At the end of the last year, the “London EveningStandard” portal published a list of the most interesting untypical Christmas parties for businesses¹. It was addressed to those who want something more than “soggy pigs in blankets, flat prosecco and a regrettable snog in the cleaning cupboard.” The portal came to the aid of Londoners craving for “cool” events, offering style and substance, boredom- and trumpery-free. Among the offers of multi-coursed meals combined with optional ukulele lessons or projections of classics of the Christmas cinema genre, attention was drawn by the party under the motto of “Vanitas”. At first, the idea seems deliciously perverse: to organise a seemingly merry party for the flower of London City, to make them more and more aware, with each bite and dance, that their superhuman efforts supported by handfuls of modafinil are pointless, because we will all die anyway – a specific application of the Book of Ecclesiastes in a nutshell which would induce many a CEO or PM to selfreflection during the Christmas break. Unfortunately, reading the organisers’ offer in detail dispelled the hope for a party with a moral². Sutton House – a London residence from the times of the Tudor dynasty where Henry VIII is rumoured to have once dined, was chosen as the place of its organisation. The five-course “decadent” menu, including Vietnamese style (sic) fried quail and bollito misto, was inspired by vanitas still life representations and, reportedly, authentic fifteenth-century recipes. The guests were seated at a table decorated like sixteenth-century banquet rooms, and the highlight was supposed to be a sculpture created from human skulls, burning candles, soap bubbles and wilting flowers. Just the very thought of such an unfortunate marriage of ages, themes and detached impressions on passing, immersed in laurel-flavoured ice cream and pears stewed in red wine, can give us heartburn. All the more that the whole thing was advertised with pomposity, décor and enthusiasm worthy of a better cause. But what has Marcin Zawicki’s art to do with this “artistic”-culinary hodgepodge? Surprisingly much, when you look at it with an eye cold as fish in aspic: some sources of inspiration, references to vanitas, decadence, aversion to moralising, surprising connections, unspecified suspension in time. Nevertheless, in case of Zawicki, the effect of combining incompatible components and elements of different worlds will most certainly not give you visceral pain. The artist serves, very sklifully, effectively and without deadly seriousness, one structured vision of grotesquely impossible ecosystems after another; they are decadent at times but, more often, they wake up to life with untamed energy. In short, everything tastes a whole world better here.

Marcin Zawicki is a young artist, but in no case is he making his debut. He can boast of a significant number of exhibitions and important awards and, most importantly, of an interesting body of work, expressing the author’s distance towards himself and the world. Observing his painting, drawing and graphic work, we can notice several topics developed and tendencies maintained, which however do not cause a sense of monotony or an impression of replication of ideas already exploited. The artist created his first larger cycle of paintings, entitled “Lunapark”, during his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Gdańsk. In accordance with the title, the canvas is filled with wider and fragmentary views of a funfair at night. Yellow light oozing profusely from floodlights, neon lamps and rows of smaller light bulbs distributed almost everywhere, draws out the shapes of horses, a dragon, a seal, a plastic castle and a figure of Marilyn Monroe, glittering with plastic lubricity. Slot machines, a rushing roller-coaster and spinning merry-go-rounds invite people to play… people actually absent there. Only a small group of adult guests has gathered at a stall full of toys which are prizes in a lottery. Every ticket wins. The artist’s tendency to detailed imitation of properties of matter, handling of artificial light and the use of juicy, intense and contrasting colours, visible in these paintings, will develop in his later painting cycles, including the three latest ones, presented at the City Gallery in Wrocław.

Yet, before their creation, the artist decided to deal with the hits of European art and stereotypical perception of “real men”. The series “Hollow art”, from 2009–2010, had two faces – painting and lithography. For the needs of the former, Zawicki tackled the works known to everyone, including Sister Wendy fans, showing no mercy for van der Weyden, Dürer, Bouguereau, van Gogh, Monet … Without any qualms, the artist showed how easily a masterpiece can be turned into a kitschy scene, three-dimensional plastic or ceramic reproduction, even available in several colour versions. Just in case the painting doesn’t match the colour of the carpet. In the lithographs, in turn, the artist abused renowned works in a more sophisticated way, yet using simple subversive strategies – drawing new elements of the scenes, turning them into memes by adding balloons. As a result, he stripped them of seriousness and overturned their original meaning, probably having fun on that occasion.

