For several years text has been central to Jánis Nedéla’s work. While he has ventured into collage and installation it is the book as object which has been his dominant form. Social, literary, philosophical and political documents and tomes, some old and some aesthetically exquisite in themselves, have succumbed to a range of manipulations and interventions calculated to conspire a kind of linguistic and artistic subterfuge. Words have been permanently concealed, or reconstituted. The jackets cut, even scorched and modified to accommodate implements such as taps, hooks and saws. The book has been enchained, wrapped or rendered unopenable and unreadable. With this body of work ENIGMA: A Suite of Variations, Nedéla has liberated his creative language from the book form. Instead he has employed white and black fields on which he plays out his drama and dialogues.
The ten tableaux which make up this suite are decisively removed from the intimacy of books. The scale and inherent character of a leafed or coveted book has been dismissed in favour of enlarged, constructed units which are receptacles for applied motifs. Yet although Enigma is unleashed from a dependency upon the book, by association it still attains a conversational expression. The units are still perceivable as exaggerated book pages. This is obviously so in the diptych of coloured and non coloured dots (Cat. # 5) which alludes to a printed double page of an open book.
From a distance some of the works emit an illusion of page-like flatness. They are, however, all dimensional, their surfaces deliberately interrupted or recessed by an array of colours and consumables. Golf tees, coloured pencils, door stoppers, bent nails, washers and adhesive tape are all arranged with systematic precision. Apparent randomness is only momentarily contemplated before order or pattern becomes self-evident. The subtleties and industry of these works is also deceptive until the realisation that not only have thousands of pencils been accumulated and organised for example, but each has been cut to a predetermined measurement. Undulating depths play a significant role in the overall energy of the suite. The shadows cast form a secondary pattern within the interstices, bringing another level of restlessness to the kinetic illusions. The ‘words’ almost dance off the page. Geometry defined by colour, particularly on the black grounds, recalls something of Mondrian’s syncopations in his Boogie Woogie Series while beds of nails evoke a more disquieting conceptual lineage.
In spite of the shift in style, the book has been retained as a critical factor in the evolution of this suite. The compositions have been determined by an encoding of excerpts from the 1985 book by Suzi Gablik, Has Modernism Failed ? Key words throughout the text have been isolated and given a colour to represent them. For example there are 36 different colours within the 1,760 pencils in (Cat. # 4) referencing a new text made up by Nedéla of 36 different words.
Has Modernism Failed ? systematically challenged canons of art history and the authority of modernism, apportioning some flaws in its perpetuation with capitalist society. Among other things it asserted that art and culture should be re-invested with more spiritual value and it underlined that art could be made from anything. It is not coincidental that Nedéla chose manufactured and consumable items to declare his interruptions to the seemingly ‘modernist’ black and white grounds.
The ‘Enigmas’ achieve mood and tenor similar to the nuances and variances in written and verbal language. Moving through the suite the drama shifts from retiring to busy, interjectory, perfunctory and passive cadences. The lack of a key to the code and the subsequent inability to decode becomes almost superfluous when the lyricism and harmony of their visual impact takes effect.
Understanding no longer resides with a literal reading of the works. This is further reinforced by Nedéla’s display possibilities for the suite. Variations are encouraged. Although there is a diptych and a polyptych nominated within the group, he does not prescribe that any of these works require conventional presentation. They are modules which can be permutated adjacent to each other, at right angles, higher or lower to each other, abutted to architectural detail and, importantly, off the wall as well. The dialectic which is offered by association through these works is not dependent upon any forms of standard, chronological perception or reading. The modules are interchangeable emphasising the conversational, interactive potential of the works. A level of irony or sheer humour is also abundant. The works exploit a puzzling, quizzical characteristic.
Enigmatic and seductive these works may be, with their highly strategized implementations beneath their superficial and rewarding attractions. Nedéla continues to creatively and eloquently explore the vagaries of representation and perception which operate in a world which is both visual and aural. This exhibition is the first in a trilogy. Nedéla has more to ‘say’. His vehicle for expression has been magnified beyond the confines of a book, but his dogged methodologies prevail. From a position of text being central to the work this suite affirms Nedéla’s current preoccupation is with the broader language of signs while honouring the book as a continually valid resource.
