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Tomáš Měšťánek – Magical pictures of the present world

Repetition is a phenomenon very typical of human life. It is similar in fine arts, which returns to certain topics and manifestations again and again. The return to the figure is one of these never-ending returns. The return towards figurativeness in the modern art is influenced by neo-expressionism, existential notions of Jean Paul Sartre, the post-war generation of artists and figures such as Jean Dubuffet, Wilhelm de Kooning, Francis Bacon or Georg Baselitz. All of them are linked through a continuity of the craft of displaying as the primal definition of art as well as through their interest in local and regional foundations of artistic creation. We can see a conversion from abstract expressionism to figurativeness – representing the human body in pieces or grotesque disfiguration. Works of art respond to World War II, the first one to pose the issue of corporeity being Jean Fautrier in his cycle Hostage, where he first connected the epistemological and perceptive issues of figuration in painting with anthropological and aesthetical questions; namely, whether after the war the human subject can still be captured as a figure, whether it can still bear its name and image.

The issue of impairment and collapse of humanity and “normality” thus becomes a new challenge for artistic expression. The aspect of humanity carries another layer, the social layer. After the war, the social topic with a link to figuration is also influenced by art brut. Jean Dubuffet is interested in works by the mentally disturbed, natives as well as naive and folk art. Everything is in the raw and rough state, where the crude is an opposite of the cultivated or cultural. The author is freed from all conventions and his or her creation is unrefined and instinctive. The opposition between normal and abnormal ceases to exist. Due to the phenomenon of repetition we associate social art mainly with the 1920s and 1930s, when a number of authors (Josef Čapek, Pravoslav Kotík, Antonín Procházka, etc.) dealt with these issues. The Czech social works of this period have some specific features, draw on romanticism, ballads, marketplace songs, they are inspired by the spontaneity of folk artists as well as the loneliness of people, houses, trees, the isolation and emotive power of colour as well as the bare space of the outskirts, the bareness of an individual’s existence.

I have found all these aspects coming together in the works by Tomáš Měšťánek. Consistent figurativeness as well as social topics. Technically, his works give an impression of a connection with children’s drawings. They lack the third dimension: the figures are also captured from the front or full profile. However, they also lack connotations of the children’s naivety as the colour is replaced with crude matter – is the joy of life disappearing? Reserved and pointed lines, the author often denies his figures any particular shape, grotesque trivialness, figures are shifted towards the defiling graffiti. He attacks the form of the body as a whole reducing it to a mere object, an attack which is so typical of the graffiti.

His works may be regarded as offensive, not only for their artistic side or topic – the homeless, rowdies and drunkards. He touches society’s soft spot, yet he does not seek a pathetic and moralistic depiction. He does not prepare for “the end of civilisation”; he merely states facts and maybe believes in the necessity to begin anew. In this way he gives the impression of a human subject that is no more than a colour spot or stain soaked to the wavy surface of city ruins. This feeling is enhanced by deep paste creating a relief, as it were. Figures with washed-away features, deformed faces and animated to extremity evoke the feeling of immeasurable distance and immersion in the space where they occur. His cycles Emptiness, Supermarket and Silence convey dialectics of a fixation of the image on the human figure, which must at the same time be distorted and deprived of all mimetic conventions. The drawing and painting gesture is spoilt by insertion of counter-productive expressions in the act of painting: infantile gesticulation, disproportionate postures, internal inconsistency – dwarfed or gigantic limbs. A figure suddenly opens up or merges into the surroundings. These are spectral and frightening demons of real evil (Dangerous street, Combat), but also subtle and disguised apparitions – Advisor, Board of directors – hybrids of a public servant and authoritarian ruler in a white collar – victim and winner in one... The ambiguity of figures, dialectics of automated expression and primary expressiveness influenced by non-European primitive art are typical. Key features also include colourism, sensual colourfulness and vitalistic gestures as well as immediate relation to the present world, where the time becomes the measure of all (nearly desperate figures at the bus stop in the cycle Waiting). Expressiveness, disfiguration, fragmentation and grotesque distortion are primary to a number of figures: like a child drawing spooks, but these originate on the grounds of rational consideration (Hostage IV, TV watcher). The bareness of the individual’s existence (Stranger, Castaway II) defined by the space of the outskirts and streets by night, but also by the space that humans have abandoned, the raw and ballad-like beauty of the empty rooms of his cycle Apartments to let. If, at the very beginning, I mentioned the peculiar magic of the Czech social art in its grasp of the materiality and uncommonness of the commonplace, I have to mention Měšťánek's Loneliness, which raises banal sensual matter to a lyrical piece of work. The author works with absurd psycho-pathological imaginations of rowdies and drunkards, who he conceives in a suggestive form on the very edge of linear graphicalness and caricature. Savage colours, pronounced expressive gesture, symbiosis of rationality and irrationality, logic and imagination result in magically analytical images of the present world.

The colour diagram is a code and the effect of the startling, sometimes sarcastically grotesque distortion of reality is shocking (End of holiday). The author’s typical qualities involve unrefined originality, spontaneity, ironical undertone, but also a lyrical view of condemned trifles of everyday life in its simplicity and banality. He rehabilitates trivialness; he does not ridicule the ordinariness, but seeks its hidden poetry (the 21st century). He jumps around his objects, between reality and dream; he exploits ironic ambiguity of his figures, but also threat to the humans and their anxiety (Eyes).

The works by Tomáš Měšťánek are a period documentation with an urgent appeal over modern people’s alienation from their own world. He observes life, perhaps not the most typical features, yet features that belong to it. One can sense vanity underneath his ironic and lightened tone. In spite of this or because of this, one can also feel vitality and immeasurable desire to create his world as cheerless, fragile and very human.

Renata Skřebská, Mgr., arts historian, 2009 – opening speech at the exhibition in Hranice

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