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Stanislava Kovalcikova, The Overlook Step (Shelly), 2021, Oil and ink on linen, 140 x 120 cm (55 x 47 inches), Courtesy Peres Projects, Berlin

The weight of art history lies heavily on painting. Stanislava Kovalcikova does not resist this history. Instead, her paintings play with the legacy of Post-Impressionists like Gauguin or Van Gogh, repositioning them in the contemporary, post-psychological and post-feminist landscape of modern experience.

This is figurative work in which the body is a stand in for the mind. The female nude and body as eroticized and objectified are ongoing issues in Kovalcikova’s work. Refreshingly, the artist turns this history on its head. “I guess sex [and gender] is the first language we all speak,” she suggests, when prompted on the strange erotic nature of her canvases. In The Overlook Step (Shelly) (2021) a female figure wearing white knee length boots raises her dress to step on a turtle. Her exposed leg combines the possible moment of violence with notions of power and underpins a disturbing tension. The vibrant red of her underskirt shines out, forcing our attention to the sexualization of the image.

There is far more to her characters than a direct read on the representation of desire. The androgynous female figures in her work, for example, are a kind of stand in for the artist herself. “I am attracted to women,” the artist notes. “I think that [sexualized] representations of the passive female are outdated in our society. With internet pornography, the once mysterious has become reproducible. I try to win back this territory on the canvas.” The characters in her narrative pieces are often active - holding hands, walking or touching - but always aware that they are being looked at. Directing their gaze to the viewer is a way for the artist to empathise and communicate with her intended audience. “I would not go so far as to say that art is empathy, but art revitalizes the viewer,” she notes. . “For the viewer, it opens up endless possibilities. It gives you the opportunity to review and recognize things you never saw in that light before.”

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Stanislava Kovalcikova, Virgin High, 2015 Oil on canvas, 300 x 150 cm (119 x 59 inches), Courtesy Peres Projects, Berlin

The paintings Kovalcikova will exhibit in her US debut with Peres Projects at Independent were created between 2015 and 2021, and will introduce the broader spectrum of her work to an American audience. “The works start with 'pseudo' representational painting/portraiture which dissolves into an inner still-life/mental landscape of those being portrayed,” the artist explains. “As a painter, I do not have a pressing concept or agenda, I let my ideas evolve and see where they take me. This is why I am glad to be able to show the evolution of my work over the last six years.” For Kovalcikova, the move from the sexual to the intimate and mature is close to “a tectonic psychological shift”.

Much of the Slovakian artist’s work takes time, with paintings evolving over several years, “almost like a fungus, beneath the surface” she explains. “I start with one image which ends up in a smudged, sanded, overpainted state. Images never die, unlike humans. Some get destroyed or disappear. My images age and undergo alterations.” Kovalcikova’s paintings speak to the way humans come to terms with trauma, the experience of dissociation and remembrance.

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“Images never die, unlike humans. Some get destroyed or disappear. My images age and undergo alterations.”

Stanislava Kovalcikova

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Stanislava Kovalcikova, Goldkopf, 2021, Oil, gold leaf and ink on canvas, 161 x 98 cm (64 x 39 inches), Courtesy Peres Projects

Her colour palette is muted, focusing on brown and earth tones. This is something she credits to the layering that is built into the process of creating her work. “The palette becomes greyish and muted, even though you can still see the brightness of the underpainting. Working slowly allows me to have the benefit of doubt, as well as not having to be 100% aware of what it is that I am doing,” she observes. “For years, I used to paint very dark pictures before I found the right ratio of light to illuminate the darkness. There are shades like chromoxide green, oxide red, sky blue, indigo and medieval yellow that are essential to my palette, because I have worked with these colours for years and feel that I can really navigate them on the canvas.”

Kovalcikova’s works feel intimate. As a teenager she would create very large works, but in the years since attending art school in Düsseldorf, where she studied with Peter Doig, she has moved to a smaller scale. Perhaps it is the directness of this scale that is so attractive, as she points out: “I'm not a painter who likes to waste colour and space.” Her works average around three feet in size, at times expanding to nine feet. They are human sized.

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Stanislava Kovalcikova, Only Empty Palaces, 2021, Oil and gold leaf on linen, 170 x 150 cm (67 x 59 inches), Courtesy Peres Projects, Berlin

Kovalcikova initially studied Arabic before her journey into art. Yet her background is not rooted in the academic. For five years, while studying, she worked at the artist-run nightclub Salon des Amateurs. “Night work allowed me to earn a living without taking time off from the studio and from my daughter,” she explains. “The music was amazing. I miss not being as in touch with music as I was back then. I could also observe people in very intimate situations without feeling like a creep. It definitely trained my eye.” The artist notes that her inspiration comes from mundane life as much as the cultural influences of film, music and fashion. Sometimes inspiration comes from strange moments. “I hate going to funerals but one day by chance I ran into a funeral procession in Italy. It had a very lasting impact on me on many levels. It made me see how hostile and predatory our world has been and still is.”

The presentation at Independent occurs before a major solo exhibition at Peres Projects in November. “I will be turning 33 shortly before and it appears to me that it is a crucial point in my career,” the artist points out. “I try to plan, especially when it concerns my paintings, but I still feel that an era is ending and a new time is beginning. Things that I have cherished and dreaded come to the surface - it is a beautiful moment for a painter. At the end of the day, that is all I am trying to do: translate my love for life and the experiences it brings.”