Nina Vrbanová: On the (post)art of Stano Masár, 2013

While the earliest visual work of Stano Masár (*1971) goes back to the 1990s, his programme begins to take on a striking profile and reach its culmination only after the year 2000. During the opening decade of the third millennium he pursued several ideal and formal lines of work concurrently, and what gradually came to the forefront of his interest was the world of art, including the very concept of art, its history and functioning, with particular stress on the semantics of the clinically white gallery space (the white cube model). In his postconceptual style he inventively follows on from, without being limited by, his teachers Ľubomír Ďurček and Július Koller , and for the purposes of this work he develops and (re)defines the Slovak line of institutional criticism in the topical contexts and tendencies of 21st century art. Isolated figures of the unofficial scene, including Koller and Ďurček, had presented a sharply defined (in a certain sense politically imposed) critique of the museum ; Masár, by contrast, broaches the theme of the artworld mainly in the contexts of visual communication and interaction, of art as a postmodern game (of meanings, languages and forms), as an effectively depoliticised, playful milieu or space in itself. He constantly deconstructs the far-fetched model and idea of the stone-built museum/art institution, and then in reverse he reconstructs it, specifically in the context of the period of vacuity and, especially, the peculiar situation of art therein.

The void as a frequent visual (and existential) motif of the work he has hitherto done irelating to the artworld is coded on a number of levels concurrently: in the physically emptied or manipulated gallery space, in the dominant use of white non-colour, again as an ambivalent symbol of the boundary between nothing and something, and also in abbreviations and reductions of visual information, which likewise mirror the “flat” culture of the present time. In this sense, what comes to characterise his visual strategy is a contextualisation of art in the sphere of non-art, where the boundaries between art and the everyday or the ordinary useful or aesthetic object are pushed further on, having regard to the irreversible sublimation of art into visual culture, its historical exhaustion and impaired status. Masár does not offer an a priori solution for the (non)communication of these polarities, or more precisely spaces, of contemporary visuality. In the form, style and expression of his work he lays emphasis rather on their current convergence and (symptomatic of the period) their intersection/non-difference. This double coding, in the sense of an indefinite visual cycling of the elements of art and non-art, opens up for him the field of the author’s historical play, communication and interaction, and indeed manipulation of (the gallery’s) reality towards the creation of a new, often unexpected “snare” of perception.

After art, that is to say after the historical breakthroughs by Marcel Duchamp, Kazimir Malevich and later on Yves Klein, after the declaration of the end of art history , and likewise after the doubt cast by institutional criticism upon art’s entire context or frame of existence, Masár is finding his own place within the history and poetics of creative work. Beyond the frontier of art, which had already been attained and defined, he uncovers a further minimalistic “nothing” in the form of a Baudrillard-style simulacrum, a kind of taxidermy of art. The situation and state of post-art, in what is by now its laboratory or archaeological context, has hitherto been Masár’s status quo, in terms of the focus of his thinking as well as spatial and visual materialisation. In this spirit he subjects the history, images, characters and spaces of art to a typically ironic manipulation and witty interpretation, again predominantly in the context of the hegemonic visual culture. Masár conceives of post-art not as something strict and hermetically sealed in its own historical flow of styles and currently determined by the museum environment, but rather as diverging from the traditional status and concept of art. It is a creative activity inclined towards play, communication and interaction – hence to elements and principles which open a semantic field of new interpretations, a field of new (non)artistic sensibility. Precisely this juxtaposition, this more or less conspicuous change of position and angle of view, may be found in the background of Masar’s creative purpose: it is a strategy on the way to a playful (auto)reflection, relieved with humour, on the status and concept of art today.

In his extensive cycle of Pictograms, with their spatial variations, Masár engages in a deconstructive interpretation of art history and the context of contemporary visual culture. The type-cast aesthetic of informative or instructive symbols (most frequently prohibiting or permitting movement in space or behaviour), found in gallery spaces and in the communicative milieu of ordinary social reality, has become the basis for a treatment of the theme of the mass perception and reception of art today. Iconic works from Slovak and world art history have been transformed by computer into unified logotypes a la utility symbols, resulting in anonymisation and reduction of the original work to a figural or spatial motif (e.g. Slovak Visual Art of the 20th Century, 2005). The visual reduction approach in particular series takes on significance as a pointer to the mass-scale, superficial consumption of art and culture today. Art is shifted to the role of a standardised symbol, assimilated into the pragmatism of visual culture. At the same time, however, on some kind of secondary plane, Masár leaves the options for understanding his work open and offers the viewer an interior game of decoding and reverse cognition or identification of the individual images. The intended interaction with the work, initially mental, later becomes direct and physical in the object treatments of the pictograms (e.g. Puzzled Contemporary Art, 2008).

