First of all, what one sees is the empty canvas. I surrender myself to it. My sensual perception is assigned to making me perceive the miracle that is to happen. And if there’s some pressure in the canvas, I try to feel my way into it and afterwards to observe, when it comes to life before me. I will not master it, but I must capture it, subdue it. My ‘I’ naturally pervades this picture and I am a part of it. It does not resist me, and gradually the corporality of the painterly resources on the screen grows, till it encloses itself in an organism which I would injure by further intervention. It becomes my competitor. It’s a structure – which lives by and of itself, and just as I enter into it, so the viewer may enter into it also.

(Juraj Kollár)

The painter Juraj Kollár invites us to enter his picture; he invites us to “stroll” through his work. For that matter, he once identified strolling as one of his methods of work. I must emphasise, however, that this won’t be an ordinary stroll and it won’t be relaxing. But whoever enters the world of his pictures, plunging in fully, allowing oneself to be led and captivated, and then lasting it out and identifying oneself with what’s there, will be rewarded. With a visual and spiritual experience which is not met with every day. Paintings cannot easily be explained in words, least of all paintings by such a painter as Juraj Koller. But the effort is worth making… Let us enter.

Being a contemporary painter is hard. Not only having regard to the fact (as it might seem) that everything important and essential has already been painted, but also considering that an artist who devotes himself entirely to painting should not just live his art (in the sense of living with it, identifying with it), but also, in the fully prosaic sense, live by it, make a living… How to achieve that without compromises, without a humiliating climb-down from one’s claims; how to discover oneself in art step by step, to formulate a programme, commit oneself to it and achieve it, and even surpass the defined goals; how to try out further possibilities incessantly and stride towards new, still unconquered aims: all this is revealed in the story of Juraj Kollár’s painting. Born in Nitra in 1981, Kollár is regarded as the most naturally gifted and pertinacious painter of his generation. In the course of a few years he has managed to create, to paint, a relatively “respectable” body of work, in terms of numbers and dimensions, but above all in quality and with an internally consequent programme, to present it at several independent exhibitions, to establish himself on the domestic and international scenes, and to achieve a number of prestigious awards in Slovakia, the Czech Republic and abroad.

But let’s take things in order. Let’s try to clarify why and how this still young (by present-day standards) but inwardly mature artist managed to acquire the reputation of making striking and inimitable statements about the issues of contemporary painting (even when sometimes, as several theoreticians have noted, “he looks back to the past”, he is actually examining the language of painting from various aspects). What was it that made him the central figure of young or, to put it more precisely, contemporary painting in Slovakia? The first complex monograph will perhaps be able partially to clarify and illuminate his efforts, his journey, and its milestones, halting places and shifts, in various aspects and from various standpoints.

One cannot overlook the fact that in recent years there has been a certain “boom” of young painting in Slovakia. To this day it enjoys its further “renaissance”: it has its competitions and prizes, auctions, exhibitions and monographs, its apologists, enthusiasts, critics, and above all buyers and collectors. Allegedly, because it is what is best suited for decorating the expensive domestic interiors of the “new” Slovaks. There was a time, some years ago, when one of the trend-setting critics of contemporary art, noticing paintings at one of the shows presented by the Academy of Fine Arts and Design, came out with the astonished question, “Are you still painting?” A few years later, however, this celebrated rise of painting had lured back a number of devoted adherents who had recently been crossing over to video and new media. It is a proven fact that much has been done for the emergence and development of contemporary painting by the universities and the head teachers of a number of studios (and not only of painting): examples are Rudolf Sikora (latterly engaged at the Faculty of Arts in Košice, which produced a number of individual talents), Daniel Fischer, Ján Berger, and Ivan Csudai.

Formally Juraj Kollár might conform to this trend in several aspects (e.g. he had success at the VÚB Foundation’s Painting of the Year). His works have formed part, one may say, of all relevant shows of contemporary painting. He has his professional gallerists who represent him and successfully launch him abroad; furthermore, his works have already made their way into important public and private collections (e.g. the Slovak National Gallery, which in Slovakia counts, whether we like it or not, as the yardstick of highest quality). And yet despite all this he seems to stand somewhat apart. Lucia Gregorová Stach described him as a “loner” – genuinely he stands at a remove from the trends, internecine frictions, quarrels, discussions, which apparently leave him untouched as they flow along beside him and over him. For example, the very fashionable trend of pop ironisation and kitsch sarcasm in contemporary painting has not marked him; equally, schematic social engagement, or the obsession with asserting one’s own ego and the narratives of one’s life, have remained alien to him. Is this a result of his apparent “discreetness”, his introverted and non-conflictual nature? Or is it rather from the inner stubbornness and toughness with which he continues to pursue his goals, following his own, and only his own, idea of painting?

