Critical Reviews

The West Australian,
On Show, Big Weekend Arts, page 6, 8 June 1996

Nedela nails down vital relationships

The contemplation of small objects is one of life’s least remembered pleasures. Almost every child spends hours sorting out coloured crayons, making patterns from pins, nails and washers in the backyard shed.

They delight in the degrees of variation and precision their games reveal. For these relationships of colour, shape and sizes are not as trivial as we may later come to think. They are our primary way of sorting out the world. We can still tap the pleasure they offer no matter how important and busy we become.

Jánis Nedéla’s current exhibition ENIGMA: a suite of variations #1, at Galerie Düsseldorf in Mosman Park, shows just how far this pleasure principle can be taken. He has made these same small things the basic units, the building blocks, for some sophisticated and, in places, complex art. Even when his patterns invoke extremes of austerity, however, it is always possible to begin simply by contemplating the way they are made.

For instance, in one work he hammered bullet head nails into a very large rectangular sheet of chipboard in clusters at a variety of carefully considered angles. They seem to form interacting communities, to have grown together like coral or some mineral flora.

The entire assembly was then painted in deep white enamel so that it seems to be made of a single substance. It is hung on the gallery wall and lit from above and the sides. Each nail casts sequences of radiating shadows of different depth and length.

They nestle into each other to construct complex tonal variations on the original pattern formed by the nails. One first sees all this in a single glance. It is only later that the procedures by which it was put together become apparent.

At first, the result may appear very pure, pristine, fixed in its place. But it is only the relationships between different elements in the work that are revealed as precise.

Nedéla points out in the catalogue that there is no top or bottom in any of his pieces. Each one can be displayed, horizontally or vertically or laid on the ground. Its overall image would then change considerably but the relationships between each of its elements would not.

His previous work was concerned directly with the idea of the book as object and the paradox of the printed word as pattern and idea. He has continued to work with the memory of the book in this exhibition.

One piece is a diptych and white variations on the same theme in coloured dots, like two open pages. One book in particular, Suzi Gablik’s ‘Has Modernism Failed?’ has served as the basis for a series of coded quotations and relationships within each work.

He has extracted sequences of words from the book which he has used as a code, a guide for making up his images. For example, he related them to the 36 different colours in the 1760 coloured pencil stubs with which he made up the pattern for another piece on white painted peg board. This adds several layers of complexity to the relatively simple bullet-head nail construction described above.

The use of the book as a rebus, a key to composition that is at once apparently arbitrary and profoundly significant, is not a new strategy. The musician John Cage used the I Ching in this fashion.

Nedéla, however, has seized on the argument put forward by Gablik that contemporary art was in need of a renewed spiritual purpose, a realisation that the joy of art lies not in the objects artists make, but in the living relationships formed between artists and their audience.

This is why art can be made using almost anything. Nedéla’s veiled references to Gablik carry this profound truth as their ecstatic subtext. Coloured golf tees, washers, peg board, paint, pencils all give pleasure as objects, patterns and codes. This is art for the eyes and mind to play, in a game where we are all virtuosi.


Dr. David Bromfield
Associate Professor of Fine Arts, University of Western Australia


The West Australian,
On Show, The Big Weekend, p.6, Saturday, 10 March 1999

A Pandora's box of colour

Almost everyone knows the fascination of opening a new box of crayons or sharpened coloured pencils.

Their lines and slabs of pure colour look more like precious jewels than marking tools. One hesitates to touch them. If one does, it might just as easily be to make patterns or play with them as to use them for drawing.

Jánis Nedéla explores this delightful paradox in his excellent new exhibition, Enigma, a suite of variations #2 at Galerie Düsseldorf, Mosman Park.

Every work in the show has been made by cutting, grinding or splitting coloured pencils and crayons and using the results as raw materials for painting. By working this way, Nedéla is able to produce objects that are incredibly simple, yet manage to address some of the most complicated issues raised by modern painting.

Nedéla can have his cake and eat it. One work consists of six panels, each 60cm square, covered with a cocktail of ground crayons (Crayola, Faber-Castell and Leviathon). This results in a sparkling texture that lends and extraordinary density to the monochrome surface of each panel. It also reminds the viewer of the way the panels were made.

The monochrome panel has been one of the mainstays of modern art since Malevich made the first during the Russian Revolution. It has always appeared backed by complex theory.