Also presenting a broad field for the interpretation and new contextualisation of art history are the equally extensive cycles After and Just. On the one hand they show a change of medium and a movement towards the object and the installation, while on the other hand the focus of thinking is narrowed, concentrating on solitary ‘milestones’ of history and our unexpected encounters with them in postmodern mixed time. Linked with the aesthetics and thought-message of the pictograms, there are lighted objects, treated as traffic lights or highway direction signs, which again contain iconic logos of the images of history (e.g. After Hirst, 2007 or After Goya, 2007). The novel form of the lighted object reinforces the theme of communication – the primary and ultimate function of art. Through a selection of historical and contemporary works the author encodes the issue of the received model of art history, whose traditional interpretation (or flow) he bases on an alternation of imagined movement and stagnation, avantgarde and contrastingly decadent tendencies, and generally, the interchange of historical progress and regression. From a different perspective one could also see this circle of works in the broader context of the socio-cultural status of art today, which can no longer communicate in the fullest degree except by connecting with the aesthetics of advertising and design, breaking into the world of ordinary visual communication. What remains after art is the vacuous visuality of design; in place of energy and the aura, the lightbox of advertising appears (e.g. After Michelangelo / Pieta, 2008). The Just cycle is also concerned with the interpretation of art history, but here Masár specifically “deletes” significant elements of the works, again setting up an ahistorical visual game with the aim of undermining the certainty of meaning (e.g. Just Urinal, 2007).

Revealing itself behind this series of interpretations is the author’s heightened interest in selected personalities who laid the basis not only for his own programme but for all of 20th and 21st century art. Those are above all Duchamp, Malevich and Klein, to whom he has devoted many finished works and concepts. Not, however, as some sort of hommage, but rather as visualisations of their significance for the evolution and aesthetic of contemporary art. His extensive cycle of pictograms – installations of minimalist plastic tablets – has been brought to a close, for the moment, by a series of black and white squares on a white background, aggregating in linear rows the works of world and Slovak art which were inspired to a greater or lesser degree by the legendary square of Kazimir Malevich (From Malevich to Malevich, 2012). A number of spatial works devoted to Marcel Duchamp also work with a principle of seriality and a kind of duplication, and in similarly playful manner they reflect on how he influenced the development of art, via the allusion to their “multiplication” or “milling” in time (e.g. After Duchamp, 2000). In formal terms they stress the mutual overlaps of art and the everyday. The urinal is treated as a triptych of seats in mass transport facilities, while Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box is brought back from the sphere of consumption to art in the form of a “virginal” sculptural plinth (Brillo Box in the Prenatal Stage, 2013).

Another principal feature of Masár’s work is his interest in the gallery space as the context and the very form of art. Firstly, there are the specific attributes of the art institution, representing its main functions (visualisation of history, creation of collections, theoretical reflection and communication of art), and secondly there is the essential gallery space, as an installation or object in itself. In this circle of works Masár gives a context-sensitive response to several aspects of that particular space simultaneously: to the power of institutions, including power to model how art is received and understood; conservatism and non-topicality in the creation of collections; and the market practices which determine the relationship of institution and art, curator and artist, and so forth. He creates his own collection of curators, whom he (figuratively) offers for sale in the form of popular American dolls, thereby ironising and impairing the stereoyped relationship of power (e.g. Collection: Curators: Helena Kontová, Giancarlo Politi, 2007). Commenting on the absence of specialised collections of contemporary art, he produces a postminimalist installation of “postponed” doors which are waiting for their hanging (Collection, 2010). He responds to the market practices of galleries by installing a gallery in the gallery, which functions however as a kiosk and a stall for goods. This space within a space is symptomatically left closed and empty, bringing to mind the vacuousness in the situation and state of art today (Gallery, 2011/2012). The motif of the permanent waiting, seeking, or communicative straying of art-after-institutional-art links other works also. An abandoned gallery sofa tells of some kind of disarrangement, a displacement from communication (Waiting for the Artistic Idea, 2010) and so does a forgotten airport crate with a cargo of artworks (Art Astray, 2009/2012). Over all of this Masár finally places an inconspicuous solitary lightbox, which calls the viewer towards the gallery’s emergency exit as a place of paradoxical non-communication (Emergency Exit from Gallery, 2012).

