Jiri Georg Dokoupil
broken concepts and false memories
21 Apr – 27 May 2023
The Body and Blood and Bubbly Rebellion
by Alice Godwin
Swollen shapes drift through a landscape that is stained with crimson, blue, sunflower yellow and green. We might have strayed beyond the edges of time into the unknown corners of space or the depths of the sea. It seems unimportant to know that this painting was made by the careful placement of bubbles on canvas, leaving the bulbous silhouettes of primordial beings behind as they burst. The intensity of the palette is almost spiritual, recalling the sensation of stained glass in the summer sun or the orgiastic fervour of religious belief. We might have caught a glimpse of some ornate ceiling in a Baroque church and a depiction of the heavens. Are these the fires of Purgatory or the iridescent fields of Paradise?
Jiri Georg Dokoupil hates religious art. For the Czech-German artist, art should be free of everything. He is resolutely antithetical towards meaning – a laughable concept to Dokoupil and his Junge Wilde contemporaries in 1980s Germany, who once challenged themselves to make the worst paintings in the world. If anything, Dokoupil’s works appeal to the heart and body, to sensation and intuition, above the canons of art history and religion. They are closer to the teachings of Zen Buddhism; each painting seems to possess its own self-contained life and energy, which shines beyond the need for words and interpretation.
Religious art was once a means to communicate and inspire those who could not read and write. For a teenage Dokoupil, art was also a means to communicate, having arrived in West Germany with his family from the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic in 1968 following the Prague Spring and faced with the prospect of learning a new language. At boarding school, Dokoupil attended church every day and ostensibly accepted the pageantry of Catholicism, even if he did not truly partake in its ceremonies. It seems that one doctrine had been exchanged for another – the Socialist cause for the ardour of religion.
Dokoupil created his first Soap Bubble Painting in the early 1990s, sending bubbles flying across his studio with a metal wand, like reluctant butterflies that refused to be caught by an assistant holding a canvas aloft. Over thirty years, Dokoupil has become something of an expert in the art of Soap Bubble Painting, fashioning a personal language through the perfected formula of soap-lye and pigment, and gessoed, sanded surface. Dokoupil explains that he has always sought to master a technique with the most spectacular visual impact and least historic precedence. His desire for a patent harks back to his inventor father, whose life mission was to make something universally needed for the price of a euro.
Through countless experiments, Dokoupil must have required extraordinary patience (and faith), and the result is miraculous. Without knowledge of their making, it might be difficult to discern how these bubbles came to fuse with canvas, as if by divine intervention. Dokoupil’s construction of what he refers to as a “mathematical formula” and a “prototype” that guides a series of work echoes the ritual of practices like prayer and the sharing of bread and wine. With each new technique that Dokoupil has trialled, the artist has resurrected himself. Through different practices and attitudes, Dokoupil’s oeuvre reflects perhaps the notion that each religion describes a different aspect of the same divine source.
In recent years, Dokoupil’s Soap Bubble Paintings have embraced the pearlescent paints that cover cars. The result is a metamorphosing landscape of bubbles that shine brightly in one moment and dim in the next, shifting from warm to cool with different angles and light sources. This state of continual transformation recalls perhaps the transfiguration of body and blood, and the threshold between physical and spiritual worlds. Further, lustrous gold changes the landscape of bubbles into an Orthodox icon, while ultramarine blue – the luxurious pigment derived from the semi-precious lapis lazuli stone – speaks to the purity and holiness of the Virgin Mary in Renaissance painting. And yet for Dokoupil, lapis lazuli has a human aspect – it possesses a frequency that resonates with the body.
There is something inherently bodily about the Soap Bubble Paintings, alluding to the residue of lather on hands and supple, fleshly shapes. Their undulating forms might be compared to the holy remains that are preserved in church reliquaries. In the same way, the Spit Paintings and Tire Paintings, made by hurling tires over canvas, possess corporeal qualities. The remains of saliva are a reminder of the touch of Judas’ kiss as the silhouettes of wheels are like the splintered bones of relics. The bubbles have their own bodily weight and form, a tremulous lifeforce that threatens to disintegrate at any moment. They echo the decaying pieces of fruit and burning candles of seventeenth century vanitas painting, which symbolise the ephemeral nature of existence.
Dokoupil began to use candles as painterly tools in the late 1980s, holding flames to canvas like a pilgrim with the light of Christ. These Candle Paintings transport us to hushed chapels, where every whisper reverberates from stone walls and flames illuminate altars. There is something elemental about these works – ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The potential danger and difficulty in their making, requiring great strength to hold a candle up to canvas that has been pulled taught over the ceiling, is in itself somewhat an act of self-flagellation.
Dokoupil’s paintings ascend the heights of spiritual ecstasy and plumb the lows of earthly desire with a distinct sense of sincerity and impish humour. If the Soap Bubble Paintings have the power to transcend time and space, other series are resolutely tied to more temporal and kitsch matters – cars on empty highways and cows grazing in fields. For Dokoupil, there is no overarching philosophy that binds art and the universe, there is no divine inspiration behind the varied techniques of his career. There is only disruption and the breaking of concepts.
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