Contemporary artist Jozef Batko lets his surroundings evolve his vision.
Cars are zipping down north U.S. 301 outside his walls, but behind the door of Jozef Batko’s studio, the painter is making moves of his own. Every few moments he crouches down in front of one of several unfinished canvases on the floor, studying it and picking up a nearby cutout to layer it on top before zooming over to the other side of the room to move another fragment to another spot.
It’s like a 3D game of artistic Tetris in which the digital tiles have been substituted for pieces of drop cloth purposefully covered in paint rather than a safety net catching loose drips falling off a canvas above it.
“Art on the floor is different than on the wall,” he assures, probably watching the wheels turn in his interviewer’s head. “But sometimes you have to do it on the floor because it’s so large.”
Batko is a contemporary painter and installation artist who grew up in what was at the time Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). In 1998, his career as a major league soccer official brought him and his wife to the United States, where he’s continued to develop his artistic style.
He practices a wide range of techniques and uses a variety of media, but mainly he focuses on his drop cloth paintings — made possible by trading other painters’ drop cloths for new ones, which he says are odd deals but many said commercial painters now ask for pictures of his work.
His art, as his website says, “investigates the cross-cultural ties in a globalized society,” and is on display at Art Avenue inside Westfield Southgate Mall, at Stakenborg/Greenberg Fine Art Gallery in downtown Sarasota and at Chai Gallery of Fine Arts in Sandy Springs, Ga.
Batko loves to work with materials that have a history, which is why he enjoys his used drop cloths. Some of them come to him already covered in paint, some have just a few specks and some are even fairly clean, but he accepts them how they are and uses the pre-existing paint spots to help inform his decisions on where his brush should go next.
The first step is always to wash the drop cloth sections at a laundromat. Whatever “small pieces of history” that are left after that, he says, are what can offer a sense of direction.
As aforementioned, once the pieces are ready to be painted on, he lays them out on the floor, often moving them around like pieces of a puzzle and between one work and the next until he finds a position that feels right.
“It’s like a quilt,” he says of his cut-up pieces of cloth and how they come together. “It takes a long time to play (with them). You could play forever.”
He then uses acrylic, oil and combination paints of various colors to do the actual painting, and sometimes he also incorporates collage elements like pages from old books and documents. Because they’re on the floor, sometimes a paint footprint or handprint ends up in the mix, and he rolls with it. It’s all part of the creative process — he isn’t fazed by a smudge or other unplanned element.
“I love the footprint because it just happened when I was creating,” he says. “It doesn’t interfere with the piece, and I’m not offended if someone doesn’t like that, then it’s just not their style.”
He also notes that after the piece is taken from the floor to see what it’s like on the wall, adjustments can still be made — and often are — before it’s done. Although, like most artists, he has a hard time accepting that anything is ever truly done.
“When it comes to creating, I have an idea of what I’d like to create, but it’s different to get there,” he says. “And to get the right intensity and to tell a story to create some sort of dialogue.”
As for that dialogue, over the past couple years, Batko says the style of his work (and subsequently the subject matter) has been affected by the changing American political climate (evident in his usage of imagery from book covers like Art Buchwald’s “Have I Ever Lied to You?”).
“I’ve become more observant of what’s happening around us,” he says. “I like to make people ask questions (through art) … it’s more challenging than looking at a seascape.”
He says it’s a risky approach, but he loves creating work that encourages people to question their own thoughts and emotions.
Batko’s style has also changed recently in his usage of color. Once a fan of working primarily in black and white, lately he’s been attracted to more pops of color in his otherwise dark pieces — often used to emphasize specific elements.
His personality is laid back, and that’s also reflected in his style. Batko recalls a customer asking if a piece could be hung upside down from the way it was originally meant to be hung, and instead of panicking or thinking his artistic vision had been compromised, the artist said he was happy that a customer was engaging with his piece enough to see it a different way.
“A good abstract piece should work from every direction,” he says. “They should work from various angles, but (the question of) which one is very personal.”
Asked about where his art falls within the definition of abstraction, Batko says he likes to refer to his work as contemporary art with abstraction in it because true abstract works should have nothing recognizable in them, but people like to search for something familiar in his pieces and often find something — and he isn’t going to stop them from doing so.
Batko lives in Nokomis with his family, and though he likes to do smaller charcoal works at home, he paints primarily in the studio he acquired in October 2018 at 1320 N. East Ave. He says the neighborhood, which is right off U.S. 301, has the potential to be the area’s newest refuge for artists.
Just 0.3 miles south of his studio is the gallery-turned-collective-art-space SPAACES run by artist and Ringling College of Art and Design instructor Marianne Chapel. And a new gallery, District X Gallery, plans to move in right next door to Batko around September. Partner Richard Pellicci says the idea for the new art space, which will feature many artists but highlight Hungarian artist Krisztian Serfozo in particular, is to offer buyers and collectors high-quality work that they'd normally have to travel to New York City or Miami for.
Batko says artists are attracted to the neighborhood, the north side of Park East, because of low rent and the location, which is just a quick drive from downtown Sarasota. Once District X opens, he’s excited to have another place to show his work, and he hopes doing so in that area will introduce more people to it.
He also finds artistic inspiration from the feel of the neighborhood, which is an industrial, predominantly blue collar area of Sarasota that he finds great beauty in.
“Sarasota is growing culturally toward the area where my studio is,” he says. “I like the industrial feel of it. The mid-century building adds to my feeling of creativity.”
CORRECTION: Richard Pellicci's name and gallery name were incorrect in the original print version of this story.