Dobrosława Nowak: In the Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, from 10 December 2020 to 31 January 2021, we can see the exhibition of your paintings entitled ‘More News For Lulu’.
Your works are placed in a network of historical contexts. You use old photos and film stills. At the same time, the gesture itself shares features of action painting, as you mention in one of the interviews (nota bene: prof. Andrzej Bednarczyk, at the opening of the exhibition, refers to the act of painting as ‘splashing’). Please tell me about this inspiring meeting of two energies: I mean the encounter between the multi-layered content of the motifs, which you insist on deepening, and the spontaneity of the painting gesture.
Witold Stelmachniewicz: This is exactly where I’m trying to get as an end result. I don’t need to go to the studio and ‘splash’ every day or perform rituals. I don’t have to spend five to ten hours at the easel, or feel bad when I don’t. My painting is based largely on the concept. I purposefully don’t use the word ‘conceptual’ because this word has different connotations. Collecting materials, deciding what to use in the end (and as soon as I know what to use, a concept for the painting appears in my head), how I will paint it — I see it more or less before I start working. Of course, this often changes in practice afterwards. That is also the coolest moment of the process. What I more or less assume then either turns out much more interesting, or I see that it is completely off and I have to start all over again. These are various discharges. I mean it in the sense conceived by Gombrowicz, according to which the artist is not a ‘reasoning’ but a ‘discharge’. This is how I actually charge the batteries, and then I go and start working. When this work draws me in, I am in a trance and it may last several days. Then I slow down and I look for that excuse, motive again. If for some reason, for example related to lockdown, I was unable to go to the studio, I would still be able to organize my own work. Even if it’s away from the actual matter, which I really like to use by the way.
First, I look for visual ideas, in albums or even on the Internet (I see nothing trivial about it, it’s a tool like any other and, above all, easily accessible). The search comes from an impulse, e.g. from music or literature. This is where I start my research. After that, I look for materials that will allow me to ‘rebound’ in this work. What is it about? I started out as an abstractionist many years ago. In painting, I have always been interested in the relationship between what is structured — or let’s call it geometric, stable — and how it slips out when a gesture comes into use. To put it simply, a collision at the junction of geometry and this so-called lyrical abstraction (as it was once termed). Later, for various reasons, I decided to change this approach and I started using archival photographs. In fact, it was only recently that I realized that my working method is based on the same principle over and over again. Just instead of this non-representational, geometric structure that I used to enter in with my intervention, I have another one — photography. I work like I used to, but something else disciplines me. In this sense, little has changed. When painting on the basis of a photo, the important thing is what to show and with what clarity. It sometimes happens that when I use a gesture, I lose the theme from the photo, which was the reason for starting work, then the image ceases to be interesting for me. Showing only my struggles in the action painting convention in the picture is not enough. Recently, Gerhard Richter made a series based on four photographs from Auschwitz taken in 1944, thanks to the smuggling of a camera for members of the Sonderkommando working at the crematoria. He painted these pictures in his typical photorealistic convention, and then painted them over, somehow questioned them, completely obliterated them, making the surface of the paintings completely abstract. I don’t want it this way. What I decided to recall and what became the driving force for my work, I want to remain legible. If I choose an image, I want it to be recognizable. I work so that there is an interaction between what is recognizable and what is contained precisely in the fact that the picture is alive in its matter, that the photorealistic painting convention has been broken but not questioned.
You never know when you cross this line and where your creativity will take you while working. It is often the case that the original idea is modified in the process. This feeling comes from nowhere. Suddenly, I see that I am getting more than originally planned. Sometimes it happens that I do what I’ve assumed, it looks correct, but I am convinced that this image is no good. Then I have to do something more, look for something else. Sometimes I lose these struggles completely and have to start all over again. This unknown is the basic impulse to work. You never know what will ultimately come out.
D.N.: When do you decide the painting is finished?