Beginnings – Premises

If we are to stick to the rules of the monograph genre, then to begin with one must say that Juraj Kollár has been painting and drawing since his childhood. At the Elementary Art School in Nitra his primary interest in art was aroused by the teacher Alexandre Kiss, who imbued him with self-discipline and perseverance. At the Ss. Cyril and Methodius Secondary School he attended a class with an artistic orientation. Miroslav Nicz and Jozef Jaňák, to whom he went for artistic “training” and with whom he tried out how to “properly” paint a portrait or still life, were the first who showed him that artistic work could be worth doing. At the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava, he was accepted in Daniel Fischer’s studio in 1999, where he spent two years, with a further year under the guidance of the then guest teacher Ilona Németh. Thence he went for a study period to the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague with Professor Zdeňek Beran, with whom he finally graduated. In his studio he had the name of a “rebel”: always what interested him was precisely what “wasn’t on”. While in Bratislava with Fischer he had explored the possibilities of (hyper)realism, in Prague he was interested in wild painting/abstraction (inspired by Beran’s one-time informal).

He was learning how to construct a picture with painterly means. From the beginning, he wanted to show the inner side of painting also. To evoke a process of perception in the viewer, which would be similar to what he as a painter had perceived in the object of depiction, as that object entered the painting. In hyperrealistic painting he painted according to the model; likewise, he used a photograph, seeking to make a transcription of the photograph to the painterly expressive field – sometimes so much so that the picture came across as “false perfectionism”. But soon this register became insufficient for him. While still with Fischer, he opened each semester with a different theme, a different mode of painting. It was as if he wished to open up from himself the widest possible gamut of painting options, to take hold of the greatest number of approaches and possibilities for painting, to master the indispensable craft as thoroughly as he could. At the same time, every concept of painting seemed like the result of a different experience, a different contact with reality, and through a dissimilar painterly vocabulary. From the beginning, continuity between the works was programmatically broken; every painting was a different and separate world until ultimately it might seem that it belonged to another artist. This propaedeutic approach to painting also had its advantages. It opened up for the young painter an entire range of possibilities, to which later he began (sometimes in parallel, sometimes “leapfrogging”) regularly to return. He thus marked out a number of paths concurrently, which he is treading, we may say, to the present day. For the historian of art interpreting his work, this fact also has its difficulties and disadvantages. It is a complex matter to construct a clear chronological line of Kollár’s painting, in such a way that one does not lose oneself or get bogged down in specificities. The fact is, his painting hitherto is somewhat reminiscent of a nappe construction, where the individual segments tumble upon, overlap and outreach one another.

When we look at Juraj Kollár’s development as a painter, even at a first glance it is obvious that he likes to work with the classical painting genres. We find him producing landscapes, urban vistas, portraits, nudes, still lifes, figural and animal compositions. Gestural, geometric, abstract and “realistic” figural painting are all of interest to him. Their conception and vision, however, is in the highest degree contemporary, instructed and transformed through the prism of our gazing at the surrounding world (and not only the surrounding world but also the apparently invisible world which is hidden from our eyes). Through that world, an essential part of it, go the conquests and potentials of the new media: computers, cameras, mobile telephones etc., digital and digitalised images from their “interfaces”, through which we gaze at reality today. Already when first seeing his paintings we understand that although he works with an expressive apparatus of painting which has been fashioned over centuries, he is engaged in more than a transvaluation of traditions and messages. Principally he is surveying the options that painting as such gives him, not only in terms of depicting the actual object, its transmission to the canvas, to another language; above all, though, there is the vision, the subjective perception and modes of mediation of reality (or any sensation or stimulus whatever) with colour (materiality or non-materiality of colour), light, surface and space, and the painter’s distinctive hand. Kollár’s aims are perhaps best elucidated with brief extracts from his artist’s statement: “Painting for me is the projection of a haptic transformation of a visual perception. In this sense, the painting acts by the direct intervention of an instrument in the pictorial field. The instrument mediates the relationship between the bearer of the structure and the surface of the structure; it becomes their existential breakthrough, whereby it absolutely strips itself of the nature of the equipment and becomes an absolute object while remaining the embodiment of the contact of human being and reality.“ “Painting in its own way is a substitute resource of reality, which evokes a live, genuinely lived-through atmosphere… it is like a publicist’s reporting: he has to make daily reality exceptional, which still retaining its truthfulness.”

Painting, the painter’s work, is actually a mode of the painter’s life which fuses with him, because the life around him in all its aspects also enters into his work. This sentence may sound somewhat banal, but in Kollar’s painting things are definitely not quite that simple. Painting for him is certainly something more than just observation of reality; one can say that it is a physical and mental mode of his own existence, which (mentally and physically) he deposits in it.

Behind Glass - Stored Pictures

While he was still a student Juraj Kollár produced his first picture of a painted breeze block wall. He began painting vistas through breeze blocks while he was with Daniel Fischer at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava (2001 – 2002). Later this method of constructing the picture became a favourite of his, one might even say his “heraldic” motif, which gave him his notability as a young talent. Here also there was a real experience at the beginning, from the buiilding of a house which had breeze block walls: “The division of my paintings has its origin in building materials. As a boy, I lived in a house which my father was demolishing and at the same time building, and this process of constructing an accommodation formed romantic feelings of home in me. What fascinated me was the emptiness, and its suggestion, which radiates to me from the picture, just as when I look through a window. I look at the picture as a structure through which I am gazing out.” Hence reality itself furnished him with a principle of dividing the picture, which he later programmatically narrowed down and isolated as one of the fundamental principles of construction of his paintings.

