Contributed by Margaret McCann / “At the Center of the Onion is Another Onion” is Polish painter Krzysztof Grzybacz’s first solo show at Harkawik. Sturdy yet subtle, his paintings are as elliptical as they are intense. Beyond unpeeling their complexity, his work offers consideration of a larger onion, that of figurative painting’s path through eastern Europe. His visual lexicon, no doubt enriched by today’s digital culture, sidesteps the extroversion of much illustrational painting recently embraced by the New York art world. It also reflects the curvilinear, decorative folk art that helped shape Polish national identity long before Disney, underground comics, Outsider Art, Pixar, Pop Surrealism and the internet infiltrated American popular culture, then art. His articulated shape arrangement, unsaturated color, patient pacing, and artful humor echo that of favorite cartoons from his childhood in the post-Communist countryside – like this one about a curious mole with a need for speed. The mesmerizing tow-truck turn at 9:35 expresses Sigmund Freud’s notion that something is funny when more effort is put into it than is required.
Grzybacz’s work is flatter than Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka’s, but Cubism’s impact on Art Deco can be discerned in both. Chattering mouths unfold across the surface of Talk, which resembles I and the Village by Marc Chagall, an early blender of folk and Modernist idioms. Accentuated by cupped hands and the canvas’s close cropping, Grzybacz engages the viewer in gossip. One mouth descends into a rhythmic chain of lips becoming teeth, behinds, and breasts. Parts separate and conjoin ornamentally and incongruously, as in Adolph Wolfli’s visionary eccentricity. But Grzybacz’s comfortable negative spaces relax and organize, and the imposing scale of his work can’t shrink into its own weirdness. In the lower left, the intersection of fingertip and an overhearing ear meets an upward, diagonal trail of fingers, fluid as piano keys (bringing to mind the folk-inspired Chopin). The juxtaposition of teeth and crena is bold yet surreptitious, related like the start and end of a “six degrees” game. Playful social commentary about loose talk’s perpetual distortion joins the phenomenology of sound travel, as in Umberto Boccioni’s The Street Enters the House. But Grzybacz’s transformations are less sensory than surreal, giving his formal wit stealth. Eventually we notice sole responsibility for spatial illusion falls to a diminutive item – the conscientiously foreshortened collar – a gag Philip Guston regularly used, as in Head and Bottle’s book. Unlike that eye’s fixation, Grzybacz’s disengaged side-eye suggests the talking head is scanning more than communicating. It hides an eavesdropper – a nervous man behind the mask? – but vulnerability gives way to absurd cramming into the edge, recalling James Ensor’s oddballs, entering inappropriately from the margins. A vertical drop down the right diverts to a delicate offering of drugs.
Pages achieves Magritte’s aim of “defamiliarizing the familiar.” A probably unintended reference to Minimalism, without geometry, gently pokes fun of serious expectations. Repeating shapes in moody greys echo one another, like the paintings of Polish Formizt, Tytus Czyzewski. The accentuated lower left quadrant compels continuous clockwise viewing. Irrationally overlapping and rotating, handheld pages begin to hypnotize like a Martin Ramirez, but mimesis deters. Faintly echoing Van der Weyden’s attention to cloth, modelled form keeps us grounded in the material world. The symbolism of blank pages is likewise subordinated to careful articulation, which today, along with the use of small instruments (like ballpoint pens), no longer indicates a lack of moral fiber – a byproduct perhaps of the new finger use video games and smartphones require (hence the word digital). Painting with specificity, or gusto, are just two options among many in our pluralistic painting world, predicted by Arthur Danto in The End of Art.
Apparition was inspired by Lucien Freud’s Hotel Room. In contrasting style but similar design, each balances light and dark emotion. Shadowy innuendo is tempered by the delicate description of Freud’s intimately estranged characters, and by the levity and distance of Grzybacz’s cartoonish shapes. A winged man with an erection approaches a reclining figure engrossed in his cellphone, whose wide eyes recall Dana Schutz’s whimsical use of the Apple photobooth effect. Beside him on the bed or below, an alarming void tenuously braced with small wedges opens up like a sinkhole – an underworld to be rescued from, or ventured into? Bodies swing away from this weight centrifugally to the outskirts of the rectangle, stretching like drolly grotesque tropes of Ren and Stimpy. A tacit, dark halo above stabilizes solitude and desire, attraction and repulsion. Unlike Louis Fratino’s aplomb regarding intimacy and eros, Grzybacz conveys the doubt and mystery of their orbits.
