Wlodzimierz Ksiazek, "New Paintings," Sept. 12-Oct. 12, 2002, at Kouros Gallery, 23 East 73rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10021
Wlodzimierz Ksiazek, Sept. 12-Nov. 24, 2002, at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, 251 South 18th Street, Philadelphia, P.A. 19103
In a culture where personal narratives are elevated, where stories of lives lived or lost or marred are circulated daily, abstraction whether in the visual or performing arts seems suspect or marginal. We are told stories are necessary, whether personal or national, to secure our identities. Without a narrative, a script, we are lost, without shelter, adrift. Yet, abstraction offers the promise of reverie, of a movement toward some truth that remains undisclosed, a presence that is not trapped by its story. In his exhibit of twenty stunning new paintings at the Kouros Gallery in New York City and at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, Wlodzimierz Ksiazek negotiates the demands of narrative and the sublimities of abstraction. Ksiazek's paintings confront us with their demanding realism: there is no story that is not mutable, there is no truth that is safe from erosion.
Born in Warsaw, Poland, Ksiazek came to the United States in the early 1980s as a political refugee and has been a permanent resident since 1988. Working primarily in encaustics and oils, Ksiazek builds many-layered works through the application of thin washes of paint as well as thick impastos. The paintings become a tortured surface of trenches, gouges, splatters and congealed slabs of paint. Usually taking up to six months to complete, Ksiazek's canvases contain series of incised geometric forms, mazes and grids that create hubs of visual activity. Thus each canvas portrays the physical nature of paint and the possibilities of its application.
These paintings, all but two created within the past year, refine his vision that has been evolving over the last decade: the paint is less roughly applied, the drips and splatters are far more controlled and restricted. The often commented upon topographical or archaeological motifs, even quotations, are radically refined; indeed, Ksiazek's recent paintings implicitly subvert that narrative. These are not paintings of ruins, of past histories unearthed, or barely present in the landscape. Nor are we traversing effluvial plains or reading the corrupted corpus human or mineralogical. Clearly Ksiazek gestures to that predilection: the fractured grids, scrapped verticals, horizontal bands and incised lines direct us back to his earlier quotations of the early settlements on Crete. Yet, these new paintings acknowledge the complexity of presence, one which is both public and private, but never autonomous.
Ksiazek's earlier works were monumental both in sheer size and in the allusive distances he created, whether spatial or historical. Ksiazek's largest paintings rival any of his past canvases: the second floor gallery of the two floors devoted to his work at Kouros, for example, holds just three paintings. Yet these paintings assume a sense of elegant order, each element contributing to "an emerging order, of an object in the act of appearing, organizing itself before our eyes," as Merleau-Ponty wrote of Cézanne's work. Of becoming sensible -- sensed and apprehended in some essential way -- obviates the monumental. Despite their sheer size, these paintings come to use not as fields of ruins or sites of vast loss, but what remains and thereby maintaining an integral presence-as well as, perhaps most humanely, speaking for our own tentative presence.
Palimpsests his paintings remain: one can find painting overlaying painting. While this suggests Ksiazek's archaeological vision and a view of history that counters the typically American vision of progress and optimism, one is also confronting ever increasingly the performance of the painting in Ksiazek's new works. The paintings engage dialogues within themselves: slabs of paint balance with sheets of thin wash. Brush work in a particular blue moves vertically in an incised space and in another space the same pigment moves horizontally. Areas of raised paint play in tandem with excavated areas. The event of splatters and drips are integrated into the fabric of dialogue. Ksiazek, in a fundamental shift, has stepped outside the dialogue: the authorial signature -- brushwork, palette knife scrapings and the splattering of paint, for example -- retreats. Unlike earlier work, these paintings are not so much autobiographies of the painter at work as they are the biographies of the paintings themselves.
