The individual psyche and the collective unconscious: Igor Hosnedl’s pursuit of mythic truths

For his imagery of urns, severed limbs, cut fruit, tangled plant tendrils, dinnerware, celestial forms and allegorical animals, Czech painter Igor Hosnedl delves into what he perceives to be a kind of Jungian “collective unconscious”—a vast memory-stock of symbols and meanings that convey a deeper understanding about human nature and existence. We are not singular, Igor’s paintings seem to tell us; we are part of a greater whole. Igor’s work offers glimpses of a perceptual experience that is beyond the quotidian observation of the world and of ourselves. Beyond the facades created by his rounded archways there lie rooms steeped in perpetual dusk, where half-seen symbols and figures are backlit by an unearthly glow. The arm of a shadowy figure reaches out from the painting’s depths, an open wound in place of a hand. Silhouetted, phantom limbs, living plants and metamorphic creatures conduct strange, ritualistic displays just beyond our frame of vision. Still life arrangements adorn the foreground; oranges and figs, spoons and bowls lie forgotten, as though abandoned by one who sat down to a meal only to abruptly rise and depart. This iconography of dining is attended often in Igor’s images by concepts of shame, anxiety and self-consciousness—introspective psychological states that are exacerbated within the social context of eating, of sitting down to dinner.

Another important element in Igor’s work is drawing. His figures and strewn objects are sharply demarcated, either by the precise definition of their contours with vividly contrasting hues, or else by a series of deft, bold lines that gesture towards details without inclining to realism. Here and there, Igor employs his draughtsmanship to pick out a few strands of hair, the curve of an ankle, a dimpled back, an eye, a set of genitals. When this more illustrative style converges, in Igor’s images, with his painterly tendency to construct forms according to chromatic gradations, shading and highlights, the whole becomes a play between depth and flatness. This optical variation implies a multiplicity of perspectives all existing in a single visual frame. Within that reality, too, the viewer is forced to question the authenticity of the scene they are witnessing—is it a vase? Or is it merely the cut-out shape of a vase, held up by an unseen hand to trick our eyes and hold our gaze? For Igor, the object and its shadow, the real and the false, the thing itself and the imagined thing, have equal importance within the pictorial space. In his work, what is true and what we perceive to be true are no longer separate, for the fleeting perceptions of the subconscious are captured there, in form and substance, on the canvas. The space of Igor’s paintings is a space in which different planes of reality are merged, so that the world we see and the world we dream become one and the same.

Having studied in Prague, Igor is now based in Berlin, where he is currently working on developing the system of enigmatic symbols and cryptic meanings that drive his practice. He speaks to us here about the things that stimulate his creative impulse, the importance for him of mixing his own pigments, the relationship between his visual works and other disciplines, and his unique understanding of the pictorial space.

Character from borrowed book, handmade pigments in glue on canvas, 210 x 135 cm

AMM: To begin with, what was it that first led you to pursue art? How did you start out?

IH: When I was a boy I took art lessons, probably like most children do. I did not rank among the distinctive students though; I used to be reprimanded for not sticking to the task and instead just drawing what I wanted. After a time I decided to quit this hobby. I could not discover my desire to create something of a deeper meaning and for a long time I struggled with the question of what role, if any, art could play in my life. I wrestled with these ideas, abandoning and rediscovering art, even during my studies at Prague Academy. I tried to pursue art after my studies, yet I never was able to assert myself much in Prague. At that time I split my life half and half between my night shifts and working in the studio. In Bohemia it is not easy to make one’s living as an artist, more so if the artist is not willing to pursue the commercial way to success.

AMM: Your work seems to contain a lot of classical, mythological elements, both in the images themselves and in your titles such as ‘The Opening of the Wells’, ‘The Lecture of the Wise Snake’ and ‘Emerald Syrup from Orchard of Promises’. How do myth and allegory inform your creative practice?

IH: All symbols and narrative elements both in the pictures and their names come from my interest in my own roots and the mythology of the place I come from. I also work with collective memory, which not quite consciously but rather intuitively sits in human nature, influencing the ways we think. I believe that this subconscious collective sensitivity and power dwells in each nation in a distinct and specific form. The sediment of this sensitivity and perception deposits in music and literature as well as visual arts; I do not try to deliberately gain from that, but I feel its presence.

AMM: Your paintings often come in pairs or sequences—is this to imply a narrative or to posit a multiplicity of perspectives?

IH: I never worked on two paintings knowing I was creating a classical diptych. I believe the final ‘get-together’ of some of them occurred by accident during the exhibition installations. It is interesting though to observe this recurrent phenomenon, which continues to happen maybe also due to the fact that I often work on several paintings at the same time. This may confer a feature that afterwards will have an impact on the final shape of the exhibition.