In Meet, coupling complicates exponentially. Like cells under a microscope or a hall of mirrors, the image almost symmetrically divides. The kaleidoscopic vision conveys a flaneur-like episodic memory, its revery mixed with flowing imagination. Positive and negative shapes, convex and concave, sinuously intermingle into elongated arm, legs, and hands stroking feet. As grinning figures resembling Beavis and Butthead talk about us from the sidelines, line merges into butt cleavage. Softly hued forms, stroked by the painter’s brush, take their time determining imagery. Bringing “tension and dynamism” to the elegant composition are slow motion, whiplash lines typical of Art Nouveau, an aspect of Poland’s arts and crafts movement which began in Krakow. The academy Grzybacz attended there was named after the neoclassical painter Jan Matejko, acclaimed in Paris salons. His convoluted surfaces reflect Poland’s baroque adaptation of the Italianate model of multi-figure history painting as it moved eastward to “the orient of the west”. Math-based proportion and sculptural values compromised with organic, Ottoman and Asian undulation.As also seen in the Futurist-influenced “bent classicism” of Stanislaw Szukalski (memorialized in Leonardo DiCaprio’s documentary), light and shadow aren’t pressed into plastic coherence as they are in French Academy cast drawing. This does occur in the work of de Lempicka, however, who studied in Paris and emulated Ingres.
In “Set” we may be looking through a store window at assorted items – book, CD, storage and boom box, flowers layered like a Big Mac, plugged-in gadgets. As in “Pages,” large scale is in ironic rapport with its trivial subject. Like a still life aspiring to something greater, such as Max Ernst’s “Vox Angelica,” fun is poked at painting’s heroic ambition. Its large rounded forms echo Guston’s late work, whose painterly personal language was developed working abstractly – then applied to (initially lambasted) figuration influenced by the funny papers. Earlier, his anti-fascist mural in Mexico was plastered over, and Diego Rivera’s Radio City mural destroyed (for including Vladimir Lenin), after Social Realism was contaminated by totalitarian and Nazi propaganda; a “schizophrenic sway of progress and reaction” commenced. Like other western painters, Guston turned to purer, supposedly apolitical non-objectivity. In the east meanwhile, figurative painters reluctant to follow official Soviet realism evaded censorship though indirect metaphors via surrealism – as in the work of the Pole Zdzislaw Beksinski. As explained in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Surrealism Beyond Borders,” its “potential is a strong today as it was in the 1930. It can interrogate our circumstances… open ourselves to possibility… it offers freedom.” Polish Cold War poster art, which made viewers read between the lines, was another option. Grzybacz’s clever elusiveness seems to reflect both. (After Stalin died, abstract expressionism appeared in Poland too, encouraged by the USA.)
The same floral tchotchke appears in Colors of the Eyes II. The simple pictorial conceit of looking into eyes is enigmatically extrapolated. Softer that Szukalski’s forms, fragmentation and clarity similarly merge. Blossoms recede uphill like a conveyor belt of ascending chakras, surmounting a triangular shape pointing into an eye’s unfathomable space. Borders peel off across the top like petals, the face a fluttering, slow-motion rolodex, strangely meditative.
Mundane as they are daring, Grzybacz’s oblique gestalts look carefully constructed but feel spontaneous. Suspending the viewer in fascination, his paintings elude understanding – as the show title conveys – even as they encourage exploration of the diverse roots of contemporary figurative painting. New art historical research asks how “the history of the art of the countries of the former Eastern bloc changed from 1945 and after the break-up of the Cold War blocs,” and questions which “subjects and artists are being ‘hushed’.” For example, Werner Tubke’s astonishing panorama, nicknamed the “Sistine Ceiling of the North,” has yet to enter mainstream awareness in the USA because of its association with communism. Thankfully (the article continues), there is “growing interest in researching this part of the history of Europe, rethinking its relevance and not dismissing it as mere propaganda… [S]hifting focus from the symbolic, old centers of Paris and New York will open new routes to research… between East and West, but also between … the “brother countries” of China, India, Cuba, Mexico, and within the Eastern bloc.” This will add to a fuller multicultural and global picture of painting, a universal medium pursued at least since people lived in caves.
“Krzysztof Grzybacz: At the Center of the Onion is Another Onion,” Harkawik, 30 Orchard Street, New York, NY. Through March 30, 2023.
About the author: Painter and arts writer Margaret McCann teaches at the Art Students League.