The Wealth of Poverty

In his work, Jan Šerých combines two seemingly opposite tendencies: the rational that manifests itself in the use of formal means of geometric abstraction and the emotional that represents the true content of his works. This opposition is furthermore asymmetrical, since in the case of abstraction, form completely dominates content at first glance. Already in the artist’s early set of felt tip drawings that were created by mechanical crosshatching, it is possible in spite of their seeming formalism, to find an exact target of meaning. The compulsively repeated accumulation of horizontally running lines of a single color serves more the personal need to fill an emptiness than as an objective examination of the formal properties of the means of expression being used.
The principle of mechanical repetition is not merely inserted into Jan Šerých’s individual drawings, but rather into his work as a whole, as it is categorized into series in which the chosen methodical procedures are systematically developed. The implicit motion in his drawings finds its counterpart in the real movement of the video Placebo (2002). If the halted strokes of the lines in the drawings evoked movement along the horizontal, the simple accumulations of bands of varying colors and width in the video lead to the illusion of vertical movement. Common to both is the lack of goal for the movement and regularity of the rhythm, in which the lines pulsate from the middle of the picture, in order to return back there. This is also the case in another video titled Nothing (Nic, 2003), in which squares of computer paneling of unequal size appear before us from the empty space. Their shading thematizes the illusorness of spatial perception, but more characteristic is the reversibility of the beginning and the end of the video, transforming the sequence into an infinite loop. This video also has a precedent in the series of painted pictures Dial (1998—1999), which could just as easily be analog pictures as desynchronized frames of digital animation. These were also the subject of subsequent painted pictures completing the circle of the mutual reversibility of the original and a copy.
Although from the beginning Jan Šerých’s work has dealt with the possibilities of switching between such different systems as digital and analog imaging, the painting The Shining. Kubrick’s Carpet (2005) is the first work which, in spite of its seemingly formal conception, represents the direct use of another work of art. Moreover, it is the artist’s very first painting made directly on the wall of a gallery. The choice of the artwork used is not accidental, since the pattern of the carpet on the second floor of the Overlook Hotel from Kubrick’s film The Shining plays an important role in the generation of meaning. It embodies the internal counterpart to the rural labyrinth in which Jack Torrance’s wife and son are lost. In the same way that Jack follows their winding path to the heart of the labyrinth, little Danny uses the carpet’s twists and turns as roads as he plays with toy cars. The path through the labyrinth of hedges and turns in the carpet pattern depict the descent into Jack’s brain. This impression is also accented by the execution of Jan Šerých’s painting, which makes use of the appearance of the location of the given wall and depicts the carpet in perspective so that it rolls by before us like on a film screen. Its monumentality is further augmented by the narrow entrance to the historical building leading to the picture, initially allowing us to see only a small section of it.
The artist seems to have reached the value limit for formal reduction in the two following wall paintings: I Promised to Tell No One What This Means (2005) and Popup Windows (2005). While the first consists of a row of glowing yellow columns of unequal size, the second consists of equally large rectangles of varying shades of gray. From a formal viewpoint, these two pictures represent absolute opposites: one is composed of separate, static elements on a space, while to the contrary the second one by the laying of similarly simplified elements evokes movement in space. The content that arises here from the tension between the pictures and their titles is, however, the thing that the two works have in common. The first work is the transcription of a graph, but with the legend missing, and the second depicts the situation of more and more windows popping up during an internet search. The pictures share their skepticism about the possibility of knowledge, arising both from the lack and from the overloading of information.
This cognitive skepticism is even more prominent in the works in which Jan Šerých uses linguistic rather than visual experience as a starting point. If, in the case of geometric abstractions, we presume a more formal conception and the content is gradually revealed to us, but only secondarily, the use of text directly implies the expectation of meaning. This is quite apparent from the installation Black Sabbath / ABBA (2002). It consists of twelve letters, using which the artist has on various occasions created such different texts as Black Sabbath, ABBA and La Basta. The whole set of letters is always displayed, but each time a different word is emphasized by their simple spatial arrangement. In one of the versions, the artist put four of the letters centrally on one of the walls in the gallery so as to spell ABBA, leaning the rest of the letters together in the opposite corner of the room. Elsewhere Jan Šerých displayed all twelve letters in their original order, but in such a way that the individual letters in the installation overlapped. While the former version of the installation drew attention to a basic property of language, namely the economy with which language using a limited number of elements is able to express an unlimited wealth of meaning, the latter variant emphasizes a second constructive element of every meaning — the emptiness or space between characters.
