Words PLUS MAGAZINE
Photography MATĚJ DOLEŽEL
In Greek mythology, there is a distinct emphasis on the robust strength and power of Olympian gods. When we think of these epic tales, heroic triumph and passion come to mind: Hercules capturing Cerberus and Zeus defeating Kronos with his brothers. These are the stories that have inspired Vojtěch Kovařík to create impactful paintings that embrace the extensive history of Western figurative representation. However, rather than explicitly portraying the vigorous energy of Classical heroes, Kovařík envisions his Herculean subjects stripped bare as if they have been defeated by the form of the frame. In infusing his personal interpretations with mythology and contemporary imagery, Kovařik gives birth to a new myth; the one that invites us to invent our own.
Vojtěch Kovařík is a self-taught artist who began his artistic career while studying at the University of Ostrava in the Czech Republic. Growing up, he had a keen knowledge of art history, but he knew nothing about the technicalities of painting. To him, this naivety allowed him to be more experimental. Rather than quickly settling into one method, he spent much of his time working with different techniques and subjects. That is until he realized his passion for greek mythology. Early in his career, he painted contemporary boxers like Mike Tyson and Samuel Peter— who he views as modern mythological figures—merely to point out the irony of how easily we perceive today’s hero profile. Over time, he began painting more consciously and less ironically, using Greek subjects and mythology to communicate the emotions and compositions in his head.
In early February, I saw a painting of a blue figure by Vojtěch Kovařík on social media, and strangely enough, I felt the painting’s immensity just by looking at my phone screen. From the first moment I saw his work, I was mesmerized by its scale and subject matter. When I met Kovařík virtually, he greeted me with a warm smile and showed me his studio in Rožnov. Just like his blue painting, his studio was huge, with rustic white walls and spray marks everywhere. We talked about the newest series he was working on for his solo show in Mendes Wood DM in the summer 2021. After examining his paintings up close, I noticed sand grains and acrylic coating his subjects. According to Kovařík, these materials help render the mottled skin tones and textures that characterize his work.
“I have been using this technique for a few years now. I am still developing my practice and try to explore various methods using spray and acrylic mediums. The sand brings the texture, which I like to add in some layers, but what I am most proud of is the handmade sprayer, which brings different structures. I like to utilize all these techniques to create more structural paintings, which I call, ‘sculptural patina.’ I don’t want my painting to be just a flat surface, but more of a sculptural feeling.”
When asked about what inspired him to create such large paintings, he said he wasn’t initially drawn to painting at all. But in his first year in college, after his Bachelor’s exam, he had the chance to visit a Jonathan Meese exhibition at Trade Fair Palace in Prague. There, Kovařík was surrounded by massive works constructed of overwhelming, vivid colors, and for the first time, he felt full of explosive energy. He felt motivated to make a painting himself.
Nowadays, Kovařik spends most of his time in the studio, painting and dreaming up ideas for new work. “Sometimes I get such a scrum of colors and outlines in a work that I just have to repaint it and start again. And when the process of repainting continues, I usually prefer to leave the studio or start on a completely different work. It’s always a challenge.”
When he begins a new body of work, he starts by looking for suitable shapes, gestures, or even colors and sketches them directly onto the canvas. The composition is formed intuitively during this process, and once he is satisfied, he starts painting. Kovařík notes that new ideas are forged when he makes mistakes. As he repaints to fix the mistakes, he finds himself painting entirely new, unanticipated figures. Sometimes, through this process of painting and repainting, he finds himself painting beasts instead of mythological figures.
In chatting with Kovařik, it occurred to me that he works like a sculptor to render his figures, modeling their bodies as compressions of still movement. He remarked, “I studied ceramics at the Secondary School of Applied Arts in Uherske Hradiste and one of my brothers is a sculptor, so it is a natural cognition for me. Even though I am solely focusing on improving my painting technique, I do have some plans on making ceramic sculptures.”
His canvases reflect his deep knowledge of art history and evoke characters and stories from Greek mythology with his own imaginative spin. His mixture of historical and contemporary references results in what he calls ‘hybrid heroes,’ ones forged in unnatural, neon colors–baby blues and mustard yellows and hot pinks.
El Greco, Picasso, Matisse, Rousseau, and Lupertz have had a profound influence on him in their use of color and volume. But unlike these painters, Kovařík experiments with unconventional compositions in an effort to conjure the emotional states of his subjects. As many of his canvases are square, his subjects either crouch or sit down, breaking out of the frame. According to Kovarik, it is the cramped physicality of these bodies that gives his subjects emotional depth.
“The scale of my paintings is large to represent the power and strength of the subjects that I am portraying. I have always admired Greek mythology and I try to give life to those heroes in my work. The fact they are often just cutouts or cramped bodies around the perimeter of the frame reinforces my belief that this gives them more emotions and depth, immortality, and fragility, or even coarseness and softness.”
According to Kovařík, this unconventional dimensionality opens up new possibilities, and evokes the bulk and strength of sculpture, making his subjects seem even more Herculean. Simultaneously, his ‘masculine’ subjects exhibit cowering postures that suggest fragility. In toying with the strength and power of Greek mythological figures, he questions traditional perceptions of human anatomy, forging a brutal naivety and a sense of playfulness.
In late May, I met with Kovařík again when he was finishing up a few of his paintings for the Mendes Wood DM show. He was visibly elated about his progress. It was truly remarkable to see how his works advanced from his previous series—not compositionally, but in terms of how he implemented his techniques. The way he manipulated acrylic paint and sand to bring more depth and dimensionality to the subject distinctly shows the mastery of his practice. The series also marks Kovařík’s efforts to use Green mythology as a medium for breaking down gender boundaries. In works like Persephone And The Beginning of Summer, he masculinizes traditionally feminine characters.
At the end of our chat, I asked Kovařík what made him fall in love with Greek mythology and what love means to him. “There is no definite answer to this,” he said. “When I paint heroes and gods, I always learn something new, and I don’t think I will ever be exhausted by this subject. It is part of me.” He chuckled, stood up from his sofa, and gazed at his paintings quietly. After a few seconds of silence, he remarked, “This may sound cliché, but love for me is family and art. Because of my dad, I was able to learn about Greek mythology and art has been a way for me to grow not just as an artist, but as an individual.”
I closed my laptop after Kovařík left the chat, and I mulled over his answer to my question. After learning more about this affable artist, I understood that what might be perceived as a ‘cliché’ answer, embodies a deeper meaning to the artist. With a smirk on my face, I became excited to see how many people Kovařík would inspire with his painting, just as he inspired me.
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