In 1996, Jánis Nedéla launched his trilogy of self-prescribed exhibitions under the designation ENIGMA: A Suite of Variations. In that exhibition, Nedéla presented ten large wall objects thereby liberating his work from the use of the book as a primary means. Whereas in previous exhibitions books had been used sculpturally in the manner of found objects, in this instance, text rather than the book itself, had been elevated as a source, as much for its pictorial significance as its meaning.
Suzi Gablik’s 1986 publication Has Modernism Failed? provided a key for that exhibition, not only through Nedéla’s adoption of some of the author’s ideas and arguments, but also by providing a text that the artist transcribed using a colour code to represent the words from specifically chosen passages. The resulting works were fields of coloured patterns and signs on black or white grounds. The configurations were lively, lyrical and reminiscent of the rhythms of dialogue. Nails, golf tees, door stoppers. Adhesive tape and coloured pencils were the markers.
This current exhibition, the second in the trilogy, is significantly more ambitious building upon the previous approach and in some ways enabling a more consummate response to Gablik’s tenets. The number of works is far greater, the variations infinitely more complex and the materials more experimentally exploited. Nedéla has worked systematically and obsessively to deliver a series of predetermined objectives. These objectives manifest themselves in a number of parallel ways, and through an imposition of restrictions the work has been paradoxically given increased potential. This body of work clarifies Nedéla’s investigative intent and strategic method.
The scale of the works has been kept to two sizes, a reduced square format and a comparatively expansive rectangle. The media has been limited to pencils and crayons in favour of the diverse found objects in former works, thus emphasising the subversion in using such materials as the marks instead of a means to make marks in a conventional sense. Additionally, all applied materials have been exhausted by incorporating every component to avoid waste and to further underline Gablik’s premise for the possibility of art being made from anything. Nothing is discarded. Residue is non-existent. The wooden shell of the pencil, be it split and splintered, is treated equivalently as the lead. The shavings from sharpened leads and stubs of crayons are embedded and fixed into position to complete surfaces. Swirling eddies and ridges in the paint have been formed by a scraping action with the edges of pencils.
The relationship between ground and surface, too, is more thoroughly considered, as is the inherent tension in the conjunction of the rational and the intuitive in the course of constructing the work. The ground is a site that is regarded either as a surface to build marks upon, or alternatively as a receptacle to be filled or concealed. Occasionally, works confound by sharing both distinctions. The works comply easily to serial or sequential readings, with set or pairs being devoted to certain variations of colour, material, form or codes. Many of the works again encode Gablik’s text, some attributed to a passage of forty-eight words while others quote twelve words.
Significantly, Nedéla remains committed to the works being displayed in any permutation – that is without a right way up. He also elects not to reveal the actual passage of text that he transcribes. This ensures the primacy of the process of making and the materials over representation or readability. Nevertheless, allusions to the book, landscape or phenomena seem inescapable. The square format is at times imaginable as a book page with the space between pairs conceivable as a spine. Pencils undulate like landfalls. Flecks of crayon look like confetti or confectionery and the embedded matting of pencil fibre and shavings appear organic. The deliberate shadow plays also serve to heighten the allusions and help bring a painterly impression to the work.
When speaking of the work Nedéla scatters references to music that he has listened to in his studio while making each work, or likens the actions of moving paint and placing elements as habitual and yielding as the raking of Japanese pebble gardens. Clearly a conundrum lies within these bounds of intuitive or subconscious gesture in unison with the intervention of calculated agendas. The works move between the pure and the impure and our response is similarly dualistic, between the sensuous and the intellectual. The colours, patterns and tactility are superficially seductive, yet we can accept the markers as signifiers of language, even if we are deprived of the meaning or intent of that communication. Here the muteness of art is challenged by the artist and in turn challenges us. We are participants in the game.
Already as this suite of variations is released from the artist’s studio Nedéla is critically evaluating the results and setting himself the charter for the finale. One suspects that the unleashed exuberance of this suite, as rewarding as it is, may be reigned in or focussed to close the trilogy. Nedéla has advanced wide-ranging explorations and is generously sharing with us his journey of inquiry. To borrow a book reference, he is allowing a considered glimpse of the manuscript before the proposition of this three part tome is complete.
