All Cats Are Grey

  • 2/3 – 15/4/2018
  • Curated by Petr Vaňous
  • Galerie Vyšehrad
  • Praha CZ
The work of Josef Bolf can be called one of the purest generational testimonies by an artist born in the 1970s. The important thing for Bolf has always been the ability to find a way of clearly articulating and presenting the atmosphere of childhood and adolescence in Normalization-era Czechoslovakia. His poetics is inextricably associated with the typical environment of the prefab housing estate and with depicting the living standards under totalitarianism. Prague’s South City is represented by large apartment blocks resembling rabbit hutches with thousands of windows, dozens of parked cars, paved surfaces (roads, sidewalks, parking lots), prefabricated urban spaces, children’s playgrounds, sports fields, pedestrian underpasses, home and school interiors, benches, and more. All these scenes are populated by strangely mutated beings, a cross between children, animals, and toys, accompanied by their “patrons.” Gray days are contrasted with radiant nights, banality and everydayness with childlike imagination capable of being naively dreamlike as well as unexpectedly cruel. In Bolf’s eyes, public space is a monotonous place filled with associations from childhood that over time accrue additional layers of memory related to what has truly happened and what was dreamed up or distorted by the imagination.
The exhibition at the Vyšehrad Gallery is the first intimate selection of Bolf’s works that were purchased by private collectors before they could be exhibited to the public. They are thus “blank areas” in his body of work. The exhibited paintings come from various periods in his career and are characterized by various stylistic approaches. With the benefit of objective distance – both as author and curator – we can say that the exhibition is perhaps the best survey of Bolf’s “history of creative work.” It includes remakes and updates of his famous motifs. It is the same script, but arranged differently, each time in a stylistically different and unique manner: Sometimes with a greater emphasis on line, the deformation of shapes, and stylized colors; at other times, an illusionary approach with clear inspiration from photography. The selected works show a clear shift from his earlier overall scenes possessing a totalized concrete feeling towards the fragmentation of events and formal approaches in the style of temporal collages. The most recent paintings present the genre of “recapitulated situations” and possess the introspective character of memories. They work with the distance of the “history of personal history” and reveal the fractal dimension of memory associated with Bolf’s history of painting. It is like leafing through his artist’s archive – not in a chronological manner, but through an immediate glance that combines the near and far ends into a single whole and into a single gaze. The metaphor that comes to mind is of a wind that tears a window from its hinges and, in an instant, mixes the entire archive into one single timeless constellation. As a random agent and catalyst, the wind organizes chronological things differently, in a new way. There is something liberating in it, like clearing a table or reformatting a computer. It is as if, with his returns, Josef Bolf were emancipating himself anew and differently from established skills and learned approaches. As if he were seeking (and has found) new ways of using a painting to directly touch on his new situations in life. He breaks free from his past in order to speak – differently – about the present.
Josef Bolf has always aimed to express his personal presence in a particular time. If we were to generalize his message, it would probably be this: Forcibly normalized life always incites the imagination to rebel. And this imagination integrates into itself all important things needed for its rebellious building material: books, movies, television, and music (including a song by The Cure, which inspired the title of this exhibition). This is also why all totalitarian regimes try to limit, weaken, or even ban these renewable sources of the imagination.

Why are all cats grey? Because everything that is for the first time is inimitable. This does not mean that things and events do not repeat, but it is more of a mechanical movement involving some level of automatic behavior. We must decide whether there is a point in unconsciously realizing this repetition forever or whether to stop it in time and to consider its essential meaning and the possibilities for critical modification and emancipation. Why are things and events repeated? What does that mean for me? What do the repeated situations in which I find myself have to offer, and what do they rob me of? In the end, all emotions are merged into one fundamental, most essential, vital feeling. It is up to each and every one of us what this feeling is and what it will be.

Petr Vaňous