about presence of painting in pictures of Marcin Zawicki

Still life – this is the briefest description of the subject in Marcin Zawicki’s painting. By this, the artist from Gdańsk enters the territory of genre painting, also, associated more with historic art, than with contemporary discourse. If we trace his paintings back to early studies, we can see him entering the genre deeper, rejecting other plots and iconographic tropes. He is giving himself to still-lifes with a growing devotion. The question is, however, what would make the audience to follow the painter into the realms of his fascinations?

We must remark that Zawicki is one of those artists who are hard to account for public benefits from their creativity. How do we measurably benefit from paintings of Michael Borremans, for example, whom Zawicki claims to like (which doesn’t surprise me)? Gerhard Richter – an artists by the way interested in iconographies of still life – at least has played some public role introducing the discourse of denazification into the imaginarium of contemporary art or widening the symbolic field with picturing the ambivalence of evaluating activity of Baader-Meinhof. But Borremans, those numerous regiments of painters who got never near to the hottest debates of contemporary discourse? Let’s be honest, painting happens to be a superstructure of a superstructure; it is a luxury meaning that in various and rich iconosphere of contemporary societies, next to the most necessary symbolic operations (offering sacrifices, commemorating heroes, stressing class differences, etc.), there is a place forrecording individual views, often very original, phenomenal and extravagant. The art of Marcin Zawicki belongs to the category of such phenomena. It is not necessary, which doesn’t mean it is not needed.

Let’s come back to the question, what makes us want to follow Zawicki’s fascination with still life.

The simplest answer is: for pleasure. Considering that Zawicki doesn’t have any strong political or critical alibi for his works, it is a sensation of guilty pleasure kind. Pleasure in contemporary art is always slightly suspicious. Art is under pressure from related forms of the visual, the borders between branches of visualizing are thin and liquid. Artworld is haunted by fears that it could dissolve in widely understood iconsphere of the contemporary, which in great part is managed according to rules characteristic for popular culture. Art would lose its exclusive position, social prestige and importance, not to mention the consequences for the economy of arts. Whereas one of the basic differences between pop-culture and art is that pop-culture doesn’t hide its unabashed readiness to serve the needs of the audience, confirm their beliefs, realize their fantasies, give pleasure. Art should rather questions those beliefs, rather shape then satisfy needs. Pleasure is not trusted. Trivializing, in the world of art it is easier to justify a boring or hermetic statement, or even completely unintelligible, then one that seduces or brings the viewer into its discourse. The latter can be criticized for setting the bar too low, the bar which the viewer must jump over to enter the territory of art- the bar which is a kind of fence separating the field of art from infinite territories of notart, those endless fields of an easy satisfaction.

Assuming however, that one can suppress the unclear guilt from enjoying Zawicki’s works we can search for the source of this delight. It is true that Zawicki doesn’t pile obstacles separating viewers from his art-works. The barriers are put down not even so much by the choice of a well-tamed subject – still life – but by his workshop. On the most superficial level the painter seduces with his workshop. It resembles a little, the former clash with Chinese artists or painters of post-East Germany Leipzig School. The viewer trained to expect from artists more of conceptual, intellectual or critical workshop, was somehow surprised to discover that this time it was about the workshop in its technical meaning – those things were simply well painted, the skill has fought for the status of a value in itself. Zawicki can do a lot. His paintings attack with colour so vivid that it reaches psychedelic registers. The artist represents objects of his observations with photorealistic verismo, enchanting with tromp l’oeil effects, he shows off his skill to spellbound light with paint. All those blinking lights, shining , reflections sliding on smooth surfaces – some of Zawicki’s paintings seem to twinkle, the viewers stares as a mesmerized magpie; it is easy to gaze to the point of losing critical instinct; then the viewers opens up for the pleasure of watching.

Furthermore Zawicki’s paintings are rich in details. There is a special category of pleasure relating watching world’s representation, especially a perfect one; a human being is delighted seeing that the work of creation can be repeated by a human hand, even if it is someone’s hand, a hand of an artist – it is pleasure of Faust, it is satisfying a demiurge’s need to create if not the worlds then at least their reflections. This pleasure is related to joys of maquettes, models, miniatures – all those “small worlds”, made of details, worlds one can explore discovering following levels and simultaneously controlling them. Those initiated in the secrets of model toy trains, dioramas enthusiasts and architects know what I am talking about. Writing about Zawicki Goshka Gawlik mentions maquettes by Dinos and Jake Chapman, English artists creating models of hell, annihilation, but even the most macabre subject cannot nullify the lure of a maquette.

Another level of pleasure waits on the second stage of enjoying works by Zawicki. This second wave of pleasure comes after the first, spontaneous joy of watching paintings which are colourful, outstandingly painted, interesting. It comes after (we knew from the beginning that this moment is inevitable, didn’t we?) the viewer notices that there is something wrong with this representations.

