In manga and anime, “hollow” (Japanese: horō) is a dead being punished for his bad deeds who is forced to stay among the living and feed on their souls. The English term conveys the meaning of these creatures’ existence. Hollow Art, the title of Marcin Zawicki’s series, would therefore be a metaphorical allusion to Japanese comic book characters, indicating mass culture as a point of reference and “hollowness” as an interpretative figure. We then arrive at “Art of the Hollow” or “Art of Hollowness.” The title “hollow” seems provocative, since the paintings in the series are an almost ecstatic affirmation of three-dimensionality and haptic, tactile qualities; they encourage the viewer to almost have physical contact. In formal terms, “hollowness,” the title deficiency, would then refer to an excess: three-dimensional groups of figures “leave” the surface of the painting, giving us an illusion of facing a 3D object (one of the paintings in the Hollow Art series was shown at the Toruń Wozownia Gallery in 2010 in the Dotykać bardzo proszę (Do Touch, Please)¹ series. The three-dimensionality of the group of figures is emphasised by the flat background with a linear frieze of cupids. The title “hollowness” does not refer to the subject matter either, since in the paintings we recognise encrypted canonical works of classical art history, such as Adolphe William Bouguereau’s The Birth of Venus and The Descent from the Cross by Rogier van der Weyden. The nineteenth-century academic rendering of The Birth of Venus by Botticelli refers to another painting and indicates endless possibilities of repetitions, an unlimited set of references and the suspicious status of a “masterpiece.” Perhaps that is why individual canvases of the series have not been distinguished with separate titles, “according to…” or, to maintain the erudite style, “d’après.” Bouguereau’s painting, which had lost its aura in millions of reproductions, becomes a processed citation of itself on Zawicki’s canvas. What is linear, matt and smooth in the painting of the 19th-century academician becomes transformed into a sensuous, gleaming golden surface. What was subdued by the painter of idealised female nudes and smooth finishes, explodes in a group of figures which erupt like a giant gold-covered trinket. This gigantic material object is reminiscent of a golden Christmas bauble and again recalls the title “hollowness.” It seduces and repulses. Gazing at the tempting golden surface is a frustrating experience for the viewer. The shining, lustrous coating reflects nothing. It is but a lifeless imitation. A hybrid form cast in gold. We are unable to experience what is felt by viewers looking at, for example, Brăncuşi’s Princess X sculpture. In Gallery. The Art of Looking, Maria Poprzęcka described the viewers’ reactions thus: “The shining not only disembodies this metal form. Its ideally smooth surface is polished like a mirror. In it, we see our own image, distorted as if by an anamorphic mirror, which the sculpture both reflects and absorbs. By confounding and confusing the basic orders, Brăncuşi also combines and confuses the world of the work of art with the world of the viewer.”² In contrast to viewers of Princess X, multiplied by the mirror, we are not going to become part of Zawicki’s canvas. We will rather fall prey to an illusion, to the painter’s technical dexterity When describing the canvases from the Hollow Art series it is impossible not to use expressions of “liquidity,” descriptions of being “cast,” “immersed” or even “dripping with gold,” which would suggest a kind of filter between the eye of the beholder and the object it beholds. Softness and volatility. Movement. The eye wanders around, as if in a phantasmagoria, losing itself in a thousand shimmers (“glitter”), unable to find either relief or satisfaction. Disturbance of perception is one of the artist’s castration efforts. To paint so as to distress the viewer. Feeding us visual clichés aimed at neither their triumphant recognition nor the pleasure of seeing them again. The painterly jouissance is a skill. Ostentatious and unrestrained “art which is more precious than gold.” Even the statue of Marshal Józef Piłsudski on horseback becomes a gigantic Christmas bauble on the artist’s canvas, Untitled to boot. However, I may have preferred to see a less obvious prototype, less prone to sanctimonious passions: some Italian condottieri by Donatello or even Prince Józef Poniatowski.

The artist eagerly, maybe even ostentatiously, reveals his method. He documents subsequent stages of work on the painting. Subsequent levels of borrowing. First of all, a clay model is made. By using models the artist reconstitutes an old tradition of an academic study. Even his small models have recently become autonomous objects, existing separately from the paintings, e.g. at the 2011 “What Does a Painter Do?” post-competition exhibition at the Wrocław Awangarda Gallery.

When a model is ready, it is photographed. Then, the motif from the photo is processed in the painting. The camera lens flattens the three-dimensionality distilled from the 19th-century canvas. The skilful hand of the painter is not only able to recover it in the picture but also to majestify or deform it; it is literally able to “do everything.” The mercury-like mass merges, or even blurs, into what he had so meticulously reconstructed in the model: spatial relations, movement, emotions. “Liquid gold” unites and binds all figures in the painting. This ostenttious “smooth gesture” of the artist conforms to modern bourgeois expectations, quite like Jeff Koons’s gigantic metallic toys, but is a difficult experience for the viewer. Blinding. Paraphrasing Jonathan Crary’s Suspensions of Perception, I could say that despite that effort to uniformise the painting, gleams of golden lava disrupt our attention, causing “an erosion of the stability and unity of the canvas.”³ Soft lines do not provoke a “state of mild trance,”⁴ glimpses of light are as stimulating as a big-city street.

Perhaps then one should treat Untitled from the Hollow Art series as a consciously failed attempt at recovering certain conditions – to quote Crary again – “of that classical suppression and restraint, of an obsolete model of synthesis”,⁵ so perfectly embodied by Bouguereau’s The Birth of Venus? Untitled: not important enough to sign it and yet so important that it requires a verbose description, would then be a work of an “infuriated nostalgiac.” This oxymoron aptly describes the artistic strategy of the painter who creates a post-modern model of visual contradictions using traditional techniques (even photography may be seen as such, since it has been employed by painters from its very beginnings).

