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"Not What It Seems: Wlodzimierz Ksiazek's Recent Work" by Karen Wilkin

I don't know how long it takes Wlodzimierz Ksiazek to complete one of his reticent, anxious paintings, but I do know that we viewers must invest a considerable amount of time in his efforts if we are to grasp even some of their complex meanings, allusions, and formal inventions. Yet even then, there is always the persistent sense that much remains hidden - literally and figuratively - in these dense, moody pictures. I am not the first to be struck by the remarkable multivalence and instability of the associations provoked by Ksiazek's work - a wealth of oblique (and sometimes not so oblique) connections that he simultaneously courts and denies by his refusal to attach titles to his pictures. He rejects even the usual distancing devices of numbering or of labeling them "untitled," preferring a silent namelessness that gives us tacit permission to extract or impose what we will, at the same time that it suggests the anonymity of statelessness and uprootedness.

That last observation, I admit, presupposes some knowledge of Ksiazek's difficult history as a political exile from Poland. That history, however, has been thoroughly discussed by most commentators on his work - and rightly so, since it is, in some ways, crucial to an understanding of his art. (Which is not to imply that Ksiazek's work does not speak eloquently for itself.) The outlines of the artist's story include, simply, a traditional academic training in Warsaw and the start of a promising career as painter of "semi-abstract" pictures. In 1982, Ksiazek fled Poland for the U.S., via Prague, which created an urgent need for the young painter to reinvent (or perhaps rediscover) himself in new and strenuous circumstances. Then marriage, fatherhood, an angry divorce, and a horrific struggle to remain in contact with his daughter. Yet even if we were not privy to any information about Ksiazek's troubled past and fraught present, one of the mysterious qualities of his paintings is that they make it impossible to interrogate them without speculating on what generated them, compelling as they are in what might be called, for lack of better words, formal terms and their uncompromising abstractness notwithstanding. No matter how engaged we are by the rich, complicated "geology" or "archaeology" of the surfaces of these paintings - the evidence of successive campaigns of addition and excavation - no matter how much we focus on nuances of subtle color, or no matter how satisfying we find the proportion of the rectangle and the relationship of drawing incidents to that shape, it is plain that these sensual qualities are only part of what is at stake. Ksiazek is obviously committed to abstraction, but he is just as obviously deeply concerned with private narratives.

Both the most insistently physical and the most withdrawn of Ksiazek's pictures seem, strangely, to dissolve under the pressure of looking into a host of contradictory allusions. (For some reason, this seems specially true of his recent thickly loaded, near-monochrome canvases.) Just about everyone who has written about the painter's work of the past decade has commented on this phenomenon, noting the way his confrontational, multi-layered expanses of thick paint conjure up thoughts about such diverse manifestations as architecture and archaeological ruins, mapping and landscape, the body and skin. Because Ksiazek's surfaces are clearly the result of a process of accretion and superimposition, his paintings are often discussed in terms of both accumulated memory and concealment. Because his drawing takes the form not only of the edges of painterly gestures, but also of slicing and cutting into the "skin" of paint, to reveal underlying strata, his pictures are frequently spoken of, too, in relation to wounding, destruction, or even torture, as well as to such as ideas as searching for the past and retrieval of memory. Because patches of paint, perhaps fragments salvaged from the slices, sometimes seem to have been applied over the incisions and gouges, they, in turn, can suggest connections with healing, bandaging, rebuilding. And in the same way, the archaeological associations of the scraped out pathways, by extension, can stimulate thoughts about mythology, about the possibility of a collective unconscious, or about primal legends that cut across cultures and time. And more.

Part of it is simply loosely directed free-association, part of it word-play, essentially literary; and part of it, purely visual. I suspect that all of these various interpretations are equally true and, at the same time, that they are all equally inadequate to the full weight of profoundly felt, fiercely personal meanings with which Ksiazek has loaded his paintings. In the end, of course, all such attempts to "explain" these works remain mere speculation. Each of us brings our own freight of associations to our experience of these provocative pictures. Some of these connections may overlap, at least, temporarily or partially, with the painter's own concerns, but that is the most that can be hoped for. What is verifiable or, more accurately, what is visible, is that Ksiazek manages to suggest many possible allusions, to evoke a range of moods and emotional temperatures, through completely abstract means, most significantly through the characteristics of his chosen medium. That this should be worth pointing out is an unfortunate legacy of Post-Modernism. Not only is concept habitually given precedence over the fact of paint, even among those present day practitioners who continue to employ painting media, but many of them seem to have completely lost faith in the ability of paint to become the carrier of expression or personality. They appear to be indifferent to the particular qualities of the medium, often producing works whose anonymous, lifeless surfaces are so subordinated to the requirements of expedient depiction that we wonder why their authors don't find ways of using photography to tell their stories.

Ksiazek, quite the opposite, makes the intrinsic properties of paint - its material density, its sensuous viscosity, its ability to mask what is beneath it - a significant part of the meaning of his work. His implacable walls of pigment, the inflected but uniform and uniformly dense sheets of single hues that fill the canvas edge to edge, declare the history of their making. We mentally recapitulate the process of building up layer upon layer; we envision the effort of establishing of a continuous plane and its brutal cancellation through aggressive gestures of carving out, or conversely, reexperience a process of tender reapplication. Severe geometric slashes and cuts reveal underlying states, so that we are allowed to penetrate the accumulated layers, like explorers of strange landforms, yet the deeper we are permitted in, the more difficult it seems to wrench ourselves loose from this curiously shallow but bottomless fictive interior space. (This sense of plunging within is relatively recent; earlier works read more as palimpsests, that is to say, as the result of a series of marks and events imposed on a surface, rather than, as Ksiazek's paintings of the past few years do, as continuous expanses that have been violated.)

Ksiazek's process reveals itself, as we imagine the sequence of application, obliteration, excavation, and revelation, imagine the series of acts at once celebrating and attacking the medium itself that become, perhaps, reenactments of displacement of feeling. But otherwise, despite the much-discussed allusiveness of his pictures, he offers us, paradoxically, few clues. His scraped out "drawing" is distributed more or less evenly, if sparsely, across the surface of his canvases, emphasizing the brute fact of two-dimensional expanse and denying the possibility of illusionism. There is no horizon, no reference point, just the rectangle of suffocatingly dense pigment before us. We are given no easy, obvious way of locating ourselves, nor any fixed place from which to take our bearings. The incised surfaces of Ksiazek's paintings can tip and rush away from us, unexpectedly turning from literal expanses of paint into what one critic has described as "aerial views," forcibly distancing us and turning us into weightless, hovering observers of uncharted terrain or of ruined architectural traces. But those disorienting and disoriented sheets of worked, substantial paint can also become near impassable barriers: frontal, essentially uninterrupted geometric shapes into which we are allowed occasional, restricted views along pathways of "wounds," at the same time that we are pushed away by the unforgiving surface and made to keep our distance.

Once again, we are kept off balance, puzzled, and surprised. That, of course, is what keeps us returning to Ksiazek's enigmatic paintings, in addition to their seductive textures and delicate nuances of tone and hue - the sense that they have eluded us, that there is still more to be discovered, that things are not quite what they seem.

Monographic Publication: Wlodzimierz Ksiazek. Alpha Gallery, Boston, MA, October 4-October 29, 2003.
Essays by Karen Wilkin and Joe Fyfe, published by Alpha Gallery, Boston, MA.

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