What it involved was looking from the inside out: precisely on the manner of looking at the world he developed a specific form of a folded picture, where he decomposed the picture to a net, a grid, whereby a new structure developed of paintings within the painting, from whose sum the resulting work was born. The pictorial field was actually made up of a multitude of smaller “pictures” of equal dimensions, which were primed and stretched on underframes; each square was capable of functioning independently in painting terms (as an abstract picture of its kind), but together they gave a further, coherently legible and perceptible, whole. The principle of using a grid structure found its way into Kollar’s work via two routes: through the divided picture, as we will see later; and through use of the net, which either became a physical part of the picture, or it remained there imprinted on the structure of the painterly matter after its removal. He used the principle of division, of the grid; he structured the picture into regular parts. On the one hand he disrupted its connectedness, while at the same time analysing the motif that had lost its literal or narrative quality; on the other hand he nevertheless pursued the connectedness of the whole (though broken into pieces). After all, his aim was to provide an illusion of the seen, or more precisely, to mediate our sensual perception of the seen. The whole here remains a whole, but strangely decomposed, rhythmicised to a right-angled grid, put together from a great number of paintings within the painting. All of them are separately painted, but one without the other would not give the final painting, its meaningful whole (for example, the large-format Crown of the Tree is made up of more than 600 elements, small paintings in the shape of little bricks stacked on one another).

The breeze block wall is a window on the world, but a strange window, a window sui generis. We do not see anything specific through it; through the coarse panes of glass the piercing light is broken, poured, spilled; it dissolves the outlines and materiality of what is “behind” it. Furthermore, this perception changes in the course of the day, it has its own dynamic of light and mutability. We are looking at something that is behind glass – beyond a boundary, a membrane, a curtain, and strangely deformed by it. “The artist abandons the classical approach to painting as a look towards the ‘interior’; he creates a series of works which force us to look ‘out’. The above-mentioned decomposition intensifies this feeling of a gaze turned in the direction of the outside. Ultimately, though, the viewer becomes aware that he/she is enclosed in an unknown space. The viewer’s abilities to follow what is going on outside are extremely restricted.” The painterly, precisely realistic recording is thus not merely a record of a concrete (momentary) light sequence and its illusions, and simultaneously a kind of painterly world ‘in itself’, where each of the minor pictures of the whole is a kind of independent abstract painting; beyond this, the pictures together give a certain concrete and powerful visual sensation (Landscape Vista, Garden, 2001; Toilet, 2001;Rainy Garden, 2005; View of a Landscape, 2008; Winter, Madonna, Breeze Blocks , 2009; Road, 2010; NYC 72; 2011; Crown of the Tree, 2012; Invalides, Paris, 2014; One Two; Lake, Reflection– Still Life I – II; Beach, 2017; Lomnický Peak, Luxemburg Gardens, Lake – Park Ibirapuera, 2018). What is most impressive in these, however, is their painterly quality, the manner in which the artist, by a concentrated painterly gesture and blurring, manages to bring every square centimetre of the painting into play and yet sustain the engaging power of the whole, which manages step by step to absorb the viewer, who is compelled to look at it again and again.

How does the painter achieve this painterly sequence? Is it a product of his visual memory, abilities of the eye, imagination, or a pure fruit of fantasy? Everything is simpler and simultaneously more exact. In the beginning, he painted windows in the whole, later he himself began to install those windows. Juraj Kollár genuinely does look at the world “behind glass” through the eye of a photographic apparatus, a camera: one might say, through a double curtain. Not long ago he revealed the entire process and made it visible by preparing a photographic record of the action of “acquiring” a motif in central squares of two capital cities, Vienna and Bratislava. In practice, it seems that he photographs the chosen compositional slot or shot through a breeze block fragment actually installed in the real setting, time and light situation, which he composes and shifts in the setting until he achieves the necessary photographic prerequisites. Sometimes in the midst of a noisy crowd, where in many cases he does not escape the disruptive attention of chance passers-by and curious onlookers … (Stefansplatz I. – II., Hviezdoslavovo námestie, 2018).

Elsewhere in the group of assembled pictures, the painter exploits an entire range of depictions from hyperrealism (Flowers, 2007; Christmas Birds, 2014), through a generalisation of the motif, to a kind of abstract network. Space itself, delimited by a geometric linear grid and its rhythmicisation (or a single geometric vanishing point, an oval, the centre of the composition), becomes a theme, a leitmotif of painterly thoughts and analyses (Space, 2008; Gate, Deep in the Sea, Night, Empty Space, 2009; Curtain, 2010; Plate, Ceiling, Crown, Roots, Act I., Hotel Lutetia Paris, Foyer, 2011; Darkness, 2012; Balcony, 2013; Morning on the Beach, 2018). Kollár abandons the hyperrealistic premise and moves in the opposite direction (as will be the case in his work henceforward); reality empties out into a network, a seemingly impersonal structure. By constructing the painting as a regular, geometrised grid a kind of illusion develops of a pure (architecturalised) space, something like a white cube. By this means his two-dimensional compositions take on a new object facticity and materiality. They are actually visible and materialised thoughts about how we can come to terms with space, of which we are a part and which surrounds us in its infinite finitude, definite indefiniteness, and boundless boundedness.

