moment before the departure of a wagon loaded with coal. The feeling of refillingisal so evoked by the picture Voilá Post-revolution (2009), where we observe how in a cold space inside a grey, inhospitable bathtub a red liquid swirls.
Across the chronological spectrum of Merta’s work we can find pictures associated with radiation and glowing, as Karel Císař described in his text on the issue of the visible.6 Not last, it is worth mentioning Merta’s new series Laozi (2010). It relates the hidden story of a cup and saucer presented as cross-sections. In a purely graphic, non-painterly form it shows here the seeming skeleton of his paintings – it is an investigation into possible configurations, which in the world of fiction expand the horizons of personal experience.
In an effort to understand his existence, Jan Merta innovates its centre by means of a poetic metaphor. This artist lives with the things that he paints, lives with the images that he has collected. While one is being born, another is almost closing. Just as in his pictures we distinguish fascination by means of liberation from the utilitarian function of a thing or person, unfettering from the utilitarian relations of objects and persons around us, so do we observe painful searching for what to do with the discovered place. The series of old clothes that no longer enjoy the favour of an owner, the rags of an artist that he uses for wiping brushes and one day will be too dirty to serve any longer, a burnt-out house that Merta has passed by and that has lost the function of a home – these are only examples of the rich world of Merta’s internal images and experiences cannily unearthing themselves to the joint fiction of the artist and the spectators. Merta’s works are a great remembering and reminiscence, they are images clothing the spectator within empty old clothes in order to let him try the pain of their forfeiture from ordinary life and the pleasure of their return in memory. The presence of Merta’s works extends between memory and anticipation and is expounded in the internal processes that underpin the relations of the depicted objects. There flows in the masense o fsearching for unit and an attempt to touch partially the substances of life.
Jan Merta (born in 1952 in Šumperk) has since the late 1980s worked predominantly with the medium of painting and in recent years has created smaller objects as well. He lives and works in Prague.
1 Jana Ševčíková, Jiří Ševčík, “Empty centre in a pollen cloud,” in: Jan Merta. Exhibition catalogue, Ústí nad Labem: Nadace Lidé výtvarnému umění, výtvarné umění lidem [Art for People, People for Art Foundation], 1996, unnumbered pages.
2 Marek Pokorný, “When we send content out the door, it comes back in through the window“, in: Jan Merta: Pictures 1985–2005. Exhibition catalogue, Brno: Moravská galerie, 2005, p. 13.
3 ibid. p. 13.
4 ibid, p. 14.
5 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement. Prague: Odeon 1979, p. 132.
6 Karel Císař, “The non-organic life of things,” in: Jan Merta: Pictures 1985–2005. Exhibition catalogue, Brno: Moravská galerie, 2005, p. 33.
JAN MERTA, Karlheinz Stockhausen accompanies his symphony Cyclone B, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 195 x 300 cm.
Return III, 2009, oil on canvas, 145.5×120.5 cm.
JAN MERTA, Self-portrait according to Rembrandt, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 273×210 cm.
Markéta Kubačáková is an editor of Flash Art Czech & Slovak Edition and is also a curator and artist based in Prague.