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"Interview with Wlodzimierz Ksiazek" by Mark Harris

MH: To begin, can you say something about the transition from Poland to New York, its impact on your visual language and your painting?

WK: I came to the U.S. in the middle of 1982 when Solidarity was crushed. Martial Law was implemented, and our rights, very limited as they were, were suspended. There were tanks on the streets, people were murdered, and we had no way of knowing when the situation would normalize. You can imagine what kind of effect it had on us. We were trapped and the world watched with amazement, but Poland was left to her own devices and mores without any significant help from the West. I felt so discouraged that I knew I must escape. My artistic work at that time reflected my disgust with the totalitarian system, and this was expressed by the visual language I developed. That vocabulary used a politically-charged group of linguistic signs meant to serve as a critique of that oppressive regime.

MH: It seems that in the move from Poland to America a certain tenor of values was carried with you. It strikes me, thinking of the paintings, that they are not characteristic of New York or American painting. There is something quite distinctive about them, so I wonder, was your forma- tion of visual language in America influenced by your Polish experience or did it start afresh?

WK: Formation of an artistic language is a never-ending process. Influences come and go. Stimuli continuously bombard our brains, our senses, our consciousness. I moved to New York as a fully formed person. So perhaps it is correct to say that my vocabulary was shaped by the Polish chapter. Therefore working in New York was more about breathing in what existed there, learning how to navigate, and absorbing what critically mattered. What I found in America quickly made me realize the parallel between oppressive systems of totalitarian countries, including the one from which I had escaped, and American imperialism. The force of injustice in America is as strong as in countries previously ruled by communism - it just expresses itself in different ways.

MH: In Poland the activity of opposition was by and large a communal activity - you would engage in groups where individuality as such was not as highly valued as it generally is in America. You carried notions of opposition to social injustice with you, and they transferred to an American context effectively. Yet in America there is an emphasis on the achievements of the individual person, on the value of individuality that is a mythical element within American self -representation and American history. How would you locate your American paintings in relation to that problematic?

WK: If my language expresses my position on issues of social injustice within the American context effectively, it is perhaps because of an inherent dichotomy in the American social system where the practice of "justice for sale," the abuse of human rights of individuals, and a corrupted legal system can be only occasionally challenged by citizens. So an artist who is part of such a society needs to maintain a certain distance, to be outside of a sanctioned communal involvement, to be able to take a position independent of organized communal activity, to address political urgencies and omissions through particular artistic language.

MH: So could I ask what it is you are painting and to what extent you are painting towards some specific quality of representation? Or, on the other hand, regarding what has been a preoccupation with a certain group of American painters - radical painters so called - to what extent are you painting away from something specific toward a condition of indefineability?

WK: Yes, there are artists here with whom I feel a certain closeness. Some of them are painters, some of them are installation artists, architects, or film-makers. I think this is normal - we unconsciously or consciously seek those creative processes which allow us the maximum response. So in terms of specificity in my painting, of course I find a variety of parallels with people for whom a certainty of a descriptive definition of the work is irrelevant.

MH: Speaking about your work, did you have in mind a goal for the painting - a goal of representation, or a goal of non-representation?

WK: That's actually very interesting because since I arrived at full awareness of my visual language, the idea of dichotomy of representation and abstraction stopped bothering me. In a sense for many years my work operated and still does operate in a zone suspended between representation and abstraction. The work, because of its internal language, groups of signs, and because I chose not to lock myself into a single mode of visual expression, goes beyond the treacheries of labeling. I can ignore the fact that there are still discourses going on about what is abstraction, what is representation, or how a particular body of work fits into one mode or another. The work comes to exist in a space between an active spectator and the image made by an artist. Some of my, new paintings eclipse the body of work which I did back in Warsaw as a critique of totalitarianism. This is achieved by re-adopting a linguistic element, words such as "hostage" or "Veronika," suspended within the three-dimensional surfaces of my painting. The excavation of such terms may suggest political readings as well. For example, the very fact that my young daughter is repeatedly being prevented from visits with me, even when I come to see her from Europe, generates the creation of signs transcending such an experience into complex, multi-level sets of interpretations. As you see, the experiences that influence my work, and how the work responds to that influence, is more important in the process of my painting than setting particular "goals" at the outset. Therefore if people call my work abstract that's okay, if they call it something else that is also fine with me.

MH: But yet there are recognizable components in the work: for example the residual architectural plans which have been referred to in the text, or the issue of laboriousness by which a certain quality is located in the accretion of matter or the use of gesture. Are we to take these components as diversionary, then, insofar as they are motifs familiar to us from historically earlier bodies of paintings like abstract expressionism? Or they meant as clear signifiers?

WK: Well one has to start with a blank canvas, the tabula rasa. Once we start, we put the first mark on it and that mark....

MH: Let me interrupt here. You may start with a blank canvas but then you also start with a texture and then with incisions into the texture, so there are many different beginnings. The tabula rasa seems irrelevant because superimposed on the tabula rasa are a number of procedures that you have rehearsed very successfully over the years.

WK: That's pretty accurate. When I said that I start from tabula rasa I meant that I start with a blank canvas and then the first compositional device occurs to create a situation which allows me to go with the flow of how the act of painting is going to work for me. The process of painting creates subtle suggestions after the start, and as I apply layers onto the surface each layer responds to the previous one. In a sense I am working together with the painting itself, which by growing, accumulating and subtracting painted matter, is reshaped, creating and transforming its own history. That accreted process forces systems of orders to compete with each other. Because of this process, often an initially recognizable element gets lost and becomes only a memory - a small particle in something larger. In a sense that initial reality is almost completely altered and at the end the work presents itself as a group of signs which allow for a variety of interpretations by letting the viewer find those ambiguities, those gaps and those sudden openings in the painting. At the same time, familiarity clashes with the unfamiliar. An urge to seek an explanation that matches our preprogrammed-by-culture horizon of expectations is overwhelming and understandable. So we have to find ways to oppose that. Historical excavations expose us to issues such as tradition and its role versus time, freedom in relation to individuality, and of course history of interpretation. These issues should help us to realize that if the painting is going to address the specific moment and possibly the future it must communicate a sense of historical context. This way the particularity of one interpretation in one moment of time does not overshadow the full picture.

