"The Body In Turmoil: Thoughts on Wlodzimierz Ksiazek's Paintings"
by Joe Fyfe
It is striking how immediately the overriding metaphorical complexities
of Wlodzimierz Ksiazek's paintings enter the bloodstream. It isn't
hard to understand this vocabulary, we are familiar with "expressionist"
fracture, the buildups of impasto, the colliding families of drips,
the crude knife-point incisions; even relatively unsophisticated
viewers might look at this work and reflect upon their own particular
intuitions of catastrophe, that never too far away companion to
living in the modern world.
It is best to quickly come to terms with the beauty of these works.
Beauty is an embarrassment, a hole in the fabric of much contemporary
painting. The beauty of Ksiazek's work is the beauty of terrible
feelings aerated, illuminated through thousands of conscious days.
It is the beauty of a slab of paint buttered on with a trowel, of
a trench dug into a heavily painted canvas. Ksiazek is willing to
take on tragedy as it pertains to his own life. He dares to universalize
his experience. Whether or not the dramatization of tragedy has
a reparative effect on the painter or the audience is of secondary
importance to our being witnesses to the kind of necessity that
is presented by the author of these works.
Ksiazek mostly paints in a horizontal format. In painting, the
horizontal rectangle signifies the land beyond us and has as its
counterpart the vertical rectangle, which is a standing figure.
But there is no illusionism, no horizons or vanishing points in
Ksiazek's work. His aggressively frontal surfaces, which seem to
grope toward the wider world, quickly obliterate any thoughts of
landscape. Still, when we look at these paintings, we might be in
a forest, peering out onto railroad tracks as we watch the sides
of boxcars roll by. Or we are perusing abandoned architecture, scraped
and patched with indecipherable, mute evidence. We are looking at
old walls that are ravaged remains of some best-forgotten horror
from the last century, the century that the poet Elizabeth Bishop
called "the worst so far".
The imprint of architecture in thick paint also contains a symbolic
element: Ksiazek is an exile; he left Poland as an adult, fully
aware of his decision to depart. He decided not to become a citizen
but a permanent U.S. resident. He has chosen to build a place to
live in his medium, oil paint. He lives on through the sustainment
of this practice; of knowing this place, this homeland.
An alternate reading can be found in the cooling affect of historical
perspective, though it, too, gives no peace. Most of the paintings
though varied in color from one to the next, are essentially monochrome,
which provides them with an overtone of ancient ruins, particularly
those of the sun-bleached landscape of the Holy Land. In her 2002
essay, Amy Schlegel quite rightly made visual reference to the ruins
of Masada. In Ksiazek's demonstration of the law of eternal return,
Roman legions are Russian soldiers and tanks. In this context, they
also seem to enfold the Old Testament (the Wailing Wall) and the
New Testament (the Crucifixion) in their resemblance to broken masonry
Paint as symbol and synecdoche, of mortar, plaster and drips. The
masonry of the wall in the Warsaw ghetto. The drips of time, of
blood. Mortar in the cracks that let in air, the plaster casts of
replication, of molding. Leafing through an earlier catalog of Ksiazek's
work, I felt familiar with many of his paintings from the1990s.
The density of their surface and the multiplicity of running rivulets
of paint resembled James Ensor's portrait of Christ, Man of Sorrows.
This small painting conveys pain so directly it is almost too difficult
to look at. Rather than serving language, there are moments in the
history of Ksiazek's work where he has attempted to convey a sense
of the unspeakable.
To evoke the unspeakable. Here, lines from the late Polish poet
Zbigniew Herbert, may parallel and elucidate Ksiazek's paintings:
builds a world
not from atoms
but from remnants
is a scrap of paper
found in a pocket
the place on Dluga street is hot'
There is the outstanding authenticity of Ksiazek's work, but it's
full of replications. Alongside its sincerities are its ironies:
there is a kind of perverse nostalgia for living behind what was
called the Iron Curtain that accompanies Ksiazek's project. Heiner
Mueller speaks of the "waiting-room mentality" of Communist Eastern
Europe: a train is announced but never arrives; this same announcement
continues. Mueller calls this a state of "messianic anticipation"-the
Messiah is coming, but never arrives. It causes the would-be passengers,
in their pessimism, to look at the train station. It is falling
apart, the neglect is palpable. Amid the lying of the State, in
the guise of the station announcer, the waiting room occupants are
permitted the privilege of observing life, of avoiding the endless
distractions that comprise living in the consumerist west. (Or,
more recently, the consumerist World.)
Ksiazek's themes have embedded themselves in painting, rather than
in another medium, I suspect, because a need was felt to avoid a
certain lack of contradiction in less traditional media. Oil paint
was a medium that was not just invented to replicate the luminosity
of human flesh, but to intensify the idea of the human, of the individual.
The body is there in spirit in all of Ksiazek's paintings. Oil paint
still carries associations of freedom and autonomy and well suits
an artist who has the dangers of totalitarianism never far from
But the body is also in turmoil. There are two aspects of Ksiazek's
approach to the act of painting, both autobiographical-one formal,
one personal. Formally, there is the painter's ambivalence about
his medium; in Ksiazek's work, the continual knifings and crosscutting
of painted event signal his unrest with the medium itself. This
energy has, in the history of painting, caused artists to find ways
to "break" the method of applying paint. In some cases, such as
in the work of Bacon or De Kooning, the feverish rejection of received
styles propels the subject matter. On a more personal level, it
is hard not to think of many of these paintings as simulations of
patched together paintings, which in turn are about a patched together
life, the life of an exile, facing the strife of legal battles to
save his child, of confronting the treacherous powers of the aberrant
legal system in this country, of the corruption of life. The body
is very much alive here, both powerful and wraithlike. Underneath
this tablet, this painted and pained landscape of the body is the
singular light of paint on a slab, a tabula rasa, a radiance of
The very rich and varied readings available in Ksiazek's work are
rooted in the paradoxical nature of the painting practice, where
rapid, violent paint activity can nonetheless simulate the wearing
down of time itself. I mostly imagine these works as chamber pieces
that musically modulate passages of painting from various modernist
sources. If one could hear them they would probably all be slow
movements of blowing wind, crumbling rock, creaking doors and pouring
rain. Ksiazek's paintings have a presence that is similar to the
compositions of Eastern European composers such as Henryk Gorecki,
Valentin Silvestre and Arvo Part, composers who bring the gravity
of Romanticism to a fragmented, spiritual music. It is this group
of contemporary composers more than other present-day painters that
I imagine being most fully in alignment with the aims of Ksiazek's
Monographic Publication: Wlodzimierz Ksiazek. Alpha Gallery,
Boston, MA, October 4-October 29, 2003.
Essays by Karen Wilkin and Joe Fyfe, published by Alpha Gallery,