An exhibition of contemporary paintings in Ostrava portrays walls, loneliness and the feeling of living other people’s lives in the present-day world

Photo: archive of Gallery of Fine Arts in Ostrava

Fans of contemporary art should not miss an exhibition of paintings currently on show at the Gallery of Fine Arts in Ostrava. An exhibition titled Disruptive Imagination, and subtitled Making Windows Where There Were Once Walls, shows 36 paintings by leading European contemporary artists, among them Jonathan Wateridge, Martin Eder, Tim Eitel, Robert Fekete, Michael Kunze, or Justin Mortimer.

Photo: archive of Gallery of Fine Arts in Ostrava
The exhibition was made possible by art collector Robert Runták, who lent 36 paintings from the international part of his private collection for the endeavour. It is curated by art historian Jane Neal who explained to Czech Radio the idea behind the selected theme - the individual amidst the changing nature of contemporary society.

“Everything at this exhibition points to the individual’s engagement with society, but in this particularly area of the exhibition we are looking at the idea of the isolated individual in present-day society. In some cases that might be an individual who somehow feels dislocated or hidden or invisible in society and in some cases it might be that there is a whole sea of faces but none of them is identifiable. I think this question of identity is a key issue for our age, I think more and more there is a sense of people being really overwhelmed by the power of media and social media and the sense of actually not living your own life but other people’s lives simultaneously. So we are constantly dipping in-and-out between worlds, we are almost part machine now, and I think that’s really effecting how we live, how we exist and how we feel and I think artists really pick up on these sensations and experiences. I think the loneliness of man, moving from place to place and the sense of displacement that really started in the 20th century, people being separated from communities, is even more apparent now and we forged these “supposed” communities online, but we really have no engagement and instead it becomes a kind of strange, sad voyeurism where you get affected if you don’t actively participate and you just kind of watch what other people are doing.”

“I think the loneliness of man is ever more apparent -we forge these “supposed” communities online, but we really have no engagement and instead it becomes a kind of strange, sad voyeurism where you watch what other people are doing.”

The subtitle of the exhibition Making Windows Where There Were Once Walls suggests an opening into an area that was once closed or even firmly walled up. It evokes the breakdown of taboos but there is also a hint of something covert, perhaps voyeuristic or linked to surveillance – both of which are growing concerns in our contemporary age and pertinent to our time. Jane Neal says visitors will find a great deal to relate to in the selected paintings.

“The second section of the exhibition is subtitled The Secret Window, New Voyeurism and Escape into Other Worlds. I was really struck by how artists can make these windows, essentially. The title of the show comes from Michel Foucault apparently, but again it is more of a rumour, a myth. And the idea of myth-making and the idea how artists engage with myths today seems to me very interesting and exciting. Because there are so many myths out there, so many things that famous people supposedly have done or not done….we’ve talked a great deal about post-truth politics now since Brexit and Donald Trump and that opinion polls don’t seem to work anymore and no one really knows what to expect or to do and I think this sense of uncertainty and instability can be frightening for us but in terms of creativity it can be very exciting. I think when you have a certain destabilization or darker forces at work or a polarization of politics – I think artists and creative people are very sensitive to these currents and they work very hard at trying to find the truth somehow, within these conditions."

Photo: archive of Gallery of Fine Arts in Ostrava
"And so there is something dark and melancholic about the works in the second room, but also quite poetic as well. We have Alexander Tinei’s very dramatic painting of a boy dangling from a tree with these three birds. It feels very symbolic and it seems to play into some of the traditions of the early 20th century, some of the paintings of that time, and it is interesting that a hundred years on it still feels very, very current. Jonathan Wateridge was the first artist that Robert Runtak started collecting for his international collection and we see his boy scrambling over a wall and although it is quite poetic there is also something a little sinister about it – you know - what is this wall? And I think the wall is such a strong image today – the rhetoric surround the wall that Donald Trump may or may not build on the border with Mexico, but also if you think about what is happening in Europe with the refugee crisis, the wall in Hungary, the same in Calais. I think several artists in this exhibition are really conscious of this. I think Justin Mortimer described a sense of impotent rage which many of us feel and these artists are expressing.”

Another section of the exhibition shows uncanny landscape and rural paintings, among others by Michael Kunze and Marin Majic. Jane Neal again.

“We are not used to seeing an ageing body that is maybe a bit overweight, the skin feels a bit doughy and wrinkled … but to me there is something much more disturbing and perverted about the quest to be constantly perfect and to perfect our bodies through often very brutal surgeries.”

“In the third section of the show, the uncanny, urban, rural landscape we find some strange, dark and beautiful paintings. The idea of the uncanny is a very rich territory for artists to explore and exploit. Going back to 1919, just after the First World War – I think that since then the psyche of Europe changed, we didn’t just lose people, we interrupted a conversation that should have continued and I think many of the movements of the early 20th century would have had a longer life and art – figurative art certainly - would have played out quite differently if there had not been this sort of schism where a lot of artists left and America kind of hijacked everything post World War II. So, I think it is interesting and I feel there is an atmosphere in this room which captures some of that, that feeling of being lost and the sense of another reality, the sense of something that you feel rather than always see. I think we can see this in Michael Kunze’s work, referencing antiquity but it is also somehow futuristic, there’s a sense of it being quite disturbing, while being very beautiful - a sort of vision of Arcadia and then, near that, we find Marin Majic’s work showing this beautiful landscape –he’s half German, half Croatian – that almost looks like a traditional romantic German painting, but we have these two strange figures, which are copies of each other, this doubling is very fertile ground for artists and filmmakers.”

And, finally, visitors come upon the last, fourth section of the exhibition – something Jane Neal calls the Nocturnal Room with its powerful provocative message featuring among others Martin Eder’s provocative nude paintings. Jane Neal says it is Eder’s answer to the nonsensical present-day quest for perfection.

Photo: archive of Gallery of Fine Arts in Ostrava
“For me that room is something between a waking dream, maybe a nightmare, and a performance. It is a nocturnal room, I think. You feel that everything that is happening there is happening at night and it could be a dream. We have Martin Eder’s painting on the far wall which is incredibly powerful because it is a body we are not used to seeing. We are used to seeing nudes, but usually they are beautiful young women or young men, we are not used to seeing an ageing body that is maybe a bit overweight, the skin feels a bit doughy and wrinkled …we are not used to seeing this, those sort of things are kind of forbidden in our contemporary society and media – it is like you cannot expose yourself unless you are beautiful and perfect, so I think Martin is really questioning how we engage with this and to me there is something much more disturbing and perverted about the quest to be constantly perfect and to perfect our bodies through often very brutal surgeries.”

The exhibition of contemporary paintings at the Gallery of Fine Arts in Ostrava runs until March 26th. Most of the paintings there have never before been shown to the Czech public and the organizers are hoping that the contemporary issues it addresses will attract a big audience. The exhibition’s curator Jane Neal says the paintings all carry a powerful message that in one way or another is pertinent to all of us.

“You know, I feel very strongly about all these works that I put in the show. I feel very moved by many of them. I think they are very powerful visions and they are literally windows into areas that are closing up. I think the world as we know it is changing and I think the freedoms that we enjoyed growing up are not things that will necessarily be taken for granted by our children and grandchildren and I think we need to pay attention and I think the artists in the show help us to pay attention to some of these things.”