Cestmir Suska's 'Rusty Flowers'
Over the last ten years, Czech sculptor Cestmir Suska has become something of a hit in the US. His larger-than-life and painstakingly geometrical sculptures have been showered with awards, amongst them a prestigious Pollock-Krasner scholarship. The artist himself has twice been invited to live and work in the States, first in Utica, upstate New York, and then Vermont. Both invitations he happily accepted.
On a recent visit to his studio, Suska told me something of his first trip to the states, where he worked in a disused factory - one that had produced the military vehicles used in the D-Day landings:
"During my stay there, I decided to find a real studio for me, because up until then I had worked at home in a little studio. My works were getting bigger and bigger, so they filled up the courtyard and my garden as well. My wife and children were not too happy about this, and so I started to work on the field in front of the house. The time was right to find a new studio, and I was inspired by that factory in Utica. I came back with the intention of finding a real studio for me and I found this beautiful building, and it is so huge that I invited other artists to share the spare space with me."
One such 'other artist' is Tomas Bambusek, who I met seeking Suska's advice on a cardboard structure he was assembling at the time. He explained to me a little bit more about the studio and its set up:
"So this is the Bubec sculpture studio. It is named after a sweet little pond which is very close to here, the Bubec pond in Reporyje. The people that work here form a sort of association that is in charge of maintaining the studio and all of the activities that go on here. It decides upon the direction that the studio takes."
Under Suska's guidance, the studio is a lively place, with debates, school trips and exhibitions going on. Inside, stands a ghost forest of hollowed out tree trunks, from Suska's period of working with wood. Outside lie abandoned tanks and canisters, some intricately engraved with meticulous floral patterns, others gently rusting and waiting for the 'Suska treatment'. I asked Suska about the different materials he uses, and how this has progressed:
"I worked with wood in the '80s and I started to use wood in very much my own way. I used wooden trunks and my way of working was: first I dig out all of the wood from the inside, so I was left with something like a wooden tube. And then I started to carve geometric openings into the trunk, and in the end my sculptures were very nearly transparent, it was possible to look right through them. So, I started to think about transparency in my work, and I started to work with glass. In 2005, I visited the US for the second time, I received a scholarship to work in a Vermont studio centre, and it was really a very important stay for me. On my first day I discovered in a scrap yard a metal hemisphere and I thought to myself 'I have to use this, it has been waiting for me'. But I had no experience of handling metal, I wasn't able to weld or work with metal in any way. So I left the scrap yard, but in the night I had a very vivid dream. I knew I had to go there and buy that hemisphere. So in the morning I went back to the scrapyard and bought the hemisphere and thus was born my 'metal period'."
One big fan of both his glass and metal work is Jan Vitvar, Art correspondent for Respekt magazine:
"What I find exciting about him is that he works with materials that are decades old, and in these materials you can already see decay. The trees he uses are worm-eaten and all dried out and split. Now that he works with iron, it is usually rusty iron that he finds on scrapheaps. The trees he uses have been chopped down, but not by him. He saves them and somehow gives them a new life. He likes to try and make the most of things in their past-it kind of state. In the case of these iron sculptures, well, they are really remarkable feats, actually. The cisterns, the metal that he uses is really tough, and he has to spend hours welding lacey patterns into it."
His cisterns, a motley crew of gas and beer tanks, are currently on display in Liberec, stopping people in their tracks out in the town square. A series of his glass works are currently on display in Prague at the Czech Museum of Fine Art. But it has predominantly been in America that he has been recognised and his works exhibited. But for all of this transatlantic influence, is there still something typically 'Czech' about his work? Jan Vitvar believes so:
"I think there is, because just this idea to engrave lace-like patterns into cisterns - to join things up that shouldn't be together is a principle specific to Czech art in particular. I don't think this sort of thing would be done by an American artist. Equally I think that this element of light humour in his work, in his cisterns, is quite a Czech thing. I don't think that, say, an American sculptor would include this gentle humour in his or her work."
But for all of this discussion of his work and technique, Suska insists that it is all really very simple:
"I just go to some scrapyard and it is possible to find the most beautiful shapes, they are waiting there to be destroyed and I revive them. I bring them to my studio and I transform them into beautiful sculptures. It's like in a fairytale, when a frog is changed into a prince."