Marie Kůsová

*1949, Praha

Marie Kůsová is a painter working at Studio Barvolam. She has had a number of joint exhibitions (at the DOX Gallery and Pragovka Gallery, among others) and participates in Jamming workshops based on the principle of collective painting.

My initial encounter with Marie Kůsová’s work reminded me, like many others, of the paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the American painter of Afro-Caribbean origin. A shared feature in their paintings is their energetic, strong handwriting with graphic elements reminiscent of children’s drawings. This puts them into an artistic category that is appreciated mainly for its “authenticity” and “lack of restraint.” The work of people labeled as mentally disabled has traditionally been viewed similarly. When the French artist Jean Dubuffet travelled to Algiers in the 1950s to ‘gather inspiration,’ it was primarily the ‘originality’ and ‘freedom’ he admired so much in the unprofessionalized work of the local population. Later, he approached other diverse groups of untrained artists with the same enthusiasm, whether children or psychiatric hospital clients. In this way, the term “art brut” was coined, which has come to designate the art made by society’s “outsiders.”

Art history and historical experience, then, would easily classify Marie Kůsová’s paintings, assigning them to the category mentioned above. These works would be assessed predominantly using adjectives such as emotional, pure, authentic, original, primitive, unpretentious, etc. It is interesting that this particular language, routinely used to evaluate the work of “diagnosed people,” is so similar to the way art originating outside the Euro-American context is traditionally discussed. This mode of perceiving, then, represents the idea of the universality of the stance of the viewer (and evaluator) as the bearer of valid aesthetic and cultural values. Everything outside the framework of this representation is therefore different, and this difference can be examined, rejected, admired, or marveled at for its otherness. Certainly, it can be argued that this (paternalistic) approach harbors no ill intentions and that awe is a form of paying respect to that which is being explored. When I visited the studio where Marie Kůsová works, I too found myself envying my colleague’s productivity and the way she layers the paint to create dense yet shimmering surfaces.

In order to evade the categories that history and art history, with their oversimplifications, force me into and which grant me superior status in relation to Maria Kůsová, I will try to view her work in terms of what unites us and what makes us colleagues. We are both painters. We both use painting to tell stories. Our paintings speak to the relationships we have with those closest to us and illustrate the environments in which we live. Marie’s paintings are transformations of her language, communicating with the world through recurring symbols. They describe daily life at the center, the Studio of Joyful Art, creating a kind of journal account. They are stories full of intimacy and happiness from meetings which, thanks to painting, remain valuable even ten years later, when the artist returns to them to report again on important moments in the community. (All of the children who have been at the studio, for instance, have been captured in the artist’s paintings.)

Formally, her paintings generally have two levels. The first is an expressive underpainting that is covered by a linear narrative with symbols of figures and houses, as well as bus line numbers, names of people close to her, and more. Contrasts are created not only between the graphic top layer and the dense surface of the underpainting, but also by the distinct “frames” painted around the borders of the canvases, into which the painter embeds her tales. Though it has already been noted that Maria Kůsová’s paintings are bearers of stories, they could be officially classified as abstract neo-expressionism.  It seems that working with color, combining color and putting colors alongside (or over) each other on contrasting surfaces is the painter’s domain. Although she works with dynamic, rough brushstrokes, her paintings often have an almost meditative effect. Bright blue areas paired with bold pinks can evoke the view looking through a temple mosaic and evoke an almost sacred impression.

Abstraction, a label we can use to identify the artist’s paintings, is quite an overused concept. Abstract refers to that which is not descriptive, coming from a non-material world, and therefore non-verbal and unrealistic. So can Maria Kůsová be considered a realist painter? And where does the boundary lie between seeing and representing what is seen? The artist’s paintings portray her everyday reality and how she experiences it. Perhaps that is why she is among the most realistic painters. Yet whatever term we use to comprehend her work or whatever recognized name legitimizes it, what is certain is that Marie Kůsová’s painting emancipates itself from all art history concepts, because it gives rise to language and lends itself to storytelling.

Martina Smutná, 2020