by Jill Conner
There is usually nothing to say in the wake of violent conflict. The history of forms is bound to the dynamic of time, as a rendering of thoughts on survival. Perceptions create and deconstruct what one sees and experiences before them. Sometimes essence is all that we are left with, because words and forms do not effectively inform one another. Within Pavel Kraus’s sculptures and paintings, there is no time like the present. Although his work has been inspired by the structural tenets of the Classical era and the dynasties of Europe, Kraus’s conceptually abstract artworks remain complex and stand as critical responses to the state of disillusion. While utilizing the visual language of abstraction, Kraus attempts to unwind the past.
When I ventured out to Brooklyn’s Industry City during Covid for a studio visit, one side of Kraus’s studio was covered with large-scale, candy-like paintings that had been made from layers of encaustic, portraying extravagant, bejeweled crowns in black, yellow, green, pink and red. The walls on the other side of the room were filled with flat pieces of cardboard that contained messy-faced portraits. The artist referred to these mysterious likenesses as “Siblings” – a series of unknown faces that he began in 2018. While adhering to the idea of free-standing sculpture, Kraus flattens and inflates forms, suggesting that he is the object who pushes against the monumental nature of history. When looking at each distortion, it is clear that history can be neither erased nor revived.
Pavel Kraus grew up in Pilsen, Bohemia, in what is now part of the Czech Republic, and studied engineering. In 1969 he fled to the United States soon after the Soviet invasion that had brought an end to the Prague Spring, a political protest that refuted Fascism and Communism. Kraus landed in Illinois and worked as a commercial artist while studying for his M.F.A. at The Art Institute of Chicago. In 1980 he moved to Washington, D.C. before settling in New York City in 1984. The devastation of 1968 continued to resonate in his forms that were made nearly three decades later, revealing the artist’s critical view of history and the weakness of idealism.
Pilsen had previously been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as well as an occasional part of Germany, when it was known as the Prussian Empire. Over time Pilsen has been prized for its abundance of minerals and ore, and has provided both Europe and the West with the ornate materials needed to fashion its own regal portrait to the world. The city was briefly independent after World War II before it was immersed in Communism until 1989. In 1995 Kraus returned to Prague and installed a site-specific installation titled “Remains of the Future” at the Czech Museum of Fine Arts. Already five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, this work by Kraus was minimal in appearance, placed within a Romanesque-framed walkway and appeared as a tall wall of bricks that presented a crumbling breakthrough along the top center.
In 1996 Kraus’s grand installation titled “Sex Death Offerings” appeared at the Konsthall Manes in Prague and consisted of both square, cubic, minimalist-like forms along with round bundles of fibers that had been wrapped tightly in quilts before being sealed in wax. The dimensions ranged in size and alluded to biomorphic forms. In 2006 these objects surfaced again in “Offerings/Redemption,” but was accompanied with round, marble sculptures that appeared as large eggs that defied both symmetry and balance. Although the new objects were made of marble and semi-precious stones, they were not monumental, because they did not reflect a common likeness and they disengaged the ability to be controlled through the viewer’s own interpretation.
In 2011 when the “Offerings” – series was still on display, Kraus continued to pursue an exploration of obscure forms that would lead up to the most successful series of his career. Within the scope of Western archaeology, motifs remained plentiful. The artist’s strong focus on classical Rome and the now-extant ritual of the Roman wedding, led to a work titled “Lares Penates” (2007-2013) – a free-standing marble sculpture with pietre-dure inlay that consisted of alabaster, crystal and semi-precious stones. Placed upon a large fragment of silk fabric, this work measured 22-inches by 13.5-inches by 17-inches. The white tesserae added a frame to this asymmetrical earth-colored stone that initially served as a pedestal for two, small crystal spheres.
“Lares” appears in capital letters across one side and references directly to the Roman household gods who were thought to have been protectors of family homes and their private store of goods. This dual symbolism played an essential role within the custom of wedding celebrations and were regularly acknowledged through the presentation of an offering that was accompanied by the act of prayer and sacrifice. While “Lares Penates” became part of the Roman Wedding – series it also marked the beginning of the artist’s shift toward a new technique that would emphasize surface over volume.
“Bed” (2011-2013) concludes this ordinary custom that was once so well-known. Similar to the previous work, colorful dots of semi-precious stones appeared across the flat, linear plinth of white marble. Measuring 81-inches in length by 26-inches in width, the bright inlays seen across this stone-collaged sculpture served as markers for two figures. The six marble blocks, that lent structural support to this object, portray erotic caricatures that the artist had seen in a set of figurines seen at a flea market in Japan. However, one could say that “Bed” was the last in a line of oversized, intangible sculptures. By 2012 Kraus had opted for encaustic, a diaphanous mix of melted beeswax mixed with pigment and resin.