This is usually a variation on the idea that the abstract purity of the panel offers a special revelation, an insight into the unsullied intellectual structures that are supposed to lie behind our everyday experience.

Nedéla, on the other hand, has made monochromes that defy any such theory. They have all the optical power of their predecessors but their texture is a constant reminder of the material which made them possible. It becomes clear that there is no revelation beyond the work, beyond its immediate powerful presence.

This enigma is the central concern of the whole exhibition. Artists usually try to conceal or at least transform the materials with which they work. Nedéla does the opposite. His pieces challenge one to take them seriously. Once one does, they deliver a firm kick up the backside.
Not only does he make a perverse use of his crayons that denies their intended purpose, he also plays up their presence within the work so that one’s response is perpetually suspended between aesthetic fascination and irony at one’s own expense.

Two huge panels at the far end of the gallery demonstrate this to perfection. One is peg board covered with coloured pencils pointing upwards and outwards so that the entire panel bristles like a porcupine. The pencils are close enough to each other to create an optical effect, a ripple of shadows and glossy shine as one glances across the surface.

The other panel is a spectacular disaster, as if a miniature hurricane had levelled the pencils flat like trees in a forest. The canvas is covered with pencils broken and split lengthways. Brightly coloured pencil leads and remnants of paint are lodged within the fresh textures of the ruptured wood.

The contrast between the two panels intensifies their effect by focusing on the pencils and the wide range of states they can attain. This well-hung exhibition is full of similar pointedly intelligent juxtapositions. Nedéla has made several diptychs in which he plays on similar relationships.

The dust and shavings from sharpened pencils lie next to flat panels with pencil leads attached. Occasionally he allows the curly shavings produced by a pencil sharpener to lie across the top third of a canvas as if they were growing there.

When I was a child we would play a game to see who could make the longest unbroken pencil shaving. The shavings in Nedéla’s work might have been made the same way. As always his work inhabits the space between the playful and the high seriousness of contemporary art.

Where crayons and pencils are concerned, Nedéla seems to have an infinite capacity for innovation. He doodles elegantly with naked leads. He attaches triangular coloured points to white surfaces. He grinds wood and lead together to make an amazingly delicate surface flecked with jewel-like colours. It is a delight to follow him through this exhibition.


Dr. David Bromfield
Associate Professor of Fine Arts, University of Western Australia

Weekend extra /arts
The West Australian, Saturday, 3 August 2002

Raw beauty in miniature

Sometimes when I am standing in an artist’s supplies shop it seems to me that the boxes of brightly coloured spectral pastels, crayons, watercolours and gouaches will never look more beautiful than they do at that moment; indeed, I wish I could persuade some artists from buying them and turning them into some crude or banal approximation of a visual experience.

When viewing Jánis Nedéla’s new exhibition at Galerie Düsseldorf I reversed that idea, because the raw beauty of the pencils and crayons and even fragments of pencil and crayon shavings and dressmaker’s pins had been-taken and coaxed into new and mysterious life.

It was the small works which most intrigued me because they used the raw materials of drawing.

Any of the miniatures could serve as maquettes for the bigger pieces, except that the bigger paintings in this show seem to deal with some other agenda, but I couldn’t quite decode it.

Codes came to mind, inspired no doubt by the show’s title, Enigma, which I took to either refer to Elgar’s Imperial musical variations or the code-breaking machine which saved so many lives in World war II, and as I read recently, could have saved more but for personality conflicts in the Admiralty.

Again, it was the little works which most impressed. Their scale and textural optical teasing adding disproportionately to their engaging intensity. At times they reminded me of the illuminated manuscripts and books of hours of mediaeval Europe.

However, the big works should not be dismissed as merely systems-based decoration; they have too strong, and subtle and inner formal life for that. The fact that they appear to have been created from a vast store of coloured dots suggests a reference of some arcane artistic genetic coding, which allows us glimpses of a pixillated inner world, every bit as mysterious to the non-scientist as the DNA tests which pin down a criminal or spot a father’s identity.

But the artistic father I not so easy to trace here. Although I am reminded of the artworks of the various members of the European kinetic movements of the early 1960s, this work does not, despite its surface similarity to systems art, seem to have any programmatic intention. Rather, it is tending more to the intuitive.

This is a fine show by a mature and accomplished artist.