This aspect of the production of meaning also turns up constantly in different variations in the works of Jan Šerých. In the case of pictures, the space as a constructive feature is lost in a purely visual conception of the depiction of letters, the arrangement of which is guided by the laws of the visual arts rather than by semantics. Here, the individual elements are placed in an entirely neutral manner without spaces, so as to create a balanced composition in which meaning does not enjoy a position of privilege. Generally corresponding to this is the chosen type of reproduced lettering, in which the meaning of the individual characters is even further merged when we cannot differentiate between “O” and “D” or between “A” and “R”, as is for example the case in the picture Goodyear (2003). In the case of temporal media like video, the removal of spaces is achieved by different means. Instead of reducing a spatial interval, here Jan Šerých resorts to the reduction of the time interval. In the video Parallel Diary (Paralelní deník, 2007) disjointed recollections that occurred to the artist in the course of a few minutes pass before us. In the resulting video, however, this process is not transcribed into a linear text, but instead into never-ending variations in which fragments unfold in spatially isolated fields into which syllables are dropping without our being able to follow their combination into words. They appear entirely mechanically without any context, in the same way that recollections come to us non-chronologically from completely different periods of our lives.
These motifs are even further augmented in those works in which Jan Šerých combines means of communication of entirely different kinds in a single work. This is the case in a series of paintings of solved crossword puzzles, the secret message of which in one case is the transcription of a sound. Just like in the artist’s previous works, here too there are letters neutrally distributed all over the surface of the picture. Here, however, the second constituent element of every meaning, i.e. the empty space, is not grasped implicitly, but rather literally, since the letters are arranged into words only on the basis of the structured grid of a crossword puzzle. At the heart of the puzzle is a secret message in the form of a phonetic transcription of the sound “pípípípípí.” Meaning is presented here as something that is always given in advance, and our supposed free expression merely conforms each time to the instructions. A crossword puzzle is always solved in advance, but in most cases this is not admitted. Jan Šerých, on the other hand, illustrates the system by which they operate, including the emptiness or absence of meaning preconditioning their possible existence. It is no coincidence that the secret message of the second of the artist’s solved crossword puzzles takes the form of repeated negation: “nenenenene.”
The phrase Nenenenene... later becomes the title of another work by Jan Šerých, wallpaper made from a multiplied self portrait, on which the artist uses his hand to cover his face so that we do not see it. Jan Šerých works with his own image just as he would with letters or geometric shapes. By multiplying them, he gives the picture an abstract quality that at first hinders us from identifying its original structural elements. Then, once we approach success in perceiving the element itself, in this case an image of the artist, we discover that he, too, has the appearance of a blind spot. The personal feel of the seemingly abstract works of Jan Šerých is clearly apparent not only from another series of felt tip drawings with the artist’s telephone number, in which the numeral “0” predominates, but also from two drawings in which a simple shift changes the artist’s name Jan into the Czech word for “I” (já). Not just the meaning of our expressions, but also we ourselves are written into this economy of wealthy poverty.
“The identity of words — the simple, fundamental fact of language, that there are fewer terms of designation than there are things to designate — is itself a two-sided experience: it reveals words as unexpected meeting place of the most distant figures of reality. (It is distance abolished; at the point of contact, differences are brought together in a unique form: dual, ambiguous, Minotaur-like.) It demonstrates the duality of language which starts from simple core, divides itself in two, and produces new figures. (It’s a proliferation of distance, a void created in the wake of the double, a labyrinthine extension of corridors which seem similar and yet different). In their wealth of poverty words always refer away from and lead back to themselves; they are lost and found again; they fix a vanishing point on the horizon by repeated division, and then return to the starting point in a perfect curve.”[1]

Karel Císař

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[1] Michel Foucault, Death and the Labyrinth: World of Raymond Roussel, translated by Charles Ruas, Continuum, London, New York 2006, pp. 16—17.