Landscapes Non-landscapes

The curator and gallerist Silvia van Espen has called Juraj Kollár “an artist of the plural”. What she had in mind was not only a number of artistic registers which appear naturally in his work and influence one another: she was also referring to his relationship to several destinations of life and work. To Nitra as his home town; to Bratislava where he studied and where he currently lives and has established a family; to Prague, where his second alma mater is located; but above all to Paris, where he resided, lived and worked for an extended period. One may say that all of these places have influenced and determined him in some major way as a painter. Anchored at home in Slovakia, in relationships which he has formed here, at the same time he is a cosmopolitan and nomad who loves to roam through Europe (and the other continents) and is able to be at home in other countries. This unexamined and silent desire, to link up with some other setting besides the domestic, and grasp and comprehend it as a painter, has not left him to this day.

As has previously been the norm in the history of art, Juraj Kollár too found living soil for his painting in surrounding reality, even if his view of it is the view of a 21st-century artist, not merely instructed by the history of art but above all personally moulded by our new reality and by the visuality of new media. Important for him in this sense is the pictorial information which he sees “live” not just around him but also mediated through “liquid” media, the photograph, or the film or digital image (e.g. mediated through a TV broadcast). For him, however, the photograph is “useful” as a sketch to proceed from. Urban vistas, residential zones, people’s dwellings, and also the surfaces of rivers, trees and houses, shadowed or sunlit facades, figural moments from life, as if quite randomly, without focusing, caught by the camera, serve him as a distinctive, unconstraining storehouse of motifs of “what” to paint, and also, as we have seen in the assembled paintings, as instructions for “how” to paint. Often in the painting he seems to want to deliberately hold onto the photographic seed-grain, to admit a certain diffusiveness and blurring of the picture. When he begins to process the photographic record, often it draws him to communicate in his painting that second-order perception of reality through the media shift and transformation of the original visual experience.

He loves to gaze and walk about the city where he (currently) lives. But what interests him is not any fashionable tourist spots: he chooses motifs of an urban, civilised landscape that is strangely socially stigmatised, often to all appearances unattractive, dwelt in by a human being who is not present there but whose traces we feel. His first “concrete” landscape paintings (of Bratislava and Nitra) were produced during his studies in Prague, somewhat as nostalgic remembrances of his distant home place (Nitra, 2003), from a need to give voice to the bond: an abiding link to a place, which he felt intensively at a distance. As he once remarked, for him the principal method of landscape painting became … a stroll. A stroll through a city, a sequence of random memorial and emotional traces, leading to the attempt to capture, to grasp the genius loci of a place and a city that he loved. Later, enchanted by Paris and its big city heartbeat, he chose landscape painting as a problem sui generis which he wanted to solve by painterly means, tracing it in the painterly hand he had chosen.

Here also, in landscape creation, we find an entire gamut of possibilities and interstages, ranging from hyperrealism, through materiality, to non-objectification. Kollár began a painterly examination of the structure of the photographic shot, using various modes and forms of the painter’s calligraphy: addressing the surface using a flowing impasto manner of painting, sometimes based on a segmented colour blur, at other times on a gestic stroke and rapid movement of the brush. He hurled, threw, squirted colour onto the canvas, upon which the colour sometimes ran freely; at other times he laid it on and spread it with a brush and stimulated it haptically, with a hand or other objects. With this expressive richness he could paradoxically move in both directions once again: towards a matter-of-fact transcription of reality based on an objective or figural element, and towards its dissolution on the painting surface in a fragmentary scene or landscape that came across as abstract (French Meadow, German Meadow, Slovak Meadow, Italian Meadow, Tropical Meadow, Scrub, Over the Landscape, View, 2004; Shore, Morning Landscape, Rain, 2005; Night Waves, 2009; Parisian Street, Danube, 2011; Danube, 2013; Merry-go-rounds, Forest, 2014; Grove, Orchard, 2015).

