Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Poles apart, and together

Real Art Ways
56 Arbor St., Hartford, (860) 232-1006
Ends Jan. 29, 2007.

I like it. Do you like it? I like it very much because it's good. Super.

An unhelpful review of Real Art Ways' POZA show of art by artists with roots directly or indirectly in Poland? No, an interpretation of dialogue from a video that is part of the show. "We Like It a Lot," a cheeky send-up of gallery hopping, was the first video by the Azorro Group. Each of the four group members has achieved individual recognition for their artistic endeavors. As Azorro, they comment on the contemporary art scene in Poland with wit rather than bile.

According to curator Marek Bartelik, the Polish word "poza" has a double meaning: "'posturing' or 'posing' (as one disguises his or her true nature for public display) and 'beyond' or 'trans.'" In this gallery exhibition, "Polishness" is treated not as an essential quality but as a point of departure. The 31 featured artists include both current residents of Poland and members of the Polish diaspora living in the United States, Brazil, Canada and France.

Bartelik kicks off the exhibit with a quote from Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz, himself an exile from his home country for much of his adult life. Gombrowicz wrote in 1954:

I know very well what kind of Polish culture I wish to have in the future... the weakness of the contemporary Pole resides in his oneness (in Polish, his "jednoznacznosc") and also-his onesidedness; therefore all effort should be made to enrich him with the second polarity-to complement him with another Pole, who is completely-extremely-different.

Here also there is the play of double meaning, Pole versus pole and polarity. And Bartelik effectively demonstrates his point by curating a show that ranges widely both in its geographic reach and means of expression. Mixed and multimedia is the order of the day, and the main gallery exhibition is augmented by a film series, lectures and events at venues outside of Real Art Ways.

It is a perfect fit with Real Art Ways, which has a longstanding commitment both to challenging art and engagement with the community. Hartford and the nearby city of New Britain both have large Polish-American populations.

Ewa Harabacz's "Icon Station" is possibly the most distinctively "Eastern European" work in the show. A mixed media installation, it is a large, multi-panel work in the style of traditional religious iconography. But rather than rely on imagery of saints and other religious figures, it incorporates news images of war, refugees and dispossession. These are given the iconographic treatment. Backgrounds are painted with gold leaf; mothers holding their children have halos around their heads. The central image is of a soldier holding a naked child in his arms while he clutches a military rifle. His halo has a darker aspect: crosshairs in the center of his forehead. The imagery on the back parts of the right and left panels is different. Here Harabcz uses pictures of women most likely victims of breast cancer. Social violence is likened to the physical ravages of cancer: the metastasis of civil strife within the body politic.

Stepping into the room showing Krzysztof Wodiczko's video "Warsaw Projection," the first thing I heard was, in Polish, "This fucking city does not belong to us. It belongs to those who have hard fists and Mace. This fucking city does not belong to women." I was entering in the middle of a continuous loop video of Polish women's testimonies of social inequality and the violence to which they are vulnerable. Actually, it was a video of a video. Wodiczko had projected the testimonials on the pilasters of the Zacheta Gallery in downtown Warsaw in November, 2005. The video takes in not just the images and voices of the women but also some of the reactions of the crowds that gathered to watch. The speakers pose challenges to men, to the Polish President, to the courts that indulge their abusers. And they also challenge other women to raise their sons differently, to raise them to respect women. Their stories—and the direct way in which they tell them—command rapt attention.

In the main room, Dominic Lejman's video, "Skaters NY," is projected on one of the large walls. It is a negative image video of skaters shot from an overhead position. The white images glide over the slightly darkened wall, some gingerly, haltingly. Most skate in a big wheeling circle but some find their own road, cutting across the center or executing a graceful spin. Couples skate holding hands while others skate on their own. We see an adult bending over to talk to a pair of children, possibly instructing them on how to skate or proper ice etiquette. The video could be symbolic of the movement of people in life—standing apart, pairing up, going in circles and occasionally crossing over from one side to another.

Ursula von Rydingsvard's "Lace Medallion" is a large, exceptional sculptural work hewn from cedar boards. (It is so heavy that it had to be leaned against the wall rather than mounted.) Twenty-seven vertical board lengths form the main canvas. At about the midpoint and below, von Rydingsvard has cut into the boards, creating a landscape of canyons and crevices. Starting about a foot above the top, she added a sculpted wood relief that drops down into the piece like a necklace. Space is cut into the main body of boards to nest this necklace. It protrudes about one-and-a-half board's thickness. Again, the wood is cut so as to resemble a mountainous landscape, conjuring images of great forces of the earth thrusting to and through the surface. Where it is cut, much of the piece is overwritten by thick soft pencil lines, seeming to be instructions on how and where to cut it. I got the sense in looking at "Lace Medallion" that it represents both natural processes—using wood, a natural, but processed, material—and the presence of a guiding hand.