AMM: How does colour function in your work?

IH: The choice of colours is very intuitive for me; I cannot exactly define colour sensations before I start working on the picture itself, but I have a partial intuition as to which colour atmosphere might suit the given painting. Thus my colours create a certain darkness and austerity or amiability within the pictorial space. At times I choose really bright colours, thus transgressing the imaginary border that maintains the picture area as a single homogenous environment. Lately, I tend toward subdued colours, which take the viewer into a rather quiet colour space. These paintings often deal with private situations and do not try to distract the viewer with their colourfulness; contrary to that, they keep him or her in gentle suspense, leading to a more intimate encounter with the image itself.

Lavish Dreams, handmade pigments in glue on canvas, 220 x 140 cm

AMM: What is the meaning behind some of the recurring shapes and symbols throughout your work—archways, doorways, plants, severed limbs, urns, cut vegetables?

IH: Topics such as crops growing and being harvested have appeared in my artwork for quite some time, mingled with the idea of the human and his or her distorted attitude towards nature, animals, the Earth and, ultimately, to him or herself.

The symbolism that permeates my artwork is first of all a message to myself as a person living at this time. Cut-off limbs are in a figurative sense a synonym for cut flowers. People endow flowers with the meaning of beauty, which they seek to steal and take away to their homes to watch them until they die. I do not hide my efforts to insert an element of brutality into my paintings. Quite the contrary, I would be happy should this aspect of my work be readable.

I am well aware of the fact that nowadays there are few ways left to shock. That’s why I try to stay faithful to the melancholic, naïve vision of recognising beauty in darkness.

AMM: Imagery of food and dining seems to have an important place in your work—your recent show at NoD Gallery Prague is even called ‘Dining ’. Can you tell us about the concept behind that?

IH: Eating in front of the eyes of others is too intimate. This opinion intrigues me with its strong dose of atavism, complementing my idea of dining in relation to possible twisted situations. I also understand dining as an umbrella concept under which meanings from my previous work come into contact—shyness, separation, remorse, humility.

AMM: What different mediums do you work in? I have read that you make your own pigments.

IH: Yes, the preparation of colours is quite specific in my case. I struggled with colour and its application for a very long time. I tried to find a key to achieving a wholeness of the pictorial space by means of colour tones and their mutual communication. I tried to work both with oil and acrylic. None of these techniques suited me; I could not mix the tints together and all my efforts ended up in a grey or brown mess.

In 2010, I started experimenting with dry pastel, which I crushed to a powder-pigment and mixed with glue. This slowing down of the whole process due to the time-consuming preparation of colours was a fundamental breakthrough in my tackling the colour space of the painting.

AMM: What is your process like when working on a painting? Do you start with a story, an image, a shape, a drawing?

IH: I draw a lot. For me, drawing is the basis of painting.

AMM: There is an intriguing correspondence in your work between depth and flatness, between bold, silhouette-like shapes and intricately shaded details—how did this style of painting develop and how does it underpin the themes that run through your work?

IH: I try to balance a painting with the help of a variety of approaches that the technique I work with allows. I understand that some painting strategies are not transferable, yet on the other hand I believe in the desire to depict something and the ability to express it within one’s own means. That is why my art is the meeting place of different pictorial shortcuts and symbolic condensations. There are more or less noticeable hints of reality both when working with detail and drawing. I cannot exactly say how this approach developed; I only know that from time to time new approaches and considerations make their way into my painting—how to break through space, how to depict the mass or structure of materials or how to lighten the composition with a drawing. This also concerns the nature of action in the picture (the boy observing his penis, or the patterned wavy curtain). It is interesting to see how a direct, intimate scene makes viewers rise from their chairs more so than a rather brutal story hidden within the draped curtain.

Mommy’s advices, handmade pigments in glue on canvas, 200 x 130 cm

AMM: Many of your paintings incorporate illustrative elements and strong line-work—in your practice, what is the relationship between painting and drawing?

IH: I never was a classical painter. My art depends on drawing. I strive to be sincere and respect my natural abilities; that is why drawing and painting mingle in my works—sometimes quite obviously and sometimes less so.

AMM: As well as paintings, your shows involve sculptural works and three-dimensional objects such as furniture, fruit and vegetables, textiles and cut-out shapes—in what ways do these relate to one another?

IH: The three-dimensional elements, both animate and inanimate, are sometimes echoes or short etudes that are not directly related to the pictures but which serve as separate trains of thought. This process corresponds with my apprehension of reality and the distinctions I make between mental exercise and making an object with the ambition of creating an artwork.