In Paris (from 2005 onwards he regularly travelled there for relatively long creative residences) he discovered another element of the segmentation of the composition: the element of the net, which he physically placed on the surface of the picture and through which he painted. As he himself said: “Painting is a kind of substitute for reality, which evokes a live, truly experienced atmosphere. I therefore also insert heterogeneous materials, which I find among household supplies, in the painting. A few years ago I found plastic nets in an allotment garden, and this time around it was artificial grass carpets. The regular structure of streets and green spaces in Paris gave added power to this structure. The grass carpets created a substrate which broke up the picture into a picture-forming graining, and thus with minimal tonal interventions of colour it evoked the natural impressiveness and vitality of the painting.” Using the element of the net also had practical advantages. One did not need to fear working with high and crude impastos: the net sustained the mass of the paint so that it did not crack and peel off. It disrupted the seemingly photorealistic space and changed it to an abstract space. The painted landscape was perforated with the structure of a mesh; the painter optically and haptically broke up its integrity and made it a multitude of small impasto surfaces. Thereby the authorial signature was essentially negated, and the work became more impersonal. “What emerged was a kind of reversible divisionism producing a pulsation on the surface, which was no longer subordinated to the physiological givens of the eye but rather to ‘mosaic-style’, to a grille structure”. “The orthogonal grid relativises the gaze outwards, to the landscape, and returns it to the painting – the surface that is fragmenting reality, with the aim of perceiving it better.”

The net appeared to play a dual role in the picture: materially it “grounded” and reified it, bringing to it a new element of physicality and physics. At the same time, it functioned as a kind of optical screen, which appeared to dissolve the mimetic forms defined by colour and light. It blurred, injured, disrupted the clearly recognisable features of objects and figures and enabled their sublimation on the retina of the viewer’s eye. Thus a “dispersed” series of paintings – moments – came into being, loosely thematising the everyday, ordinary Parisian life and conveying a feeling of its atmosphere (the cycle Paris, 2007 – 2013; Senate, 2008; the cycle Luxemburg Gardens, 2009 – 2010; Vestibule Paris, 2011; Seine, Seminar, Aeroplane, 2011; Evening in the Park, Strolling, 2012; Champs- Élysées Garden I. – II., 2013; Lady with Buggy, Strolla, 2014; Carnival, Senate of Paris, 2015; Waiting Man, 2016). Non-tourist views of the parks, courtyards, buildings, doors, windows, sometimes empty, at other times without people but with figural pageantry – the human element here has become a further element for “moving about” the structure of the painting. The net and other artificial substrates afterwards entered his works as an externally-added element of alienation of the painted pictorial field (Storeroom I-II, 2011).

Kollár used a similar method of forming and constructing the painting when capturing the “social” topography of Bratislava. Perhaps with a single difference: Paris seemed to live and tremble in reflections of vibrating light (quite as the impressionists had seen it); in contrast, Bratislava’s inner-city and natural extra-urban spaces seemed on the one hand to grow grey and dull, yet, on the other hand, they were radiant (even in darkness) with their distinctive, estranging light (Hviezdoslav Square, 2003; Presidential Palace, 2010; Government Offices, Bratislava, SNP Bridge, Danube Quay, River Morava, 2011; Janko Kráľ Park, Ľudovít Štúr Quay, 2012; Petržalka, 2012; Reduta, 2012; Bratislava – Rajská Street, Night Walk, 2014). Apropos of which, in Slovakia today there is no landscape painter who could match what Juraj Kollár has done, often so minimalistically and yet with painterly skill, to capture the indefinable atmosphere and nature of the city which he is painting…

In a certain opposition to these vibrant pictures “confined” in nets, and to the (essentially abstract) landscape compositions, there is another group of paintings in Kollar’s work which he himself has called “reported”. He had already tested materiality as a painterly principle in a group of works produced while still at university (Studio, 2001; Fast Still Life I – II, 2002). Reported (or “reportage”, “publicist”) painting is a distinctive effort of his at a non-partisan rendering, an irrelevant communication of items of pictorial information which he sees around him, or as he perceives them, for example, when they “roll over him” from the media. His vision and painterly communication is thus liberated from superfluous political, historical or personal connotations, whether he is looking at a car park under his windows, the empty hall of the Slovak parliament, or his mother who is filling in an election paper behind a partition (Studio Paris, 2007; Sreeet/Carpark, 2009; Storeroom I – II, 2010; Prague, Žižkov, 2011; Hotel Kyjev, 2011; Parliament, 2011; Mother, 2011).

Look, a Human Being

In parallel with his landscape painting, Juraj Kollár began to produce other works focused on the human figure, head, or portrait. We might also notice that the landscapes which he has painted and paints still are not entirely depopulated. Often they are enhanced with a figural effect, even if this, as one of the details, often melts into the whole. Peer closely at it, however, and a human being will surface in his painting, maybe a familiar face… As a “proper” and genuine painter he had to, and wanted to, test his powers also in depicting the human being, in the traditional figural genre and in portrait. But it wouldn’t have been him if he hadn’t attempted conceptual innovations: “When I make a figure, it becomes an object for me – it comes to life. And precisely that moment of origin is decisive. It brings to life the painting, and it brings to life the object upon it. But in working with figures, especially with portraits, I have realised one important thing: the more I transport myself psychologically into my figure, the more intensively some kind of deformation becomes manifest in it. I have tried to shape my figures as realistically as possible, but the more intense my experience and my feeling that I was reaching the depths, the more the portrayed face began to be deformed. It’s automatic, I can’t control it, always it goes beyond me – that movement I need to make in the final moment of enlivening.”