Ewa Toniak who devoted to Zawicki a couple of brilliant texts, reminds in the context of his paintings the immortal Freudian term Unheimlich. She is quite right to do so, although it is worth to notice that the genre beloved by this painter from Gdańsk – still life – somehow inherits the potential of being extraordinary. Let’s just look at the painting considered as first modern still-life – Still Life with Partridge and Gauntlets by Jacopo de’Barbari from 1504. A small painting on wood represent a dead bird and a pair of metal gloves joined by a crossbow bolt; there is, in this otherwise static composition a great potential of still violence, a disturbing presence of double deadness – corps of an animal and arranged with it, also dead, reflection of a human body – a hand made of metal. Moreover the bolt, the tool of the crime… and everything draped in an aesthetically closed composition. Painters of still-lifes basically followed this mood through the beginning golden era of the genre – all those collections, sets, typologies, collections of titbits, dead animals, naked skulls, flowers, bottles, guitars, tools, equipment, usual and unusual instruments… It is not even about the symbolic meanings the authors of stilllife soaked their representations in. The very extraction of dead objects (which sometimes were living creatures before) from the context is extraordinary ; these are the objects left alone. Deprived of their function. No-one will shoot the crossbow, no-one will put on the gauntlets, pluck the partridge – no-one will use these things, destroy composition, touch anything until we watch. In still-life paintings the objects are to be present – only visible. And someone has purposely organized them. Someone who is out of the frame, meticulously arranged them – and is looking at it. One of the rules constituting still-life as a genre – perhaps not the most important rule, but a disturbing one – is the presence of a human actor in the horizon – and simultaneously his/her presence just behind it.

Zawicki seems to be well aware of the historic burden of still-lifes. History of art has always been, for this artist attached so much to the traditional techniques and traditional concept of skill, a playground. As a student, instead of following trends set by top artists, he preferred to enter the dialogue with classics, imitate but also study Bouguerreaum, van der Weyden or van Gogh. In still-life paintings from the latest series he is not preoccupied with pastiche; being aware of the past allows him to draw his own conclusions, construct his own version of deadness of nature.

Since The Fall series from 2012 Zawicki develops the motif of phantasmagorical herbaria; paintings are overgrown by venomously colourful mushrooms, tangled bush, grass where small creatures are hiding. Next series Ergot, brings the hallucinogenic allusions in its very title, supposedly leading the viewer to the core of the paintings, driven by a kind of horror vacui, shared by baroque artists and nature, which loves to takeover, to overgrow various forms of life on every piece of space. At first glance the pictures could be considered as fantasy painting, but an instant before confirming this hypothesis, a fracture occurs, letting in the sensation that “there is something wrong here”. The perversion of Zawicki’s seemingly fantastic stilllifes comes from the fact that they represent truth. Among many conservatisms of the author of The Fall there is also the conception of painting from nature. Before creating a painting the artist constructs maquettes of thicket, models of mushrooms, dummies of plants; little creatures alluringly enlivening the representation with their presence – insects, reptiles, little monsters – they all turn out to be plastic toys. The dramatic light, which an inattentive viewer could take for an effect borrowed from Caravaggio’s followers, is in fact a strong lamp in the studio of the artist; there you have this unnaturally vivid colours and characteristic reflections on smooth surfaces. Here, not in the fantastic aura, is the source of uncanniness of Zawicki’s paintings; the painting here is fantastically true to reality, but the reality proves to be fiction, a construct, nature, which is more than still – it is artificial.

In works in the series The Fall and Ergot Zawicki portraits models of artificial nature, sunken in black void. In his newest works he shades light not only to objects of the representation but also to its background. From the theatre we move to a taxonomist laboratory. Zawick seems to play with deconstruction of the illusion he has just built. He paints unfinished maquettes, or he puts the psychedelic compositions on shelves and in glass showcases which architecture is obviously painted as well; it’s an illusion within an illusion, photorealism in trompe l’oeil. One of his works shows a plastic mass, which could be used for creating some fantastic plant, or a colourful, poisonous mushroom, but have not been formed yet. We are inside of a cabinet of obscurities created only to serve as a subject to paintings about the cabinets, which have never been.

From unlimited possibilities offered by art, Zawicki chooses a strictly narrowed slice; still-lifes on hand-made models of artificial nature. This voluntary sacrifice of practically everything seems to be mad, but there’s method in his madness. Having drawn the lines of such claustrophobic territory, the artist fills it up with painter’s conceptions, he elaborates on seemingly limited formula, widens it from the inside, multiplies variations; each painting adds to the discourse, each one enriches it. What is this discourse? Zawicki keeps his works untitled, a viewer desperately searches the representations for allegories, codes, some meaning hidden underneath the picture. The viewer doesn’t find it in the depth, however, because everything is on the surface. Modern era still-life bloomed just when European art started to be independent of religious or metaphysical obligations, become autonomous. It is not an accident that the genre was developed so much by XVII century Dutch, pioneers of the market of art – first artists creating on large scale, not some objects of cult, visualizations of religious mind or a political system, but pure painting for people wanting paintings not subjects. Zawicki’s subject is the painting itself, the very act of representation and this disturbing, phenomenal ambiguity, accompanying the act of representation as well as its consequences – the paintings. The real pleasure from enjoying Zawicki’s art-works comes from discovering, that although representation of reality is the practice as old as culture, the reality cannot be tamed. If reality is worked-out by someone who like Zawicki thoroughly understands phenomenality of representation, then the representation will always be outstanding, totally unnatural, so deeply human.

Stach Szabłowski

Stach Szabłowski, Garden nonexistent yet represented, about presence of painting in pictures of Marcin Zawicki, in exhibion catalogue: Marcin Zawicki. Something strange is coming, Miejski Ośrodek Sztuki/Galeria BWA, Gorzów Wielkopolski, 2016

translation: Bartłomiej Łuniewicz