In recent years this author’s work has been typified by forms of installation which reflect the white cube space of the gallery, as a vacuous object in itself. As opposed to appropriation and subversion of the museum’s particular attributes, here the author most frequently works with a simulated animation of the gallery’s walls or floors. The actual (found) space is set in motion and becomes a work/installation. The floors encroach on the position of the walls and the walls slide onto the floors (e.g. Weary Wall, 2008/2012). Hence, the space together with its tradition and semantics is thrown out of balance, impeded, made dysfunctional. In his series of gallery walls and floors Masár, while maintaining his typical expressive minimalism and even purism, passes over to a more universal poetics, correlating with the theme of non-communication and evacuation of the meaning of art. His most recent works in this area include objects “adopted” from fragments of the spaces of world galleries of contemporary art (Relocated Spaces, 2012). A corner of the Tate Modern or a fragment of a wall and floor of the MoMA are encodings of space in the space, a gallery in the gallery, though here the significance of the work is multi-layered. One of the key significances, however, is the motif of the transfer of space and the paradoxical exhibition of an exhibiting space, with its allusion to one of the themes of institutional criticism: the ruins of the museum. While the beginnings and basic principles of Stano Masár’s work are anchored in postconceptualism, in connection with his most recent works one can unambiguously speak of a neoconceptual approach using simulated readymades. Apart from its formal characteristics, his work is distinguished particularly by his unique overview and wit, which as a rule brings a light touch to the ‘great’ theme of art. De facto he deals with the crisis of art, and of how it is perceived and run, by making a game of it, the opposite of institutional hermeneutics, a game as a (historical) process whose result is not foreknown.

1. Cf. further: DANTO, Arthur: Svět umění. (The World of Art.) In: KULKA, Tomáš – CIPORANOV, Denis (eds.): Co je umění? Texty angloamerické estetiky 20. století. (What Is Art? Texts of 20th Century Anglo-American Aesthetics.) Praha: Pavel Mervart a Filozofická fakulta Univerzity Karlovy, 2010, pp. 95 – 111. ISBN 978-80-87378-46-5.

2. On the question of Masár’s points of departure and inspirations cf. further: GREGOR, Richard: Re:DADA. Úvod do problematiky tvorby Stana Masára. (Re:DADA. Introduction to the Issues in the Work of Stano Masár. In: KASAJ-POLÁČKOVÁ, Ľudmila – MASÁR, Stano: Stano Masár. Nové Zámky: Galéria umenia v Nových Zámkoch, 2009, pp. 14 – 22. ISBN 978-80-89330-10-2.

3. Cf. further: HANÁKOVÁ, Petra: Múzeum ako site specificity – od „inštitutionálnej kritiky k dekorácii. (The Museum as Site Specificity – from “Institutional Criticism” to Decoration.) In: GERŽOVÁ, Jana – RUSNÁKOVÁ, Katarína (eds.): 90-te+ / Reflexia vizuálneho umenia na prelome 20. a 21. storočia. (90+ / Reflection on Visual Art at the Turn of the 21st Century.) Bratislava: Slovenská sekcia AICA a Združenie teoretikov súčasného výtvarného umenia, 2003, pp. 44 – 55. ISBN 80-968902-1-2 / ISBN 80-88883-37-7.

4. The symbolism of this non-colour, in the context of Masár’s work, branches further: to the meaning of a potential beginning, a potential for art and simultaneously its vacuity. One may also speak of white colour as the starting point of art (e.g. the white canvas prepared for the painter, which only waits for an image – art – to emerge); Masár’s work points to this incessantly.

5. Cf. further: BELTING, Hans: Konec dějin umění. (The End of the History of Art.) Praha: Mladá fronta, 2000, 244 pp. ISBN 80-204-0856-8.

6. Cf. further: BAUDRILLARD, Jean: O svádění. (On Seduction.) Olomouc: Votobia, 1996, 213 pp. ISBN 80-71-98-078-1.