Already while at school, and somewhat later “propaedeutically”, he had employed diverse painterly means and modes of expression: from realism to heterogeneous modernist stylisations (Girl I – II, 2004; Set of Smaller Portraits, 2004 – 2005). He sought ways of capturing the portrait (face, also full-body), setting the figure in the painting surface/space. For his live models, he brought an emulsion (raw eggs and pigments), thus giving “an impression of meat” to the surfaces of body and face, in order to evoke a physical and naturalistically corporal impression, even to the point of brutality (Study for a Head I – II, 2001). Again, at other times he strove for a rendering of the “imitated historicity” of a damaged sculptural substrate, which he transformed materially with colour (Scribe, 2004; Kuros I – II, 2007). Where the coloured sculpture was injured, battered, a kind of new definition of space (in the artist’s words) emerged. The spatial modelling of the sculpture was achieved by the incidence of light, and also by an arrangement of the attrition on the sculpture’s surface against a dark background. A figure set in an empty museum-like silence thus appears before us as a sculpture; its corporality has a heterogeneous structure, making an incisive and yet also documentary impression, transient in its “eternal” remaining. Interesting too is the fact that the painter used a representation of his own body. Again, during his first period of residence in Paris, he employed another documentary method for capturing the countenance, a smooth photorealistic painting without any psychologising, or formal and expressive exaggeration when he painted residents and representatives of the monastery where he lived (Portraits of Priests, 2008).

For Juraj Kollár’s later and already mature painting, two extensive and sophisticated portrait cycles are important: Portraits of Politicians and Absent-minded/Students. The first instance (Portraits of Politicians, 2010 – 2011) involved monstrous, large-format facial representations mainly of Slovak politicians (but with some foreigners also, e.g. Berlusconi). At that time, in contrast to now, the media were full of them, and each of us knew well (or intimately?) what they looked like. They found their way into Kollar’s work involuntarily, even if under pressure (from the TV screen). Although they were not painted in the realistic descriptive style but freely, very dynamically and impasto-style, one could not deny their resemblance and all of us knew at first glance who Kollár’s painting was about. With the employment of an “inanimate” material – paint, which in places he kneaded literally in the manner of a relief – he managed to achieve a high degree of animation, imitating the live human organism (the face in movement and with a characteristic expression, sometimes exaggerated and caricatured). He thus dissolved on the canvas “the totality of their media image”. At the same time, these paintings have got nothing to do with political involvement, though they provoke and irritate (sometimes making one smile at the distinctive portrait reduction and typical expression) precisely by their seemingly apolitical disinterest and detachment.

The second instance (Absent-minded/Students, 2014 – 2015) comprises a series of chamber face portraits of students, painted in oil and in life-size. The painter chose a real group of students listening to a lecture on Imannuel Kant‘s Critique of Pure Reason in real-time (January 2014) in a real place (Harvard); he found a recording on youtube, which he downloaded. On the one hand, he conceived each painting as a purely painterly problem: how was it possible with a few brushstrokes to capture somebody’s personality or immediate psychic disposition? On the other hand, however, the expressive painting is rationally corrected with the attempt to stamp each face at a moment of thinking over what has been heard: the interpretation of the German philosopher’s ideas. As we can see, each person is thinking differently about the matter. The faces surfacing from a dark background are exposed by the artist in a dramatic (existential?) light; with a concise gestic hand he presents the attitudes of faces and the glances of eyes. With incredible cogency, he has managed to capture a moment that will never again recur, but painting preserves it forever…

It is typical of Juraj Kollár’s work that he naturally oscillates between various problems, themes, modes and concepts of painting. In 2014 a relatively consistent group of figural compositions appeared (with an animal element), where he made use of his painterly skills, modes of seeing the motif and addressing it with paint and his characteristic painter’s hand. His primary aim was to capture the corporal shape in motion, the impression and dynamics of a motion that is “halted” in the painting (Girl I – IV, Darina, Denisa, Girl with Butterfly, Dog in the Bath, Birds, Pony, Puppies, 2014). Genre motifs: a girl undressing /dressing, female nudes in various positions, a girl riding a pony, little dogs – all these he deliberately alienates through the category of the painterly hand (impasto and blur) and working with paint as matter. A further experiment was the painting of a baroque sketch. To disrupt the illusiveness and illustrativeness of the original motif, he unfolded the scene as a segmented structure/architecture / folded picture (Angels, 2015), and thus alienated it from the original model.

Pixellated Picture

During the years 2014 – 2015 a further register subtly appeared in Juraj Kollár’s work: works emerged which are somewhat reminiscent of pointillist paintings, a kind of “upgraded” impressionism. The immediate visual affinity to the last-mentioned models is, however, deceptive. These were far more complex structures, whose aim was not merely to capture a feeling, an impression, the atmosphere of a landscape, as one might suppose at first glance. Kollár stimulates the surface haptically, with a dynamic and very thick and rich impasto, painting with brush and a variety of other instruments, often using the already-mentioned nets (with various-sized holes), so as physically, materially, to highlight as much as possible the mental perceptions which the seen, recorded and subsequently painted picture evoked in him, and thus he addresses those feelings of his to the viewer.

