Friday, April 9, 2010

The Boy Who Cried Bolf

by Drew Martin

Last summer I had the privilege of meeting the painter Josef Bolf in his native Czech Republic. We both had work in a group show at the Califia Gallery in the tiny village of Horažďovice in southwestern Bohemia. The opening spilled over into a Czech pub where we spoke for some time. Last night was the opening of Josef's first US solo show, The Wolf, at the Ana Cristea Gallery in Chelsea. The show runs through May 8th, 2010.

Born in 1971, Josef is two years younger than I am, which means a lot of things. I arrived in Prague in the winter of 1992 (and lived in the country until 1997) so we both came of age on his turf in that golden time between the end of communism and full-throttle capitalism/tourism. On one of David Černý's visits to New York a few years ago, the popular Czech artist quipped to me that his new girlfriend at the time was so young that she didn't understand any of his Russian jokes: the knowledge of the forced language and the reality of the Soviet grip on the former Czechoslovakia is simply lost on the younger generation.

Josef, like Černý (four years his senior), is the right age to comprehend that past and express it in the present, to a very different world. Josef does so with his painted emotional landscapes that dip into his own childhood and memories of the darker side of communism, which, on paper, was quite embracing of kid culture. Cartoons, for example, were not violent tumbles but sweet, televised bedtime stories, introduced by soft-voiced women who verbally tucked in the nation's children each night.

When I was introduced to Josef's work less than a year ago, I had an immediate repulsion from it...the same way I am super-sensitive to certain chemicals in the air of a Czech factory town I lived in for three years. His style embodied a lot of things I left behind, which included a failed marriage, a stark realism that could only be read as fatalistic for an America-reared optimist, hard-dark winters, heavy pollution and a Czech saying that still reverberates in my head like a dark-side mantra..."I must only die."

I saw Josef's work as gloomy and inescapably Eastern European but then he said something to me over a pilsner beer that washed away all of my experiential grime. He started telling me about the influence of The Lord of the Flies on his paintings, and with that everything was illuminated. This masterpiece by William Golding always piques my interest...not only because of the riveting story but also because of how differently the movie version was supposedly received by the British and the French. The British audience took the wild and murderous actions of the ungoverned youths as a matter of fact, while the French audience recoiled. The former perceived children as little beasties who need to be forced into proper people, while the latter focused on the innocence of children until they are "adulterated" by society's vices. Josef seems to naturally and seamlessly combine the two mindsets.

The children in Josef's paintings inhabit bleak Soviet era landscapes that they have unfortunately inherited. At the same time they seem wild in the absence of nurturing parents. One of my first memories of Czech kids was the single key they wore around their necks on a shoestring. In America that would symbolize a latch key kid with working parents but in the former Czechoslovakia is was simply the first key they needed to get into their apartment buildings, where they were most likely greeted by mothers who would offer them tea or juice and snacks. Seeing the key always made me smile because I saw the kids as carefree but loved.

Josef's Prague is immediately recognizable but not with hilltop castles, meandering old town streets or Charles Bridge. His Prague pictures the block houses of the outskirts and overconstructed metro stations. It is his treatment of concrete surfaces and how he applies a thin patch of white paint to create a dirty but powerful fluorescent light that sends me back to his capital city.

Golding's Lord of the Flies is a quick demise that emphasizes the fragility of civilization. Josef's state is a bit more complicated and burdening. His neglect is a systematic one, which is where I appreciate him most because it comes from his first twenty years of witnessing a total decline and nearly another two decades pondering it. The Cold-War government of Eastern Europe created a science fiction-like landscape: big, bold gestures in massive architecture and efficient tentacles of public transportation. There was also a very clear view of the ecological impact.

This a theme wonderfully explored in Krzysztof Kieslowski's 1976 film, Blizna (The Scar) about the cancerous spread of a factory town into the Polish countryside. Another film that comes to mind is the 1966 Czech film, Konec Srpna v Hotelu Ozon, (End of August at the the Hotel Ozone) directed by Jan Schmidt from a screenplay by Pavel Juracek. The film is set in Czechoslovakia, decades after a nuclear holocaust in a world devoid of men. A lone band of feral young women on horseback roam the forests of Europe in hopes of finding mates to procreate. The film is as bad as it sounds but what I loved about it, and what I think might be lost on the non-Czech viewer of Josef's paintings, is what the absence of civilization actually means to a Czech. The pragmatic American prepares for apocalyptic storms with provisions: batteries, canned food, maybe even a gun for some reason. We seem to secretly want a return to the virgin forests of the Americas.

What we find in the film along with the savage young women is the Hotel Ozone, inhabited by one lovely old Czech man. He has spent his time savoring his books, listening to his phonograph and drinking fresh milk. Czechs have an old European culture that historically promoted art, music, literature and the sciences. The man at the Hotel Ozone is eventually killed over his phonograph. This is the tragedy of Josef's's not a lost in the wilderness lack of humanity but an established and nurturing culture that is lost to bleakness and a post-human "aesthetic."

Josef looked great in New York - wearing a neatly pressed shirt at his opening and displaying a touch of nervousness that simply read as an upbeat excitement inherent to New Yorkers. His work could be viewed as an emotional downer but I like to take it all in the stride of the great Czech diplomat, philanthropist and traveler, Vojta Náprstek, extending himself for others. Josef brings us artifacts from a vanished race he finds during travels deep inside himself.