In its imposing but rough beauty it shares a wall with Jerzy Kubina's "Memory Window E" and "Memory Window D." These are large mixed media on silk works. They are delicate in comparison to "Lace Medallion." In "Memory Window E," the silk seems to obscure a background image, perhaps a building seen through a window. Up close, the work offers only the subtlest hints of pink and green color behind the silk. But go to the other side of the room—get some distance—and an underlying image becomes more visible. "Memory Window D" is a view of a five story building on a city street corner. Part of the front and most of the side is obscured. There are swirls and bubbles of color on the image akin to the decaying of old film or photographic stock. Like memory, the visible aspects have a presence and clarity despite the years, while the rest is cloaked in obscurity—part of the whole but beyond recovery.

A skyview photo of a park with three swimming pools was the apparent inspiration for "Water Objects" by Aneta Grzeszykowska and Jan Smaga. In the picture, one pool is rectangular, one is circular and one is shaped like an irregular baseball diamond. These shapes are rendered as sculptural objects, two on the floor and the circular one on the wall. The artists then mounted Lambda prints—high-resolution laser prints—of water on the objects. The agitated water is a light-dappled blue, a natural abstraction.

Water plays a major role in Pawel Wojtasik's "The Aquarium," another video. Here the feeling is not one of summer play but of environmental crisis. Wojtasik juxtaposes scenes from three aquariums—where aquatic animals dart in seeming play but are not free—with outdoor vistas, often at twilight. A voiceover charts the destruction of the coral reefs and the progression of cancer in marine animals. The fate of the aquarium-bound animals mirrors our own possible fate, forced by our irresponsibility into ever more artificial environments, backed into an ecological corner.

Human beings' relationship to nature is likewise the subject of the three works in Gabriela Morawetz's "Sphere of Being" series. In all three, a photo of a male figure in dance poses is printed on an outer curved circle of glass. The glass is affixed over a background photo of swirling water like one might see in a little pool at the beach. Beach stones are glued to the background print. The light shining through the curved glass casts a diffuse image of the man on the background, conveying a sense of motion, and also of merger with the water and earth. In the transparency of the glass image, man interpenetrates nature and vice versa. The circle is a symbol of oneness, unity. But there is a darker note, also. Because the image of the man on the glass is not flush against the background print, man also casts a shadow over nature.

Frida Baranek's "Wald" is a large, sculptural work that includes a free-standing closet with doors open front and back. Inside, hanging on the bar usually reserved for clothes hangers, there is instead a coiled creation of latex tubing and bronze strapping. The metal closet is coated with rust, giving it a rough brushed abstract patina that complements the color of the rubber and bronze. The closet itself represents a kind of order and containment. The interplay of the tubing and metal, however, is tangled, disordered. Could this be a statement about using "closets" to contain unruly desire(s)?

The desire to open closets was the inspiration for Karolina Bregula's "Let Them See Us" series of photographs of same-sex couples holding hands, here exhibited in Real Art Ways' Real Room as part of the "Art in the Street" adjunct to POZA. The images were displayed on billboards in culturally conservative Poland. The billboards were taken down in response to intense opposition by Catholic groups. Here, in culturally liberal Connecticut, the local affiliate of Lamar Outdoor Advertising refused to display them. What is striking is just how normal the images are. Bregula has captured a basic humanity that only willful homophobia could find threatening.

Also in the Real Room are Wojciech Gilewicz's oil paintings based on urban wall graffiti, accompanied by photographs of the original walls. These are fascinating appropriations. Gilewicz has managed at the same time both to capture the furtive, gestural nature of graffiti and rendered a studied recreation of the surface texture of the walls, with layers of paint and grime and weathered posters.

For a show with its genesis in the concept of national identity, POZA is notable for its universality. It is a telling microcosm of transnational contemporary art, both in its thematic interests (with notions of memory, concepts of identity and the relationship of the artist to the social and/or natural world) and its multi-disciplinary approach.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Harabasz's work is stunning

2:55 AM


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