In this new cycle also the foundation is, as we have seen, preceptions from life, obsessive memories, witnessed events, moments from media communicated by a film sequence or photograph (which serves him as a kind of sketch, as we said earlier). These may be inner-city districts, streets full of people, a shore with refugees, a sea and a sky, a beach…, or objects such as, for example, a flower, a head with a pipe, or an ordinary carrot… The genre element, however, does not at all have an illustrative function. The principle of segmentation of the painting surface, which Kollár has often used in his work, has led him here to make use once again of the net – grille, which at one and the same time seems to bind and hold together the painting, and simultaneously to dissolve it into the surrounding space, which it combines with. With his physical coarsening of the painting surface, structuring it to a grid, it was as if he desired to deny or to disrupt the “romantic” hand, to rationalise it, to gain detachment from it.

First of all, what he is concerned with is not the painterly expression or the belle matière in itself (although the oil paint here has its characteristic polish and a special semi-liquid and congealed consistency in motion), though at first one might think so. Rather, through the complex material texture of the painting, the painterly matter, he seeks to highlight the visual and haptic essence and structure of the object and its experience of reality, which remains in his mind. Depositing several centimetres of paint, he changes the painting into a relief and it takes on the character of an object. This object’s outlines are spread out unclearly within the painting; shapes are optically blurred and lose themselves, as if we were looking at the world through half-shut eyes, or as if we were approaching as closely as possible to the surface of the object which we are looking at. The painting and its objective and corporal elements thus dissolve into a system of brushstrokes, grids, points and small coloured areas; items of information are literally physically crushed into an abstract mass, an aggregate; the specific known space, the situation, changes to an abstract landscape, which surprises one with a new view of its “mobile” (or more precisely, captured in motion) flickering micro- and macro-details. It is as if one were and were not in reality: to achieve the illusion of atmosphere, of Being in the framework of the surrounding reality, and at the same time to be distanced from it, to raise oneself above it and perceive it with new and disinterested eyes, to benefit from its spiritual seriousness and character. Even if these works make a first impression of painting alla prima, the truth is the opposite: as the artist himself says, it is more painting alla seconda to which he makes his way by a sophisticated method, through several creative, sentimental and rational phases, when he lets spontaneity, explosiveness and energy be overlaid by judicious thinking and well-considered procedure (Crashed Boeing, 2014; Catastrophe, 2014; Blue Rose, 2014; City, Gulf, Shore, Field, Garden, Park, Refugees, Villa, Street, Picnic, Park, Petržalka – Chorvátske rameno, Plastic Animals, 2015; Evening Swim, Baths, Early Evening, Brook, Stroll, Residential Zone I – II, Gentleman, Still Life with Carrot, Street, Evening Periphery, 2016; Still Life I – II, 2017; Mandarin Orchard, 2018).

If we are to thematise the initial presumption of a “strange” likeness or selective affinity (with pointillism or impressionism), let us say that in Residential Zone I and II, where the painting is breathing and vibrant, fleeing away from the viewer somewhere to an imaginary vanishing point, we would be able to discover how Monet, or perhaps Sisley, might paint the Parisian boulevards today, after one hundred and fifty years, lit up by the ubiquitous advertising. Granted, with the (computerised) experience of digital “pixellated” vision, but also with the knowledge of a 21st-century human being…

Objective – Non-objective

In the 20th century abstraction probably was (and in the 21st century still is) the most exploited field of painting. It was also the scene and the arena of the most ambitious works by dilettantes (whether unconcealed or with a veneer of professionalism) and plagiarists. It might seem that here everything has already been done and each new abstract work requires a new justification of its “right to life”: distance from and continuity with its models and predecessors. Writing the first monograph on this artist, Silvia van Espen says: “Juraj Kollár’s abstract work is firmly anchored in the artistic exploration which was ongoing in our country during the last century. The painter’s relationship to representative reality already marked the beginnings of abstract painting; we find its roots in the quest by František Kupka (1871 – 1957), with his vision of a painter qualified to create just like Nature. Kollár’s painting also is inspired by natural laws, which leave only a small space for doubt. On this score, he is closely akin to Zdeňek Sýkora (1920 –2011). The young artist is freshly producing an up-to-date geometrical abstraction, which was widespread in Czechoslovakia of the 1960s.” But the models and parallels that he measures himself against, and from whom he learns, would include others also (e.g. Cy Twombly). Similarly in the relations between music and abstract painting, which have a wealth of history.

We have seen that in Kollár’s work the enlarged detail in a hyperrealistic painting of a landscape, or the fragment of an assembled picture, can end up as an abstract work – at least, that is the effect it has on the spectator. From this standpoint, the painter’s movement is between two registers which we could distinguish in a simplified form using binary concepts: objective/non-objective, realistic/abstract, representational/non-representational. He moves entirely naturally – in tune with his being, we might say. The first continues from and subordinates itself to the second, and vice versa. According to the curator Petr Vaňous, as a creative type Kollár moves between two polarities: he oscillates “between the sensual and the rational in his approach to the pictorial surface.” To be sure, this is true of many artists, and in Kollár’s case, it requires a more precise formulation.

