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"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 and wood.

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:

nothing special
boards paint
nails paste
paper string

mr artist
builds a world
not from atoms
but from remnants


our fear
is a scrap of paper
found in a pocket
'warn Wojcik
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 his mind.

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 eternity.

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 work.

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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