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Scratching away the surface

Bolf's impressive show reveals a disquieting world

Posted: December 23, 2009

By Mimi Fronczak Rogers - For the Post | Comments (0) | Post comment

Scratching away the surface

Courtesy Photo

The boys depicted in Brothers carry Bolf's confluence of violence and kitsch.

Just steps away from the festive atmosphere on Old Town Square, there is a counterbalance to the seasonal gaiety and an unsettling reminder that childhood doesn't conjure up warm memories for everyone.

The Prague City Gallery's exhibition space on the second floor of Old Town Hall houses the solo exhibition "You Are Not You, You Are Me" by Josef Bolf, one of the most impressive contemporary Czech artists. Bolf (born in 1971) is equally noteworthy for his masterful painting technique and his harrowing subject matter, which most recently revolves around "walking wounded" children who walk numbly through post-disaster tableaux.

His images are built up in layers, with colorful under-painting - Bolf's basic palette mostly keeps to shades of pink, purple, red and gray with other colors used as accents - coated in places with a waxy black pigment into which he meticulously scratches images.

The level of detail in his works is remarkable, and it is one of the things that pulls a viewer deeper into his horrific scenes, which, in any case, are not easy to turn away from. Like digging into buried memories, the lines he etches into the black surfaces expose hints of the layers hidden beneath the surface, though most of it remains unrevealed.

Josef Bolf: You Are Not You, You Are Me
at Old Town Hall Ends Feb. 21. Staroměstské nám 1, Prague 1-Old Town. Open Tues.-Sun. 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

The first room of the exhibition shows children with expressionless mouths and huge empty eyes with exaggerated eyelashes recalling the popular 1960s paintings of waifs with absurdly large eyes, as well as more contemporary sources such as anime. They fix their blank gazes somewhere in the middle distance, staring right past the viewer and making no connection. One painting presents a more detailed scene: Against a desolate backdrop of blocks of flats or offices, an anguished-looking boy stands holding what appears to be a bloody wrench next to a push stroller with his little sibling, who has a spot of blood on his forehead. The figures are small in the bigger scheme of the painting, but dark little details like this - and worse - are everywhere in Bolf's work.

Ominous strains of a cello and a tensely plucked bass can be heard from the next room. In the darkened space is an installation of a creepy marionette-like boy doll seated behind a table next to a lamp. On the floor facing the doll is a video monitor echoing the situation but with the addition of limited action: the boy doll enters, sits. We hear a stream-of-consciousness monologue telling a story or relating a dream. (Although the monologue is in Czech, there is a printout available at the reception desk with the text translated into English.) The second-person form of address in this monologue propels "you" into the midst of the unsettling scenes that follow upstairs in the larger gallery space.   

The unnerving events that unfold here are mostly variations on the same theme. Bolf's visual vocabulary includes an array of recurring set pieces: humans with bunny ears or dog-like features, severed animal heads, detached limbs, children crying blood - and, in the most extreme cases, spurting blood from just about every orifice. The artist etches in bandages to cover some of the wounds, but it is futile. A boy emerges from the door of a public building, most likely a school, minus his right hand and an eye. The eye is covered by a patch that is held in place by three small bandages, but blood continues to seep out from under it.

An additional threat is posed by the elements, with fire or flooding featuring in several scenes. In Bolf's post-apocalyptic nightmares, all the adults have vanished, or perhaps they were never there in the first place. The children are left to fend for themselves. They wander in a daze, halfheartedly tending to their own wounds but not registering the other children around them.

The artist allows himself to give full voice to the demons of his imagination and memory. His disaster-pocked narratives are completely over the top, to the point where a viewer becomes inured to the unrelenting human misery they depict. The pathos of suffering children turns into the bathos of comic-book or computer-game horror. Yet the flesh-and-blood portrayals of damaged young psyches ring true in his work.

Throughout the show, there are also painted faces, among them "Schoolmates" series, with their eyes obscured, almost as if they've been plucked out, and several self-portraits titled Me. These are more naturalistic than most of his other faces - no overlarge eyes or dripping blood. In one, he portrays himself as a happy, self-confident-looking girl, and, in another, as a girl forcing a smile, seeming to be putting on a brave face.

Bolf's art is an uneasy place where blood and guts meets kitschy-cute. While the children in his paintings manifest their anxieties and wounds physically, the artist seems to intimate the adults they ("you") eventually become survive by burying their emotional scars layers beneath the surface, waiting to be scratched away and exposed.

Mimi Fronczak Rogers can be reached at

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