Men and Women: An Interview with Ivana Lomova by Martina Pachmanova

Men and Women: An Interview with Ivana Lomova by Martina Pachmanova The Vaclav Spala Gallery, Prague, Czech Republic: October 28th - November 28th, 1999

There were times when the Czech art criticism grouped you together with the so-called Czech Grotesque. This category, which over the time experienced such a great over supply that the term itself deflated and became empty, was for the most part a domain of men thus ideally supporting the widespread theory that women lack a sense of humor. To categorize your work under this label seemed to me, already at the end of the eighties, a little bit forced, however, on the other hand, it cannot be denied that irony, humor and tickling ambiguity have always served you as significant means of communication. Humor is an inner must for me and I have always enjoyed making fun of things, people or events that resisted any other way of handling. Humor is also a weapon of a kind because it accumulates an amazing amount of energy and at the same time undermines traditional authorities and conventions. In connection with the myth about women without sense of humor I cannot but mention Karel Capek and his legendary essay about women and humor where our literary genius discusses how dryasdust and arid women are. And people (I mean men) probably believe him or what?

< tstrong>You still have a great sense of narrative value left in you, which is a quality that in the realm of modern/contemporary art has often been sacrificed for the sake of formalist self-centering. In my work I am not able to and don?t even want to suppress my vision of the world, and this need of mine is closely connected with a story as such. I remember drawing comic strips as a child, pictorial series that always had a plot, something happened in them. Maybe it also has something to do with how I want my communication with the others as well as my "self-expression" to be always better and better. Since I am extremely keen on the message, which is why I often prefer to choose the "realistic" means of expression. I feel that this "simple" (in both or all meanings of the word) way is the cleanest, free of all styles or formal gestures that would otherwise be in my way. Not only that I work with photographs but I have gone as far as drawing in a total fictional image-for example a naked man standing on a meadow and holding a baby rabbit in his arms-and having done that I went and asked a young man to pose for me in the vein of my drawing; then I took a photo of him and transformed it into a painting (Baby Rabbits, [Kralicci], 1999). To talk about realism is, of course, misleading since it is more or less a kind of ongoing "mirror-imaging" or "reflecting." It's the same like withhe surrounding reality, which is in fact just the image the society imposes on a person, and I must confess that I do enjoy playing with this image and making fun of it. Yes, I do adopt the language that's almost identical with the language the media use to construct their ideal however nonexistent places of paradises, but I always try to push it a notch further, over the imaginary border, to find an inviting spot-a hook, a niche- and turn the whole meaning upside down.

Don?t you find it quite remarkable that until the beginning of the twentieth century most European academies banned their female art students from painting or drawing after a life nude model? Unlike for their male colleagues confronting nakedness remained a taboo for them. From what you are saying I guess I should be happy that I've had access to the naked body? ? In spite of the humorous themes already mentioned, I have actually done a couple of male nudes in paste recently that were, on the contrary, meant quite seriously. The thing that interests me about this is that a) unlike the female nude, the male nude has been very little explored as of so far, and b) it offers a chance to view the male body from a different point of view-i.e. from my, female point of view. To "touch" them [men] as people we love, as people who are close to our heart but still remain to us mysterious and not quite understandable. Many feminist female artists of today work with their own female body but I must say that at the moment I don?t find the topic extremely interesting: it has been explored before by an indefinite number of men and, plus, the male body is, after all, also quite beautiful, exciting and remarkable, don?t you think?