Since launching his Trilogy project Enigma: A Suite of Variations in 1996, Jánis Nedéla has worked to unravel a self-initiated creative journey across three exhibitions. His departure point being the book, Has Modernism Failed? by Suzi Gablik. Some six years later in this finale, Nedéla demonstrates most boldly the inherent paradox in his work and the complexities of his project.
With this exhibition he moves away from the preferred materials of previous exhibitions, that saw him incorporate into his work his tools such as pencils, crayons, their shavings and other found or manufactured items, for example, nails, golf tees and paper clips. He returns to purist painting, thereby honouring (or is it perpetuating?) the predominant visual language of Modernism fundamentally at question by Gablik.
The latest paintings rely on the seductions of surface, colour, grids, and patterns, operating both optically and contemplatively. In appearance the paintings recall a lineage of pivotal modern artists of the twentieth century. The use of primary colours and their derivations to define formalism may be attributable to the Dutch artists Theo Van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian. The rhythmic patterns of dots reliant on subtlety of shifts of depth and colour relationships could be reminiscent of Jennifer Bartlett or Alfred Jensen. The optical potential of these works has in part been informed by the emphases of artists such as Victor Vasarely. Even the exaggerated vinyl pencil sculptures allude to the ‘soft furnishings’ sculptures of Claes Oldenburg or more recently that of Yayoi Kusama in her Pop inspired fabrications.
Within this context these paintings share a discernible modernist sensibility or conventionality. This brings a deceptive ease of engagement to the exhibition as a whole, on the strength of established or acceptable visual painting languages. Yet far from diminishing the impact of the exhibition this air of comparative art historical comfort is rather disarming.
Herein lies the real complexity of Nedéla’s ambitious project. The works are not necessarily as they appear. While Nedéla would acknowledge the inheritance of modernist artists the works remain obsessively linked to the book and the very nature of text and representation. The works, particularly these paintings, are highly personalised to the extent they are self-referential. Every mark made, every dot applied is derived to systematically exist as a coded word from the Gablik text. Even more intensely, the resultant “images” of these paintings is also determined by characteristics of the printed word. In Nedéla’s code, attention has been given to variances of fonts, point sizes, bold type, plain type and so forth. The flat painting appearance therefore belies a defined though ‘illegible’ content. It is additionally confounding that this illegible content is concerned with the visual depiction of language. The paintings are representational or depictional in a minimal and abstracted form, but they are also mute.
With this knowledge of how the works are contrived, it is possible to suggest that Nedéla’s entire project is in part aligned with Systemic Art so-called in the 1960s by Lawrence Alloway, because of its strategic orderliness combined with its referential nature. So as not to consider this exhibition, only in terms of art historical semantics and game playing (although Nedéla is acutely in control of such games), it is worth considering the sensitivities of the latest works.
The paintings have been susceptible to human inexactness due to the way Nedéla has worked and has constructed this body of work. In the two largest multiple-panelled paintings (Cat. #41 and #42) the marks have a temporal value, as evidence of the passage of time in their making. Delicately uneven lines and subtle shifts in depth of pigment, track the capacity of human minds and hands to do continuous work. The ebbs and flows of the paintings are a direct correlation of the artist’s state of mind, energy level, degree of precision or impact of external forces such as light or music. It is also important to note that Nedéla has used the heads of pins or pieces of dowel to apply dots and allowed for the inconsistencies this has brought to bear on the work. All in all this brings an arresting quality to the paintings despite their obvious painstaking effort.
This final exhibition in the trilogy offers greater revelations with the inclusion of the studies for the entire 49 works of the project. These provide an absorbing and intimate catalogue of the process of ideas and their realisation. Ultimately this exhibition is one of harmonies and aesthetics as well as systems perhaps acknowledging and grappling with some of Gablik’s claims against Modernism. We are not to know what passages of her text Nedéla has elected to encode and how critical this is. That remains personal further underlining the dualities within the project and affirming that ENIGMA: A Suite of Variations has proved to be an apt and justly poetic title.