I create for myself. If people like my work it’s a bonus. There are a lot of artists I admire but I don’t see myself as part of any movement or faction. All that I do is create work that I enjoy doing that fits the present day climate, the present day atmosphere. It just happens to be that it’s 2002!
All quotations in this text are from an interview with Jánis Nedéla, 21 July 2002
This final exhibition in Jánis Nedéla’s Enigma trilogy marks an apparently radical departure from the others. They were built up around the physical and psychological presence of coloured pencils, deployed, dissected and aggregated in textures, patterns and shapes across large surfaces. The new works are even larger paintings, not a single pencil to be seen. Their relationship to the earlier works becomes clear, once one realises that pencils, in themselves, were never the subject of Nedéla’s work, merely the media. As he put it:
It was the third part of the trilogy. I had exhausted the idea of using pencils as media. I didn’t want to go into sculpture. I always wanted to get back into painting so this allowed me the opportunity with acrylics in particular.
For most of us, whether we are artists or not, pencils are objects of ultimate desire, all those lines of shiny bright rainbow colour in the new box, lying waiting to do our bidding, to make the world as we would wish it to be. If the Enigma trilogy has a subject it is this desire as it unfolds in human destinies. Nedéla’s primary concerns have always been about code and text, the ways in which we embed meanings and stories in physical objects that can, in one sense at least, come to contain one’s whole life, just like a book or diary – objects such as coloured pencils, which invoke memories of intense but unfocussed desires. His interest in the possibilities of art as an infinite, seamless text was sparked by the British artist Tom Phillips. He ‘illuminated’ a copy of a novel entitled A Human Monument to make A Humument, a work partly composed of the original type and partly of his overpainting, now united in a new text, that covers many copies of the original book.
I saw that book in the early 80’s and it has been embedded in my mind ever since. This work all comes from the very first show I did, an exhibition dealing with books and texts, reworking some of them. These current ‘Enigmas’ are basically pages, they are texts. I think they have come out a lot stronger this time because of the painting. They relate to diaries, they relate to my own thoughts and to little stories, but the whole thing still follows from the principle of the other two shows, which is colour coding as text.
The pencils were a means towards making art, a way to go at a time when no particular method or critical logic seemed to work. As Nedéla says they ‘helped’ him to make work. The fourteen large pencils he modelled in vinyl for this exhibition Cat # 40, are not simple large-scale reiterations of an intimate object à la Oldenberg or Magritte. Indeed avant-garde irony had little or no role in their conception. Each was originally intended to carry a term borrowed from critic Suzi Gablik’s text, Has Modernism Failed? The fourteen key words are Debate, Discovery, Traditional, Denial, Reactionary, Credibility, Conservative, Acceptance, Stimulate, Bait, New, Progress and Question.
Gablik’s central argument is that the ordered logic of modernity, its belief that art can be best understood as an ongoing project, with a clearly traceable history of achievements, led to a failure to make work which addressed the ever changing human condition with any degree of conviction. From now artists would have to improvise work across the whole range of their experience. Intuition and excitement might be forced to stand naked in the studio once more. The key words Nedéla destined for his pencils create a net of dilemmas and possibilities through which the desire to make art might operate in real time, in the studio. Think, literally, of a pencil which ‘draws’ tradition or reaction as well as colour, which serves to unite the action and the meaning of the moment when the mark is made.
This is a difficult request but it comes close to what Nedéla was after in his new, painted, colour coded ‘texts’. He was not seeking an immediate congruence between painting and pencil marks, rather a kind of correspondence, in the sense used by the poet Baudelaire, in which experiences, images and words and the marks which make them resonate together to form a new experience. This was not simply a reference to some memory of pencils but to:
the marks, or at least the notion that the marks resemble the marks of the pencil. I didn’t want to go down the avenue of using lines, straight or other. I wanted to concentrate on the gestural, the round dot, the idea that these could be the ends of pencils or that they are the marks of a pencil. There are also fourteen vinyl works which the paintings reference.
The act of making the rhythmical marks, small to minute presences, across Nedéla’s huge canvases, resembles the progress of a scribe working painstakingly through a sacred text in stone, clay or paper, ignoring irrelevant requirements of consistency and neatness, but making certain that the full presence of the text in memory, meaning and form, is figured ineradicably in each completed page. Nedéla thinks of them as like a page of type but with no right way up. This may explain the overwhelming sense of human presence, of veiled narrative, that the massive triptych, Cat. #41, projects. It is densely present, in the manner of the Rosetta Stone, another enigma whose power far exceeds its content.
The system, the code Nedéla used is clear enough. Each panel uses two of three colours: red, yellow and blue. The background colour of the previous work foregrounds in the next. The three panels are, potentially the first three of a longer series. Think too of his fourteen key words, which colours might have been attached to them. Bands of marks of various diameters, the largest at the centre the smallest at the edges, run horizontally across each panel in loose rhythmical curves, so that one might read them as pages of a vast musical score. Making the marks, Nedéla had no sense of working as if he were using a pencil.
No, because I was using things from dowelling, dress making pins as well as nails, to give me the dots. It was basically the visual effect. I was more concerned about the optical effect these things were making. I had already started to identify the illusion that was happening in the last show where I concentrated on grinding away and pulling a very nice pencil to bits and placing it on to a surface. That started me moving in the direction of this particular exhibition.
Standing before Cat. #41 one becomes slowly aware of the subtleties,
some intentional some completely arbitrary, which have determined its
existence. This same dynamic of a consistent human intention through time
and chance in every moment that passes lies at the heart of our sense of
being human, the ultimate enigma of our every gesture.
I think gesture is important, otherwise I could have used a screen printing process. It would have been fairly mechanical, the spaces between the dots, the areas between each dot and that placed next to it would have been rather uniform, and, I think very mechanical, very boring, and very flat. As to the idea of it all being hand done, it never came into to my mind that each dot should be a required distance of so many centimetres apart. Because I was playing background music, because of tiredness – I had been working up to ten hours a day on particular work, - you can actually see in the work where I have been very tight, very precise and then gradually become very loose. All those issues, whether I was interrupted, whether I was listening to particular music, whether I answered the phone – getting a drink, going to the loo and then returning to the work – all added to the way the paintings appear.
From a distance they appear sort of uniform, but as you get closer then of course you see the tension between the dots in certain areas. That’s what I like; the optical effect created when it’s accidental, when it is all by chance.
Thus is the presence of the artist, the DNA of the soul, embedded in his work but there are many other layers of ‘code’ in this text as Nedéla’s response to a query about his use of the title Enigma revealed.
We all know the word ‘Enigma’, it’s the puzzle, the maze, a game, a guessing game. Coding does feature in the work but more importantly the Enigma Variations by Elgar were a major influence.
Now you’re getting somewhere. The works are portraits. One particular personality features very strongly, a person who has been very much part of the whole trilogy.
A portrait in code, a passionate living presence inscribed in a field of coloured dots, may seem strange at first. But why not? Personalities often emerge through the pages of novels, though they can never be found on a single page. Their presence is buried in the code. For the moment Nedéla’s subjects must remain unidentified, though perhaps, in time, they may be discovered as his texts become easier to read.