His fascination with abstraction creates a kind of “transmission belt”, a natural inter-stage of his painterly explorations which is important for his “thematic” painting: landscape, still life and figural composition. The importance lies in how he manages to transmit mental experiences, spiritual feelings and lived times, to the material substrate of the painting (using paint and the skilled hand). For him, it is something like an open textbook of the possibilities of painting as medium and theme and as a physical (principally colourful) essence. Hence Kollár regards abstraction as “the best form for the study of painting, and an alternative to the classical study before a live model. The quality which I achieve in abstraction, I subsequently apply as a substrate to the figural paintings which are painted from a photograph. It follows that photography for me has only the informative character of a sketch.” It is essential to grasp the fact that in Kollar’s painting everything is connected with everything, and so it is only natural that some of his abstract paintings are actually landscapes seen, for example, through a net and a right-angled grid-structuring of the image, or they are focused/magnified to large macro-details. Behind other non-representational compositions (not infrequently they are untitled, merely numbered by the artist) there is only a feeling, an immediate emotional response, intuition, the expression of an immediate psychic state or mood; among a group of abstract paintings, one can also find assembled compositions (Landscape, Meadow, Spring, 2004; The Sea, 2005; Landscape/Sibelius, Swallows, 2006; the cycle Landscape, 2006; Field, 2008; 0102, 0105, 2009; Danube, Shirt, 2010; Untitled, 2010; Wall, Red Field, Child’s Nightshirt, Peak, 2011; Little Blue Soldiers, Blue Heights, Animals, 2012; Placenta, 2015; Sky, 2016; Surface, Trace, Waves, Kites I – III, 2018). The associative, sometimes mimetic names are often added on as an afterthought.

But how does a genuinely abstract painting of Kollár’s come into being? At the start of the creative process he has no idea of it at all. For the most part, the idea comes directly from the process, the situation, the moment of commencement, from what is often a random impulse, when all that is before the painter is a white surface (hic sunt leones… here are those imaginary lurking beasts from the unexplored countries of the canvas…), a feeling of emptiness, deficit, nothing… The essential moment is when something comes into being from the nothing: the painting begins to germinate, most frequently as a response of the body, hand, eye to the material / the paint matter. And suddenly the painter begins to see how paint physically works: in its bulk, weight, gravity, stiffness, pliability, tinge; how it begins to stack itself in relief, to make layers through itself; how light shines through it and tonal harmonies or disharmonies emerge … and how gradually it fills the surface, which it brings to life under the stress of the painter’s intuitive action-charged gesture. At a certain moment, this must cease: the painter must abandon the work, must grasp the moment of its completeness.

The painter lets the uncoordinated rills of the paint flow; again, elsewhere he tries to tame them, confine them in a net; he rubs the surface with paint so as to rid it of a personal-brushwork diction; he engages in gestic intervention, “lashing” the canvas surface / pictorial field with a brush or with quick blows and strokes of his fingers or other instruments. He squeezes paint directly onto the canvas so as to test the varied morphology of high and thick impastos, the traces that remain after the imprint of the net, and the harmonies and dissonances of individual coloured tones and tonal values, and how they work by themselves and on the surface, whether on monochromatic canvases or assembled surfaces with contrasting and opposing colours. He tests how, using richly and vibrantly shaped visual structures, he may construct relationships of space, colour and light, and how that will influence the subsequent expression – lyricism, dramatic quality, expressiveness, or silence, quiet, and meditative mood. We will notice that almost all of Kollár’s works are large-format. It is as if, facing his painting, he wished to lose control over the bounding of the format and physically, corporally, as far as possible to unite with the painting matter, which competes with him in volume (though he is able to reduce the dimensions to miniature in a counterpoint mode) – all this so that haptically, corporally, he may transform and define the visual perception.

It’s hard to be a good painter. Juraj Kollár pursues this goal inconspicuously (even if with conspicuous large-format paintings). He works quietly, but with exceptional concentration, with a tranquil humility before the medium to which he is devoted. His paintings radiate ease and at the same time strength, even though often he has made his way to them by a hard and, it may be, physically arduous and strenuous process, where spontaneity, intuition and feelings are combined with analytical, rational thought. He has matured in contemporary art as a genuine example of a painter with a well-defined programme, and a clear vision and comprehension of the role of present-day artist, who is determined to pose himself new questions and achieve new goals. With sovereign assurance he moves between figuration, realism and abstraction, between the matter-of-fact and the illusive; and always he is able conceptually to innovate his expressive repertoire. His original vision and painterly grasp of reality (and the non-objective) is presented to us not merely with the intense obsession of an explorer but also the delight of a creator, who has not forgotten the beauty, the positively “creative” capacities and aesthetic values of painting.