In one large 78 by 100 inch gray-white painting, the violent splattering slash of paint could be considered the act of the painter made manifest in almost a primordial moment. Yet, it traverses a pure vertical placing it not in the emotive range of the painter's gesture but in the conversation of vertical and horizontal movements within the painting. The painter is not posited as the creator: we recognize the demands made upon the artist, but the paintings refuse to participate in an ethos of heroics. The largest of the paintings assume of the intimacy of his smaller works, in part because the activity or interactions of various painted surfaces and techniques are less rampant and thus more intense for their own being.
These new works refine Ksiazek's use of color. The large oil on canvas works tend to be painted in restricted tonal ranges of blues, ochres, golds, whites or greens. The play between a hot and cool tone in, for example, a group of blue 30 by 40, 41 by 54, 78 by 90 inch paintings displaces much of his previous interjections of other colors that provided balance and juxtaposition. Instead, the heavy impasto slabs are almost tonally flat thereby creating spaces that seem on the one hand void or tonally lacking in presence yet on the other hand physically insistent due to their massiveness. The investigation of color -- both as an emotive and compositional force -- has been one of Ksiazek's ongoing concerns. Yet color in these new paintings seems to be far more a physical entity or part of each painting's constructed identity: there are curls of paint pulling away from the under-painting, thus emphasizing the surface's potential ephemerality.
Ksiazek's new works, furthermore, challenge the conventions of assemblage and collage, which again are assertions of the painter as auteur. Areas of paint appear to be exogenous, that is produced outside the painting and later applied or overlaid upon the painting. While placed within the vertical and horizontal movements, many of these areas are slightly turned, to emphasize their own presence. While occupying the same range of pigment and brush work as the painting as a whole, these areas often appear to float and react to the painting's surface; nonetheless they are an intrinsic part of the painting, having been built layer by layer directly upon the surface. What then appears to be exogenous then is not.
Throughout these new works Ksiazek has refined his visual language. The insistence on the play between vertical and horizontal, found especially in two blue paintings, admits to the play of time of the painting itself, between the moment and the duration. The inclusion of diagonals is extremely rare in these new works. Loaded with allusions to horizons, passages, journeys, or the episodic, diagonals are the most human or social of lines. The diagonal is the inscription of the painter and the viewer moving through planes of space. By limiting their presence Ksiazek suggests the painting assume its own presence. The painting with the most pronounced diagonal is a small red painting 24 by 30 inches where areas of roughly brushed dark red resemble slides of blood samples: here we the most human of concerns, one's mortality, one's passage through time and space toward some unknown end.
However, I am uneasy with such an interpretive move or, perhaps, with this particular painting's drama. Is this painting countering the direction of Ksiazek's other paintings? Is my interpretation the result of acculturation -- the sacral quality of blood-that no artistic intervention can swerve? Or is Ksiazek suggesting in this painting through the most mysterious of referents that pictorial space as we have come to receive historically is past and now is a scene of archaeology and anatomy lessons? This painting then acts in dialogue with the other paintings currently being shown at Kouros Gallery and the Philadelphia Art Alliance: if we are uncovering the wound in time and body, in the pictorial and the spiritual, in the relationship between objects and viewers, in this painting, then perhaps the other paintings address for themselves and ourselves a recovery.
These recent works move past the abstracting of the painter into his or her gestures. In one large 80 by 90 painting, the barely visible, often interrupted, words Veronika Hostage can be discerned, a reference to Ksiazek's emotional struggle with his ex-wife over custody of his daughter. Yet these painted words themselves cannot depict what they designate. The letters of this declaration, almost political graffiti, merge with the movement of paint, becoming one of the palimpsestic paintings. In a sense, the painting has seized the romantic and emotive biography of the painter and entered it into the dialogue of the painting, so that the painting is no longer subservient to productions of self and self-directed meaning. The painting then eloquently swerves away from these subsumed intentions and urges and desires, take on its own form, its own emancipation. By so doing, that emancipation begins to take root in our own minds.
JAMES McCORKLE is a poet and essayist whose work has appeared in Bomb, Ploughshares, Verse and other journals.