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“Wlodzimierz Ksiazek Paintings”

Eleanor Heartney

In a humorous art historical spoof titled A Short History of Modern Painting, painter Mark Tansey presents three stages of modernist abstraction. In the first panel, a suburban woman hoses down her picture window, in the second a man buts his head against a freestanding wall in a field and in the third, a chicken contemplates itself in a mirror. The three panels stand in for three philosophies of art: painting as a window on the world, painting as a celebration of surface and painting as a reflection of the soul.

The work of Polish painter Wlodzimierz Ksiazek synthesizes these supposedly antithetical stances to produce powerful paintings that meld the inner and outer worlds. Each work is essentially monochrome, but that word fails to do justice to the complexity of these works. The dominant color in each of these untitled paintings evokes at once an emotional state and a physical environment. Ksiazek’s current body of work includes paintings whose palette ranges from vivid primary and secondary colors to near black or white. Each expresses a distinctly different reality. A work composed of thick swaths of forest green laid atop a blue under layer conjures the thick foliage and enveloping shadows of the deep woods. Here echoes of the forest become a stand-in for a contemplative responsiveness to the natural world. When Ksiazek employs shades of fiery orange red streaked with black, the associations include flame and ashes. Paintings dominated by white tinged with blue-gray or streaked with black evoke the chill emptiness of barren winter. Midnight blue brings to mind a world of hidden forms and mysterious presences consonant with the darkest hours of the night. The range of these works is astounding – buffeting the viewer between calm and tumult. Color here opens a window into an experience of the world in which natural states inform and extend our imaginative life.

The emotional impact of these works is heightened by the paint handling, which is both expressive and visceral – at once tangibly physical and poetically associative. Cuts, slashes, smears and sharp ridges formed by the palette knife give the surface of these paintings a potent palpability. They draw attention to the paint itself – Tansey’s wall. But their thick and meaty application also seem a record of the artist’s internal life. These dramatic surfaces suggest a restless mobility, a refusal to pause and settle in that some commentators have linked to Ksiazek’s status as an immigrant existing in a self imposed exile from the totalitarian past of his native country.

In art historical circles, discussions of abstract painting often revolve around the distinction between the beautiful and the sublime. In these debates, beauty is identified with harmony and synthesis and the sublime with awe, terror and mystery. The distinction is meant to separate lyrical serenity from expressions of the darker aspects of human existence. Here again, Ksiazek straddles supposed opposites. His paintings, evoking window, wall and mirror, are also imbued with what William Butler Yeats termed a terrible beauty. They burrow deep into our consciousness, finding resonance with the best and the worst of human life.

Eleanor Heatney is New York based art critic who is Contributing Editor to Art in America and Artpress and author of numerous books including Critical Condition: American culture at the Crossroads, Postmodernism, Postmodern Heretics and Art and Today.

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