George Velinger - A career of working with metal in the visual arts


As an artist he has worked for over forty years with metal - it has been the dominant material of his career - welded steel but also soldered sheets, cut, bent, torn, shaped into endless abstract forms, expressing a personal vision that at times has been bleak, at other times playful, often rebellious or provocative, sometimes even a little difficult to pin down. Work provocative enough to almost get him expelled from Prague's art academy in the 1960s - but enough of an obsession that he never gave up, continuing in North America where he moved with his wife, after Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968. He's Czech-Canadian artist George Velinger - profiled in Czechs Today.

George VelingerGeorge Velinger George Velinger, or Jiri Velinger, as he is known in Czech, is also my father, which means I first absorbed his work when I was still a boy, long before I could ever understand what it meant. As a child - like all children - I didn't give such things all that much thought, but I accepted abstract work without bias. In truth, I enjoyed it, subconsciously reading and reassured by hidden codes in the grinded metal surfaces of the sculptures around the house. But, it is only as an adult that I gained some of the answers, and it was only when I moved to the Czech Republic in my early twenties that all the pieces fell fully into place. Now, almost forty years after my father completed his studies at Prague's UMPRUM arts academy it is a curious fact for both of us to find ourselves here in Prague, discussing life in Canada, the invasion of 1968, and my father's beginnings in the Czech underground movement.

"Well, I would say that obviously that we weren't just people in the visual arts - it's the same age as students as people in the film academy and also young musicians who were performing types of music that were also prohibited. Really good philosophers, future authors: it was just a melting pot for people of the same age in my generation..."

Socialist Realism acted as kind of a catalyst, it was something which provoked you so much the answer was Abstraction...

"Socialist Realism was basically a celebration of the working class and figurative art. At that time we were doing something that was non-figurative and had nothing to do with the "official" expression. As far as, for instance, colour was concerned at that time, everything was black or metallic grey. Why that was, was because we were expressing some kind of "mortal sin", something totally prohibited."

If the situation was such that during the day you were producing realistic pieces to please your professors, in the evenings you were working with which materials, and doing what?

"At home, we were living with a friend, who was a painter, and we were collecting found objects. I was working with found objects, all kinds of materials, found materials, were something which we were describing our necessity of expression, and my friend, the painter, was doing the same thing on canvas. After a certain time there came other friends, other painters and sculptors, and I believe it was in early 1962 that we held an illegal exhibition in my studio. To my surprise - we were not planning that there would be such a huge audience, but during fourteen days that we held the exhibition I had a book filled with about 250 signatures."

So, again, as difficult as it is for us to put ourselves in that position, it really was a serious business to hold even an abstract exhibition...

"I have to say that there were moments when we thought this would leak to the professors at the academy, which would have been 'it'."

Luckily that never happened. The irony for my father was that when he finally did graduate three years later, in 1965, he did so on the basis of a large abstract piece. Three metres tall, made from welded steel, it was officially titled 'sculpture for a public space'; secretly it had been called 'Moses'. Leading up to his final project defence he was told by his professor he would never be allowed to graduate. But, perhaps because it was 1965, the political thaw that had started to set in allowed my father to finish his degree.

Jiri, who by then had been nicknamed 'Googie' which seems half-way to the name he would eventually adopt, would then live and work in Czechoslovakia for three more years, before preparing to leave for the United States with his wife Eva in September 1968. He had received a fellowship from the Rhode Island School of Design in May and the prospect of visiting America was an alluring one. Jiri picked up his visa at the U.S. Embassy on August 20th and returned home excited about their planned year, unheard of for a childless couple in communist Czechoslovakia. Things, however, would take a dramatic turn that night.

In the first hours of August 21st, the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet-led troops began - and my father and mother received a 2 a.m. phone call saying tanks were just 18 kilometres away. They took a split-second decision many other Czechs would also have to make - opting to depart. The allure of the U.S. they had been living with for a quarter of a year was simply too strong. They crossed the Czech-Austrian border at about 7 a.m. in a borrowed Trabant that would take them all the way to Paris. I asked my father repeatedly what his feelings were when they crossed the border but the truth is probably neither he nor Eva had time to really think of what was ahead, or what was happening behind. My father wouldn't see his homeland for 22 years, till 1990, after communism fell.

In the U.S. and later in Canada, my parent's adopted country - as well as the country of my birth, my father found a much younger arts scene that was just beginning to flourish. His work also changed - inspired by a wave of minimalism that itself drew inspiration from Russian Constructivism. But, my favourite series in all his years of work and exhibiting in North America came later, in the 1980s, and was much wilder. Called "Toys" that series contained pieces using wildly jagged metal pieces splashed for the first time with hot colours in polychromy, pieces like so many metal monsters gone wild. If that series holds special significance for me today, it is also because it had a follow up in the Czech Republic - shows in 1996 and 2002. One of those was called "Monuments to Monuments".

Monument to a Czech Rabbit 2001Monument to a Czech Rabbit 2001 "One of the pieces, which is called 'Monument for a Czech Rabbit', is my personal approach and criticism that too much pathos or theatrical arrangement of the sculpture - to me at least - is false. The way I expressed it was that it looks like, in silhouette, like a little rabbit, a little animal, but it's actually painted the colours of a ladybug, including the dots. And some people were so irritated by that!"

According to my father, working with metal is the closest thing to working with clay. You can build it up and just as easily break it down with the flame of a blow-torch to meet your requirements. You can grind the surface when it is finished. That grinding - leaving haphazard squiggles and scars the most, as well as the play of polychromy distorting and breaking space, are what attract me about many of his sculptures most. It's not just a physical space, but a temporal one. As you watch the sculptures over time, you find that they too shift and change. Some days you'll see them through the eyes of an adult, other days through the eyes of a child.