The cycle of paintings entitled “Boys” and the drawings from the series “Muscles Are Very Important” are maintained in a similar, ironic tone. In the former, the protagonists are cowboys, in the latter, athletes – archetypal figures of masculinity, real tough guys. Grey from seriousness and dusty from everyday drudgery, the portraits of cowboys, depicted against the background of wooden houses, sheds and vastness of the prairie, get mottled with multi-coloured substance taking more or less recognisable shapes, coming to life somewhere on the side, exploding in the centre of the painting, mimicking a fragment of a horse skeleton or appropriating fragments of bodies. The presence of these insertions, difficult to overlook and often prevailing in the representation, relieves grey seriousness and nostalgia of the initial scenes, while reducing the distance between the viewer and the brave heroes from the fantasy and games of boyhood. Yet, it is in the second mentioned cycle that the artist dismantled the question of male strength and vitality in a more eloquent and decisive manner. Its heroes are well-muscled athletes in costumes typical of the 1970s and 1980s. The poses adopted by them suggest exercises typical for light and heavy athletics: weightlifting, pull-ups, bending. They suggest them but do not represent them, since the artist, using simple means, made these men lift beets instead of weights, they pull up on the frame of a wardrobe instead of a horizontal bar, looking for an unspecified lost object, they not bend down to the pick up weights, their goal being to shake off crumbs from a cloth. The strength of their muscles turns out to be very important in performing actions stereotypically attributed to women – hanging laundry, cleaning the floor or carrying groceries. Here lies the essence of the absurdity so strongly rooted in the phenomenon of gender inequality. If the figures of the athletes were substituted with female characters performing the same activities, we could treat the representations in question in terms of genre scenes, pictures of everyday life. Athletes with a mop or a plastic bag in their hands lose, in common understanding, their masculinity and seriousness. Unnecessarily, since the exercise they do in order to build up their muscles and to work on their fitness is completely useless and meaningless from the point of view of everyday life. Would it not be better, instead of directing the streams of energy produced into the air, to use it to mop the floors, walk (or run) a dog or weed the garden?

The exhibition in Wrocław City Gallery presents some of Marcin Zawicki’s achievements, including a selection of works from two large cycles: “The Fall” and “Ergot”, as well as the freshest (literally) paintings from the new project, as yet unnamed. From the beginning of his activity, the artist does not give titles to individual works and there is no indication that this would change. Nevertheless, these images are finished, undoubtedly refined and clear – if this is an appropriate word to describe representations exceeding the limits of commonly understood reality and probability. What the three cycles have in common is, in addition to the painting technique, the use of artificial light, stark contrasting colours, rather gloomy mood of unreality and timelessness, as well as the chosen method of their creation. Zawicki devises his compositions using rough drafts and models which are small in comparison to the scale of the paintings. They are made of various kinds of debris, often preserved only in fragments to which the artist gives another, paradoxically perhaps even more meaningful life. He combines elements extracted from their original environment and indulges in experiments. Then he photographs the results of his work and moves them all literally on the canvas. At this stage, the painter lets his imagination run wild – playing with scale, adding new elements, splitting, merging, colouring, creating a new microcosm at the micro and macro level. He does it very carefully, paying attention to detail, so there is no room for accidentalness. A sort of corollary of Zawicki’s collecting and antiquarian tendencies and his desire to visualise his fantasy, was a series of drawings entitled “Chorography”, presented in the spring of 2015 in Zielona Góra.