Your last exhibition is called Men and Women (Muzi a zeny). What made you decide that you want to deal with this topic in particular? Well, at first I felt the exhibition title was maybe a bit too straightforward but then I realized that banal phrase does contain, after all, everything that has fascinated me for a long time: Who exactly are men and who women-individually, collectively, socially, culturally-, what are the advantages and disadvantages of their relative social positions, or is the identity of either group firmly given or can its character fluctuate? Naturally, it was my quest after my own identity as a woman what made me search in this direction in the first place. This time, though, I have tried to view the whole issue from the opposite, i.e. male perspective. The roles of both genders have been questioned so much lately they have become rather insecure or uncertain, if you wish; facing identity problems has become common for men as much as women these days. There are plenty of men today who are far less sure of whether they should keep clinging fast to the traditional patriarchal role they have played in the society, a role, which is, admittedly, rather amusing if not ridiculous nowadays. But what should their new role be like? Can they function, in relation to us, as partners not only at home but also in public? when dealing about public matters? Men are, just as we are, from a great part determined by the society but they are also frustrated from being daily exposed to the dream male idols created and communicated by the media, to those indefatiquable superheroes and muscular supermen who know no obstacle and easily handle whatever comes up: my Californian Boys ([Kalifornsti kluci/??], 1988) series is an illustration of what I am talking about.

When I think of the long line of sitting, declining, lying, standing, playing or resting young men appearing in your most recent paintings and drawings it almost seems to me that your Spala Gallery exhibition is more about men than women? Yes, it's as if I were trying to say something like this: "Don?t worry, you can easily take off those masculine, tough and decisive masks of yours. It'll be a relief, you'll see. They are a bit ridiculous (come on, look at our current political representation-all male, isn?t it just a little bit funny, eh?). We know you well and this is not you? we will love you even if you stop pretending that you are so strong, powerful and infallible, we will?" Here and there I allowed myself to switch the traditional roles and suddenly there was a totally different kind of manhood. That's where all those striped men come from, for example-The Tiger Cubs/Tigers/?? in the Gardens of Eden ([Tygrici v rajskych zahradach/??]1988).


strong>The history of art is from a great part a history recorded by men writing about other ingenious men, although had there not been the female body the whole construct would be in pieces. Many of your recent works are paraphrases (ambivalent in gender) of the traditional values, as we know them from Czech fine art. For example, in your Manes-like adaptations titled Josefina and Jitro a vecer (Josefina, Morning and Evening, 1999) the original female models are turned into males without losing a speck of their original aura of seduction... I wanted to try it out and see what would happen if those roles were switched. As for the "Manes-men", the story goes like this: Just recently I've picked up the [Manes'] book again (after many years), and suddenly felt that all those luscious, soft and curvy female bodies were somehow terribly funny, but, at the same time, realized the degree of manipulation women were exposed to in the past. It provoked me so much that I decided to put men in place of the women in a number of the pastels although, to be honest, I am not quite sure anymore if I haven?t gone too far with it. I am worried if-by endowing them [the men] with female postures and gestures-I haven?t actually morphed these nude males resting in richly draped beds into homosexuals? in a way.

By taking the manipulation of this metamorphosis to an extreme without hiding the fact there has been some manipulation, you explicitly demonstrate the power of visual language and prove how flawed it is to believe that the history of art is ideology-free. Now, I would still like to ask you about the Yellow Faces (Zlute tvare, 1998), a series of yellow female portraits that you exhibited in the Spala Gallery this year. Two years ago I exhibited a similar series of portraits in that very same gallery, it was a set of blue drawings done after an old American fashion magazine from 1970, a revue that my girlfriends and I worshipped almost like a bible when we were little. The poses and smiles seemed, from a distance of thirty years, suddenly ridiculous, not beautiful like before. I realized what a short life the various fashion trends have and, more importantly, the great degree of manipulation making alive women look like some attractive yet at the same time non-certifiable dolls? look, well, sort of dead. So after the "dead" women I also wanted to create some "alive" women. I wanted to picture real women, women I know and feel close to, not some ideal models. And the yellow color?? - I am not quite sure why I used it, actually. While the "blue women" before were hidden behind their social masks, the living "yellow women" were intended to emanate an aura of their own selves, of their souls in the most possible "unmasked" and bare way there could be. I wanted to get rid of all extra layers, all that make-up and surface decoration-which is why I left out their eyelashes or suppressed their eyebrows. I wanted to leave the eyes free, unobstructed, let all that what's burning inside radiate through them-therefore the red color. And because six of them were already silent, the seventh one just couldn?t stand it any longer and screamed out-the inside of her mouth is thus also red, obviously.