In the picture
Neville Weston

Wednesday, 12 November, 2003

Why Aren't I A Coral Fish

There are marvels. And a sense of fish. Enigma, on branches sits… (Paraphrased from ‘Ruslan and Ludmila’ by Alexander S. Pushkin)

There - is the gallery ‘Bastejs’, where a 47 year old Australian artist, Jánis Nedéla, has presented his paintings for the special occasion of the (his) first visit to his ancestral homeland.

‘I don’t understand’ a viewer shrugs desperately, looking to Malevich’s Black Square as an example. But, what is there to understand? The geniality of the artist, in this particular case, is related to the fact that he is the first to forecast the warning signs of the coming unknown epoch. Contemporary Art tries to reflect these signs. It challenges the intelligence of both the artist and the viewer. Hence – it’s essential to understand their meaning. I remember, for instance, the exhibition of the Young Conceptualists, showing a circular glass aquarium, full of slithering snails. They, the snails, see the endless world through the glass, but, poor creatures, they don’t understand why they can’t get out into the world. These snails are us. ‘Pricol’ & ‘Fishka’ are written on the banner of contemporary art. Can one have fun at Jánis Nedéla’s exhibition and still learn something. Yes! One can – and how!

One series of colourful canvasses of the exhibition is called ‘Fish’. But don’t shout ‘Where is the fish? The fish is where?’ from the door steps. It has not been delivered. So what? Haven’t you seen fish before?

Instead, on the canvasses you see pale multi-coloured grilled lines, speckled symmetrical white dots applied, as if with a needle, in acrylic paint. It is a grand artist’s decorative impression of fish, an artist from the exotic continent of Australia, exhibited(ing) in one of the best galleries of the world.

It's not actually a fish, not a banal herring, but a very special Australian fish – WRASSE. On opening the dictionary, we read: wrasse – coral fish guban (bulging lips, in translation). With what delight the artist describes that fish!

In his previous life the artist-Buddhist (and he is a Buddhist), was, apparently, a wrasse. No, he doesn’t dive with his aqualung into coral depths and caves, where his half meter long rainbow splendid fish hides. He buys it fresh from the market, and then he wonders what to do with it. It could be eaten – it has the most delicately flavoured flesh. And wonderful aroma. Or one can set it free into the ocean and watch, guessing, if it is caught again by a fisherman…

This rainbow-like wrasse compels the artist to take up his brush and express his impression of the fish again and again. The effect is quite meditative.

The second series of the paintings in the exhibition is named Enigma (mystery, puzzle). Each canvas is of one particular indefinite colour. As if the artist intends to conceal something from the naïve public. And rightfully so! One should not oblige the curious idle, yearning to peep at every key hole. The artist has a right to keep his secrets hidden (to protect his internal self). I would recommend the viewer to imagine each of the Enigma paintings as if a door opening into the mysterious land of Papa Carlo in Pinocchio…

If you like, each spot in the Wrasse or Enigma paintings may be considered as a subject for a separate scientific thesis of the modern art. Assuming that all these dots are inspired by Cezanne and Seurat, I asked the artist, if this is so. ‘That’s it’ And in general, the Australian artist adores the impressionists, and learned a lot from them, especially the colours.

He is famous now, but as a student, he was the poorest of the poor. He collected books, but being unable to buy, he begged then from the booksellers. And once, he approached a policeman and asked him…to shoot into a book to make a hole. The police were surprised initially, but gradually accepted his eccentricity. But it was not enough and after a while, Jánis bought a hand drill. Indeed, the hole – it is a divine Emptiness which is not less but the beginning and end of all substances (by the way, proven by physics…) Is this what the artist-Buddhist is trying to prove in the end?

When the public was just about to leave the exhibition, the artist banned their way with a knife. But do not think this bad. He cut pitilessly into the canvas called ‘SWEEP’ from ‘ENIGMA’ giving the pieces to anybody wanting them, destroying in this way one of his enigmas. I was curious which one it was exactly.

‘Why do you do that’! I asked amazed. ‘I always do that’ he replied, adding in the style of Vladimir Illich Lenin and Andy Warhol: ‘Art is not to be prayed to. It should belong to the people’.

I was also able to get a piece of his Enigma, and I look at it with thoughtful curiosity since then…

Tatjana Borisoglebskaja
Art Critic
(Russian Newspaper)



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