The first collection of works, under the sign of “The Fall” seems to be the most involving. What the artist showed in it is the world after an undetermined fall, an apocalyptic vision of decay combined with the birth of new beings that, coming to life, burst their original “carriers”. Looking more closely at the contents of the stomach of a reptile floating in vacuum, we can see plastic figures and skeletons of dinosaurs, fantastic plants and multicoloured liquids with a thick consistency. Waste, the embarrassing, unwanted content, hidden and forgotten things, breaks free. From under the crust of a turtle solidified in a plastic mass, grow mosses, corals and tentacles of creatures which we would rather not see in all their glory. A rhino has broken up into pieces with a look of surprise on its face. The grotesque of this approach is enhanced by a branch with green leaves, growing out of the area of the animal’s gut, curved in the shape of a long tail with a purple growth which could serve as a bow. On the other hand, in the dark forest thicket, shown in another painting, awaken hybrids of humans and animals, mushrooms with extremely slimy caps and big ferns. Gathered around the source of warm yellow light, they seem to deliberate, as if preparing themselves to march out or fight. The bright colours of these paintings and slipperiness of matter surrounded with what seems to be an inorganic sheath, gives the scenes depicted a toxic, inedible feel, warns us to stay away, yet it is difficult to resist Zawicki’s visions and keep a safe distance.

“Ergot” seems to be a natural continuation of the artist’s previous work. While it is true that, in this case, the title of the series provides some guidance on the sources of the visions depicted but, after a deeper reflection, we may guess that Zawicki has mocked at us again. If the title is to be treated literally, it can be assumed that the human hand shown in one of the paintings is burst by a parasite. Something has incubated and bred in it, gained strength and began to burst one finger after the other, desperately pushing outward, to the new, unshaped world. Even worse, a human head turned out to be even better food for the parasitic fungus: there was enough space in it for flowers, a human hand, and other creatures which it is better not to name. It is impossible to get rid of the intrusive thought that we carry the seeds of something that is going destroy us in ourselves, in our mind and thoughts; that what we use to nourish ourselves physically and spiritually, without controlling its expiry date, may turn against us. Ergot used to kill people in masses. Yet, there is another possibility – less ominous. The same parasite, at a lower dose, has hallucinogenic properties. We might as well be looking at huge canvases with flowers of the artist’s fantasy, without any special message, delusion presented exquisitely, with great care about every detail.

The works created recently, presented in the last room of the City Gallery, introduce us to the laboratory of the artist’s vision. It is a step behind the scenes of the process of creating the two previous cycles,lifting the veil of secrecy and showing the place where horror evaporates and confusion disappears. On a white background, the artist composed a sizeable clump of unrealistically coloured mosses, lichens and fungi. Paint running down at the bottom indicates that he has just finished the process of creating props he is soon going to use or that he has just plucked this fragment out of one of his representations, putting it aside until the sap flowing in it dries out. The latter idea arises also while we are looking at two shallow shelves where various kinds of ingredients of Zawicki’s imagery have been put aside. Some of them seem to have just been torn away from a not well known substrate, while others patiently wait for their turn and role to play. At the same time, their careful exposition may indicate that they are part of a meticulously completed collection of fantastic objects, whose each element deserves attention.

Contemporary still lifes, which Martin Zawicki has been compounding for several years, visions of passing, fall, decay and an end which is a beginning at the same time, are not likely to seduce everyone. Some will turn up their nose at at the sight of seemingly unharmonious colour combinations and composition; others will be sceptical about the plasticky and sometimes disgusting fantasy of children’s nightmares. This is bound to happen if we take the artist’s proposals seriously, assuming that he really meant everything he has painted. Just as if we thought that participation in a “Vanitas” event is a great alternative to a Christmas party for employees. But what determines the strength and charm of Marcin Zawicki’s paintings are not his good painting skills, virtuosity or a message of vanitas but the fact that his worlds are so terrible that it makes them funny, or vice versa.

Agnieszka Patała

  1. accessed 27 July 2015
  2. accessed 27 July 2015

Agnieszka Patała, Laboratory of the end and the beginning, in exhibition catalogue: Marcin Zawicki / Vit Ondracek. Paniting. Wroclaw City Gallery, 2015

Translation: Joanna Derdowska / Anna Szoc