Slight gestures, jokes as quiet as whispers and an extraordinary lightness of touch characterize the oeuvre of Czech artist Ji?rí Kovanda. Two recent exhibitions offered a sampling of Kovanda then and now: at Kreps was a mini-survey of works made between 1976 and 1993, and at Wallspace, new site-specific pieces.
Among the offerings at Kreps were nonchalant drawings on graph paper from the ’70s; small abstract relief paintings made mostly of found wooden scraps, from the early ’90s; and documentation of performances and installations in Prague. Beginning in the early ’70s, Kovanda recorded each of his performances on a sheet of paper with a single photo of the action and a short, typewritten description, including location and date. The texts are succinct and read like wry stage directions:  “I’m crying, I gazed at the sun for so long that I’ve started to cry,” or “On an escalator . . . turning around, I look into the eyes of the person standing behind me.”
After a performance in 1978 in which he met some friends then “raced across the square and disappeared into Melantrich Street,” Kovanda went on to mount evanescent installations throughout the city, documented the same way. In Salty Angle, Sweet Curve, Winter 1981, most 1. máje, Prague, we see two small shapes—a crescent and an angle—made of white powder, which rest at the base of a stone balustrade. Nestled where massive balusters meet cobblestones, the shapes look like almost-melted snow. We would not guess that they might be made of two different materials but for the title (the sole text for the piece), which suggests sugar and salt, and, in light of the visual evidence, provokes a cognitive dissonance both resonant and graceful.

The four installations at Wallspace were all made with simple goods bought or found during the preparation of the show—a hammer, a string, a bicycle, etc. The bicycle leaned against the wall on a handlebar partially embedded in the surface, making it appear as if the bicycle were sinking into the wall. In another work, a single column of 15 bricks was interrupted, three bricks from the top, by a single course of snail shells. Held up on eye-hooks, a string stretched around the periphery of the entire exhibition; it was weighted by a hammer tied to one end and a clear bag of pink Styrofoam peanuts to the other. Kovanda worked for many years in the back rooms of the National Gallery in Prague. It was a fitting autobiographical touch that he used mostly the types of materials that might be found in the storeroom of any gallery to compose what was seen in the front.

Photo: View of Ji?rí Kovanda’s exhibition, showing two untitled works from 2009; at Wallspace.