When I first met Pavel Kraus he was already immersed in creating representations of his recent research discoveries. In “Roman Wedding / Laurels (I-IX)” (2012-13) a group of nine, evenly-cut wood panels consist of feather-like forms that appear to lift upward from the surface, while each of these high-reliefs remain anchored by color alone. And yet the shards of wax, which were layered together by the artist, continued to render an illusion of light-weight metal leaves that had been drenched in either scarlet red or deep black. Only three pieces within this series were based in the soft pastel hues of lavender and white, revealing a stark imbalance between light and dark. In his studio these components received an orderly placement across one of Kraus’s worktables.
“Roman Wedding / Indigo Laurel” (2013) is a much larger work measuring 24-inches by 18-inches and seems to be symbolic as a middle-ground while “Roman Wedding / Marble Ships Carrying Indigo” (2012-13) are distortive, disruptive and ruin-like. Imperfection is the focus of “Monument” (2014) a selection of small sculptures that feature a small number of abstract utterances presented on four small-scale rectangular stands. The serrated stone surfaces seen in “Fresh Marble” (2015-2016) are coated with bright colors of resin that evoke an association to candy, turning the idea of the ruin into something more relevant and viable. When considering this work from the“Roman Wedding,” Kraus’s successful “Baroque”-series appears clearly on the horizon.
Pavel Kraus’s suggestion of excavated archaeological finds is ironic because he is only reiterating the faded, time-worn appearance that ancient artifacts bear as they are pulled out of a burial site. Recent studies have shown that the Classical world was full of gold trim and bright colors, revealing our anecdotal relationship to history. In 2017 Kraus unveiled a large selection of abstract, crumpled sculptures made primarily of lead, marble and wax. While referencing two earlier lead-based works titled “Time Capsule” (1992-2016) and “Object of Desire” (1993), it is clear that the notion of antiquity is utilized as a filter, as well as a motif. The artist’s choice of lead specifically points to the destruction and detritus left by modern warfare. Moreover, the speckles and grains of destruction comprise an array of colorful spectacles that appear within the artist’s “Baroque/Amber”-series from 2018.
Throughout “Baroque/Amber” the knotty surfaces saturated with light, pastel colors embellish the notion of the precious object by transforming large compositions into an endless volume of non-specific elements. The shiny bulbs of encaustic, amber and wax only begin to hint at what they reference before disintegrating into the artist’s overall abstract concept. Kraus’s “Baroque/Amber” paintings replicate the breath-taking sensation that occurs when viewing pastel-colored frescos across the domed ceilings of European cathedrals from the 18th-century.
In Western art history, the Baroque era moved past the figurational perfections that had characterized the Italian Renaissance of the 16th-century. Beginning in the early 17th-century, the focus of artists and architects changed to suggest the limits of otherworldly idealism. The Baroque aesthetic infused the ethereal into daily life. By simulating old forms that first appear, then recede, Kraus questions the traditional notion of beauty. As seen across the 15 sculptural paintings within the “Baroque/Amber”-series, the artist’s polished, asymmetrical forms splinter into pixelated forms that are like chevrons, or flowers. The pastel shades resonate in juxtaposition to much heavier hues like black, red and blue.
By 2019 the flowers and stars were replaced with the obscure silhouette of a three-pointed crown. As part of the “Royals”-series from 2019 to 2022, these crowns appear as intensely granular. These forms are also so large that they are sometimes difficult to notice, much like starry constellations that accentuate the nighttime sky. Although these paintings reveal Kraus’s deep critique of international power structures, his work also emphasizes beauty as an earthbound, gravity-oriented concept that transforms through an individual’s perception. Pavel Kraus then created three wood-panel portraits with natural resin titled, “Goya’s Children” (2019). This group of paintings appropriated Goya’s 17th-century depictions of Fernando VII, Godoy and Carlos IV. These were followed by three more portraits of children who the artist had also appropriated from Goya.
Paval Kraus emerges from all of these juxtapositions that unveil his views concerning world history. Through the use of abstract and conceptual subject matter, the artist makes the past relevant. Even though it periodically looks like a caricature, Kraus’s art transcends the notion of cause-and-effect in order to render humanity as it is: filled with flaws and contradictions. Similar to the generation of Art Povera, Kraus reaches for what is at hand and re-articulates everyday objects into snippets of historical narratives. During the 1970s the stoic forms of Minimalism in America contrasted sharply to the work made by artists in Europe who were deeply questioning the ideals of the Classical past. By turning against the notion of the monument, Pavel Kraus frees up history, away from its material signifiers.
Featured Image: Pavel Kraus. Manes Monument.
Jill Conner is an art critic based in New York City with a focus on Modern and Contemporary Art. Since 1997 Conner has contributed to publications such as Afterimage, Art in America, Art Papers, Interview Magazine, New Art Examiner, Performance Art Journal, Sculpture and Whitehot Magazine.