Paintings from the latest series, The Fall, whichwas begun in 2011, are governed by a similar ambivalence. This time models are made of fragments of civilizational debris and technological “excavations,” such as plastic toys, small everyday objects or artefacts which serve no purpose. On canvas they expand into gigantic still lives or “Victorian” forest landscapes bathed in unsettling artificial light. These modern views of the vanitas motif, incredibly stunning visually, enable the ephemeral sense of beauty. Work on the paintings follows similar stages: from the miniature model, through photography, to the painting on canvas. While in Hollow Art the artist used a concrete, recognisable masterpiece as his point of departure, The Fall (ironically recalling The Fall of Man) follows a reverse pattern: the artist’s process begins by piecing together what is dispersed and incongruent. Plastic, defragmented objects, which have been through a lot and lost both their functional and symbolic value, find a new form of existence on canvas. They will reveal to us the Freudian das Unheimliche, “a familiar foreignness.” According to Paweł Leszkowicz’s commentary to Freud’s 1919 text, “in order for a work of art to provoke this impression a reception based on intellectual uncertainty is necessary. The author has to create an ambivalent aesthetic effect of blurring the line between the real and the imaginary; an uncertainty whether his creation refers to reality or whether it is a completely imagined fiction. The overlapping of the planes of reality and imagination and their mutual interpenetration is crucial to achieve this effect.”⁶

In order to paint another picture the artist has to turn into a collector. This slightly hackneyed rhetorical figure proves very handy in his case. Zawicki is not the modern collector fascinated by new objects, like the scavenger or child according to Michael Thompson’s “rubbish theory.” To quote Beata Frydryczak: “Such objects exhaust the concept of novelty as something which is always the same, a novelty which fails to bring any new qualities, becoming nothing but an appearance.”⁷ He is interested with objects marked by a particular emotional quality; children’s toys which quickly become obsolete by definition, not just due to the use of perishable materials (e.g. plastic). Quoting Thompson, we might call them “transients.”⁸ Mashed together into undistinguishable piles they appear already in the early Funfair series from 2009. In the artist’s workshop plastic debris first turns into miniature groves of artificial needles for miniature deer and gigantic beetles. Then, it undergoes another metamorphosis on canvas to become mannerist, glittering heirlooms and precious seashells, revealing the old et omnia vanitas topos to the stubborn eye. The painting tradition serves as a “familiarisation procedure”⁹ in the new series. The striking and decorative gleaming surface liberates one from the obligation to say “something important and different” about death – “and differently from all the others.”¹º

Mannerist Wunderkammers, to quote Umberto Eco, were “cabinets of curiosities, predecessors of our museums of natural sciences, where some tried to systematically gather everything which seemed exceptional and extraordinary, including bizarre objects or surprising finds.’ ¹¹ Enormous, skilfully painted canvases, with gleaming, seductive surfaces, which, according to the author himself, mock the “tacky lavishness and cheap imitation of ‘a work of art,’” may nowadays be seen as curiosities. A challenge to the precession of simulacra. In the painting fury of the artist, who takes pains to pore over tiny sculptures, photograph them and finally render them on canvas at an enormous scale, I again see its reversal, a nostalgia. To paraphrase Marek Zaleski, I could say that brooding over or even bewailing the past in Zawicki’s work is related to “tracking the experience of disillusion, studying the mysterious threshold which divides the modern, hostile and trivial world (hence the anger at modern consumerist bourgeois – ET) from the world of lost wonder and innocence…” ¹² The wonderfulness encrypted in the word wunder is no longer possible without the intermediate eye of photography.

Ewa Toniak

  1. Marcin Zawicki. Work of Art,” project “Art Laboratory 2010,” series Do Touch, Please, Wozownia Gallery, Toruń, 03.09–19.09.2010, curator: Maria Niemyska.
  2. Maria Poprzęcka, Galeria. Sztuka patrzenia [Gallery. The Art of Looking], Warsaw: Stentor, 2003, p. 106. Translated by Aleksandra Szkudłapska.
  3. Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception. Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture, first MIT Press paperback edition, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England, 2001, p. 107.
  4. Crary, p. 107.
  5. Crary, p. 127.
  6. Paweł Leszkowicz, Helen Chadwick: ikonografia podmiotowości [Helen Chadwick: an Iconography of Subjectivity], Cracow: Wydawnictwo Ureus, 2001, p. 96–97. Translated by Aleksandra Szkudłapska.
  7. Beata Frydryczak, Świat jako kolekcja. Próba analizy estetycznej natury nowoczesności [The World as a Collection. An Attempt at an Aesthetic Analysis of Modernity], Poznań: Wydawnictwo Humaniora, 2002, p. 124. Translated by Aleksandra Szkudłapska
  8. Frydryczak, p. 135.
  9. Alina Świeściak, Melancholia w poezji polskiej po 1989 roku [Melancholy in Polish Poetry after 1989], Cracow: Universitas, 2010, p. 269. Translated by Aleksandra Szkudłapska.
  10. Świeściak, p. 269.
  11. Umberto Eco, Szaleństwo katalogowania (The Infinity of Lists), Poznań: Rebis, 2009, p. 203. Translated by Aleksandra Szkudłapska
  12. Marek Zaleski, Formy pamięci. O przedstawianiu przeszłości w polskiej literaturze współczesnej [Forms of Memory. On Depicting the Past in Polish Contemporary Literature], Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Instytutu Badań Literackich, 1996, p. 18. Translated by Aleksandra Szkudłapska.

Ewa Toniak, text in exhibition Marcin Zawicki. The Wunderkammer catalogue, Green Carrot Art Development Foundation, Warsaw, 2012

Translation: Aleksandra Szkudłapska