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Terrible Beauty: The Paintings of Wlodzimierz Ksiazek

Suzanne Stroebe

Formidable, delicate, graceful and raw: the paintings of Wlodzimierz Ksiazek are evocative, and nostalgic, yet not tied to any one time or place. Perspective and a pictorial language are absent; however, Ksiazek’s work is not mute but speaks to that which makes us human.

Wlodzimierz Ksiazek approaches the material of paint as an architect, an archeologist, and a surgeon. Layer after layer of paint, stiff with cold wax or thin and dripping, build up slowly, sometimes over years. At first glimpse monochromatic, but really full of color, the anxiety and beauty of these paintings are revealed through an examination of the artist’s process and devotion to his task. Scraped off and dug into, chunks of these muscular slabs of oil paint and wax are torn away, pushing slick or ragged forms on the surface towards the viewer, like a sculpture in relief or a topographical map. Abrasions, cuts, and bloody gashes from the strike of the painter’s palette knife lie underneath folds of mounds of paint that appear to be soft to the touch, like tender flesh.

Born in Warsaw in 1951, Ksiazek was raised in a city completely destroyed by the Soviets and Germans. Although Ksiazek immigrated to the United States in the early 1980’s, his paintings continue to reflect upon the ravages of history. The personal experiences of the artist are crucial to his practice: his message regarding the effects of war on humanity are not mere ruminations but are urgent responses to history.

The labyrinthine textures that result from countless hours spent toiling on each painting are not easily decoded, and he does not provide elucidation by way of titles. As Americans, we tend to prefer quick results and easy answers. Ksiazek creates a moment of silence and intimacy that counteracts our fast-paced world. Thus an investment of time, as one would with a complex poem or film, has been given by the painter, and the same is requested of the viewer.

Taken from the artist’s source imagery, slides of architectural diagrams or archeological excavations, geometrical fragments are excavated from the thickness of paint on canvas and often lie on top of the structure of an imperfect grid. These forms, and the smeared and scraped areas in between them, are anxiously suggestive. The patterns that come forth are reminiscent of ancient sources of information, such as hieroglyphics, as well as the most contemporary means for communication, the motherboard and tapestry of wires that control a modern day computer.

Associations with maps, language, and technology fall away eventually after a thorough examination, but a sense of melancholy and anticipation persist. Like a decaying wall in an abandoned city building, Ksiazek’s work is marked by gritty, peeling surfaces, and layers of fresh color; the result is simultaneously appealing and distressing.

Suzanne Stroebe is an artist and writer based in New York.

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