AMM: What kinds of feelings do you hope to stimulate in the viewer when they are experiencing your work in person? Is it important for the paintings to be seen in the flesh? Does this change the way they can be interacted with and understood?

IH: As I have partially suggested, I try to perceive a painting primarily as an immediate and direct response to my intuition and the direction in which my interest leads me. I don’t know how far I can dictate what I expect from the viewer standing in front of my painting.

I hope the relationship I strive to build between myself and my work can permeate and influence the relationship between the viewer and my art. I deem it essential to encounter art face to face in any medium—music, video, performance, painting or sculpture. The experience is specific; it has the taste and smell of the moment. Concerning my work, I think the viewer may be surprised by the manual character of my painting, something not discernible in the photos.

AMM: Are there any other artists, either historical or contemporary, whose work influences your own art?

IH: I like the artwork of many artists. To name a few, Gertrude Abercrombie, Jan Zrzavý, Balthus, Silke Otto-Knapp. Sometimes it is not the artist’s work itself but rather the energy their art retains. Each artist walks in the footsteps of someone who has been in the same direction. I believe in this mental sense of artistic belonging.

AMM: What has been, or continues to be, the greatest challenge in your creative practice? How do you overcome such challenges?

IH: I don’t know; the biggest challenges are probably still before me. I presume that after the imaginary overcoming of all challenges the artist ends up in his or her studio alone with him or herself again. This cannot be surpassed. One can just regardfully coexist with it.

Bath, handmade pigments in glue on canvas, 200 x 130 cm

AMM: Beyond visual art, where do you look for inspiration and references?

IH: I draw much from my own imagination. All that I draw somehow touches upon the classical space of the picture. If something appeals to me and touches my sensitivity, it may become an impulse for my artwork. It can be a text, a picture, a video or music. I have no more closely defined sources of inspiration; they come and go. I try to put it all into my drawings, and I often browse through heaps of these, finding ideas that have passed through my head.

AMM: We are intrigued by the letter addressed, “Dear Mikeš” that introduced your show ‘The Opening of the Wells’ and also the text written by Klára Vavříková for your show ‘Dear Mikeš ‘ in the same year. Can you tell us a bit about these accompanying texts and how the two shows corresponded with one another? And who is the elusive Mikeš?

IH: It is interesting how much power these two texts contain; I think this power will never be lost. At the time I was preparing the exhibition The Opening of the Wells, I was working with an intense sense of belonging to the landscape I come from and to the old customs that are a natural part of it. It was an unusual decision, due to the fact that it was my first exhibition in the US, in New York, a place so remote from where I grew up and where my ancestors lived. The art gallery almost took my breath away with its wonderful press release, which began with the salutation “Dear Mikeš”.

Mikeš is a character from a traditional Czech cartoon fairy tale. The whole text is interwoven with symbolic condensations of many meanings, which refer to my origins and the remote culture of the Czech countryside.
I responded to that text with the story of Mikeš in a series of paintings and a short text in collaboration with my friend Klára Vavříková. These texts are very subjectively conceived, focusing on introspective sensations and imagination. In this way they generate a powerful energy, which I felt both during my work on the series of paintings for The Opening of the Wells and for the series Dear Mikeš. This treatment of text is very personal and provides a lot of space for interpretation, manoeuvring and fabulation. They are not standard curatorial texts, but probably that is why they are capable of maintaining a very specific energy.

AMM: What role does self-reflection play in your work?

IH: Self-reflection is the prerequisite of responsibility. I’m not sure that I am self-reflective enough to answer this question in an intelligible way. I try to assess my work as critically as I can. It is not as easy as it might seem.

AMM: What is it like working as a painter in Berlin?

IH: Berlin is a great place, I am very happy that I can live and work here. Here, I got the chance to live according to my own rules and to devote myself to art every day.

AMM: How do you spend your time when you’re not working?

IH: I am in the studio every day. And I try to spend my leisure time with my family.

AMM: How do you envision your practice developing in the future?

IH: I am encrypting more meanings and information within my pictures, which are often discernible only after longer observation. My chief interest at the moment is the exploration of intimacy and the slow flow of time in the pictures. I feel that this is going to fill my work also in the future. However, things follow different rules inside the picture area. As if all that a person might seek to predetermine within their art already had a reason to exist in its own way.

Find out more about the artist: www.igorhosnedl.com

Interview by Rebecca Irvin for ArtMaze Magazine.

A Boy’s Best Friend, handmade pigments in glue on canvas, 220 x 140 cm