MH: And yet in the end the totality of your work strikes me as inviting a question about power. I think of this as work that exposes and wears its power conspicuously. It takes itself forward with a sense of its own gravitas, which was formed from a combination of extreme materiality, a sense of ruin, a sense of diminishing luminosity, melancholic chroma, and sobriety. To what extent might this be a reference to a remote authoritarianism or instead, is it an authoritarianism that you feel painting is entitled to convey? Do you think your paintings accumulate these qualities in order to be authoritative or are they referring particularly to an external authority?

WK: I cannot really speak for commentators and the work is what it is. I never thought about my work appearing powerful; the term "powerful" can be very misleading. That word can be linked with the concept of monumentality. Then that word can be opposed to yet another idea which is marginalization. Monumentality and power are at one end of a spectrum and at the other end is marginalization and a means of escape from that condition of marginalization. If we go with that logic another confrontation emerges: namely oppressive systems versus those who are being oppressed. So if the work appears to conduct itself with a certain authority, if that authority functions to reinterpret monumentality, which is not about the sheer size and power of one particular system, but rather the type of monumentality which allows the work to sustain its relevance through time/space, then the very authority of painting functions to answer a question of the relevance of the practice of painting today together with all the possible connotations it can ignite. What I am trying to do is to express awareness of the issue of meaning, meaning not really translated as straightforward iconographic communication between the work and viewers, or even the creation of new symbols, but rather of continuing a chain of unpredictable experiences. Here the notion of re-interpretation is a leitmotif that takes the act of interpretation to unknown territories. Thus the possibilities for re-interpretation can maintain the force and the authority of a painting reinvigorating itself as it clashes against multiple challenges.

MH: Do you have a concept of authenticity in the work? What is your feeling about authenticity?

WK: It starts with securing one's position, of not wanting to accept or adapt to existing forms which express a society that is decomposing, a society that degrades the individual. The artist therefore has to have a sense of obligation to himself and to society, to step back and look at how the society performs. With this awareness comes another stage of thinking about what one must do to live an authentic life and to make authentic art. Those two forms not only intersect but they compose a perfect amalgam. There is no separation between authentic life and authentic art: the authenticity, then, is about rejecting nihilistic standards of society and to accept the consequences of this action. If I were to ask what in particular, in the most forceful way, occupies my thoughts and therefore stimulates my artistic activities, I would have to say that it is my four-year old daughter, Veronika, and what I need to do to give back her human rights. These have been violated in that her rights to see me, her father, under regular, healthy, family conditions are denied. The abuse of her human rights becomes a vehicle to address the relativity of justice. We live in a post-colonial, post-nazi, post-communist, post- cold-war situation where the question of genocide has to be dramatically reinterpreted. Civil wars, immigration, and poverty are part of our landscape as much as less visible however equally degrading to society abuses of individual human rights, which are often facilitated by existing legal systems. Unfortunately in America we do not have much chance to exercise our human rights. Therefore our dignity as individuals is smashed, shattered, destroyed. In witnessing the senseless performance of such a society I have no choice but to keep reminding myself of the Kafkaesque absurdity of it, and to reject this society's double standards. This rejection gives me freedom, autonomy, and an authenticity that is expressed in my work.

MH: It would be difficult to locate your painting in relation to current British art. Two of the artists who have been very influential on the state of British art are Marcel Broodthaers and Bas JanAder. Broodthaers made the statement that he wanted to try to make an insincere work of art. Bas Jan Ader was similarly absorbed with the concept of inauthenticity, for example, sending to friends a postcard of himself crying, with the phrase "I'm too sad to tell you." Looking at your work from this context, the notion of authenticity becomes problematic because if self-criticism is involved then your own authenticity must be subject to the same critique.

WK: That's why when I said earlier that authentic meaning in art is not really a fixed proposition or defined as a means of communication in which specific signs can be used to create a dialogue; but rather it is an ongoing process where many of those factors are in continuous flux. This continuous transformation opens interpretation to self-criticality as part of that flow. Of course this interpretation of authenticity accepts critique a priori as an artist's basic necessity, as an accepted imperative. Conceptual exercises that attempt to challenge authenticity by utilizing artistic integrity as a fuel of that exercise tend to remain only empty exercises.

MH: Do you see your work as part of one predominant history of painting or do you accept there are numerous histories of which yours is one perspective?

WK: Histories of painting are relative, and there are obviously many ways to look at this problem. The history of painting is part of a larger history of art, history of culture, history of interpretations, and history of ideas. What we have at libraries, at research laboratories, at museums and so forth, is used as a point of reference for an evolving history. Temporary fashions of art history occupy an important position only to a certain degree, since as time passes what was once relevant often disappears. New interpretations continually replace older understandings. The sinusoid, or wave-like, nature of this process integrates the existence of transformable interpretations. In our time the presence of mass culture, advertising, and consumerism creates a syndrome of "super novas." But there are varieties of histories of painting, and I accept them as a flow of events, as part of the history of culture and the history of painting.


Monographic Publication: Wlodzimierz Ksiazek: Think of It. Loughborough University Art Gallery, Loughborough, England, November 16-December 16, 2000. Texts by Dominique Nahas, Saul Ostrow, and Mark Harris. Published by Loughborough University, England. (Library of Congress # 2002449210)

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