strong>But doesn?t this yellow gathering of portraits in their naturalism give at the same time a somewhat monstrous impression, in your eyes ?? What I wanted to expresses wasn?t aggression but the urgent desire of those women to be able to at last say: Look at us, we are right here, complex human beings just as you; so start taking us seriously, we don?t want to be modified to fit your dream ideal any longer. We want to be free to lead our lives, in the sense we, not you, feel? understand the term freedom.

What makes you believe that the issue of gender and sexual identity still from a great part remains a taboo on the Czech art scene? Why do, in your opinion, so many female artists still resist being identified with "female" artwork or feminism as such, and refuse to take part in exhibitions that don?t feature male artists, even though their work clearly displays an internal connection with this set of issues?

I firmly believe that many women in the Czech society feel (even if only subconsciously, unspokenly) that to be a women means to be sort of a "second grade." They refuse to publicly acknowledge all that's traditionally connected with the idea of female thinking, female role, female art etc. as their own. Well, no wonder, all of these terms (created by men) associate inferiority. That is also why most of active female artists still only try to catch up with men, move in their [male] direction and adopt their [male] language. It's, after all, men who are in charge, who run the society, and run it according to their values and their rules. But that leaves women with nothing more than the same limited option-to adjust themselves-, which, in its effect, again eliminates the possibility to establish respect for both views-the male as well as the female-equally! Say, isn?t that a pity?! Wouldn?t it be great f we [women] could come to the realization that politics don?t necessary need to be something that violates us but that it could belong to us [women] just as well, that we should explain to our fellow men that the so-called "feminist" is not the one who hates men but the one who wants to, as man's "other half", co-participate on setting down the rules and values for the society in which we together, side by side live? since all this would allow for the female values, such as love and caring for the close ones, preference of communication over confrontation, willingness to cooperate, non-violence and others, to become equally important, standard and appreciated as are the male values nowadays. Whenever you decide to devote more of your time and effort to the so-called female topics (I mean as a female artist), it's about time you started worrying that everyone you meet will sneeringly ask you "So you are a feminist, are you?" in a tone that one might use when inquiring a collaborator, a pest? My experience tells me that majority of men don?t actually clearly know what feminism is; they are-lacking serious information about it-mostly scared of it, which is an attitude that women, unfortunately, often blindly adopt after them, mainly probably because they want to be "accepted" by men-what an irony! Moreover, as if it weren?t enough, we all carry in ourselves the infamous Women's Union together with all the negative heritage of what communism has done to "femininity" (or womanhood), but no one seems to remember the significance and intelligence of the women's movement from the time of the Czechoslovak first republic. For example, Milada Horakova is celebrated as a national martyr but no one ever mentions that she was the chairwoman of the Czechoslovak Women's Committee? I guess it would hurt her image. The result is obvious: A scarce representation of female artists at exhibitions or even at round table discussions about the current situation on the local art scene. And the idea of exhibitions presenting solely women can be only feared should they serve as a showcase of some kind of a club of the ostracized (those who are not accepted elsewhere). However, if they [such exhibitions] were organized by someone capable, someone who knows what they are doing, a person who would make an insightful selection of works, chose and adequate space and, above all, spent time explaining the whole thing? then they could be beneficial and earn the idea in general some respect among the wider public. The problem, and a big one, is that only few people actually deal with the issue here and only very few understand it. It doesn't come as a surprise then to run across a review of my work in some Czech daily newspaper where a local art historian highly praises my work but still doesn?t forget to add a side comment that the one thing that does spoil my artwork is my "obstinate, headstrong" feminism.

Martina Pachmanova
(The Vaclav Spala Gallery, Prague, Czech Republic: October 28th - November 28th, 1999; 1999/11/30)