W.S.: I have no ambition or ability to design the reception of my painting, but I am the first recipient of what I do. Witold Lutosławski once said that the composer is the first recipient of what he has committed. I think it’s exactly the same in the visual arts. My paintings always go through quite a long quarantine. I’m not satisfied with the first effect. After this eruption, when I work, when I somehow recognize that I have caught a vision of what I wanted to do, I always come back to those pictures later. I don’t hide them, I don’t turn their front to the wall, but I arrange them in such a way that I can observe them all the time. When I come to the studio with the idea that I will start a new project and suddenly I see something in the previous image that I haven’t seen before (it’s natural that after time you will notice new possibilities), I come back to it. The new painting then has to wait its turn. It’s a bit of fun with it, but finally there comes a point when I know that I don’t want to add anything else, that I don’t have to say anything more, that I have set it up optimally. In this way of working where there’s freedom in gesture, it can sometimes look as if its open structure could still be continued. Maybe it could, but not by me. At some point, I already know that it’s done.
D.N.: The title of the exhibition refers to the jazz album of John Zorn, George Lewis and Bill Frisell from 1992. In the video-broadcast prepared by Dominik Stanisławski for this exhibition, you not only wear a musical face-mask and a t-shirt with ‘Stravinsky’ written on it, but the question of why you don’t play any instrument creates a frame for this report — it shows up at the beginning and in the end. One can get the impression that everything revolves around music.
W.S.: It is a bit like that.
D.N.: Have you thought about combining images with music?
W.S.: Yes, I thought about it once, when I was actually doing abstraction. Then I gave up these ideas because I was hooked on the stories that are related to painting contextual pictures. It absorbs me so much that I don’t think about joining the media. However, music accompanies me very intensively all the time. From there, greatly life-giving impulses flow to what I do. They result from being in touch with specific works while getting acquainted with their concepts, but also with the biographies of composers.
D.N.: Where did the idea of taking this album title for the exhibition come from?
W.S.: For February and March 2020, I had two shows planned. I realized that it wouldn’t be possible to prepare concepts for two completely separate individual shows, which are one month apart. I was aware that I would be sampling objects at these two exhibitions. The first one took place at the Konduktorownia in Częstochowa. I knew that something I showed there I would also transfer to Kraków, that I would also show new things here, and that everything would be combined, in greater or lesser quotation marks, into a new narrative. I didn’t have two separate sets for both shows. Then I remembered about the Zorn project from the early nineties. He recorded two albums: News For Lulu (1988), and later More News For Lulu (1992). I adopted this analogy initially as a joke, but quickly realized that my painting practice had a lot in common with this particular musical project by Zorn.
News for Lulu are not the usual improvisations on classic jazz themes. Zorn, Frisell and George Lewis rather deformed those old songs from Blue Note from the 1960s, Hank Mobley and others. I realized then that I wasn’t really doing anything else, that I was doing the same with old photos. I liked it as a concept.
However, I have no idea why Zorn chose Louise Brooks, who played Lulu, the protagonist in Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929), as the image, the emblem of this project. But I took this fact as it came. Her portrait was included in the first exhibition. For the second one I prepared another picture with a theme from Pabst’s movie. But it turned out that the second exhibition in March was not going to take place, because the lockdown began. There was an idea to organize it in June, but we finally waited until December. Now I can see that it made sense, because now the conditions for getting in touch with my paintings in their original form are more convenient. Thanks to this, by the way, I had time to work on and refresh the concept. This is still More News (…), but there is a bit more of this more news than there would have been in March.
D.N.: Quoting excerpts from your statements: you ‘strive for ferment’ and ‘track motives that turn out to be not what they originally indicated’.
W.S.: These images, themes, come to me for different reasons and from different worlds. It’s not that it absolutely has to be in the twenties or thirties. There are also later stories. I paint them under the influence of impulses taken from books, movies or music. Whereas, when they appear in an exhibition, a special situation takes place. You have to make them meet somehow, put them together. It’s a special moment. Of course, you can juxtapose these images from a formal point of view, i.e. one fits the other, one emerges from the other, you can treat the gesture as if it ends in one image and moves to the next, etc. You can also try to juxtapose them using the ‘literary’ aspect, where something suddenly meets something. For example, in this current exhibition, a work with a burning monk, on top of which I hung a tiny painting with a motif taken from a mountain film, Leni Riefenstahl starred in, before she started making propaganda films for the Nazis. It was called White Hell on Piz Palü (1929). Even I didn’t notice this relation at first. I just figured out the two would look good together there. Only a colleague who was standing next to it says: ‘Well, but White Hell on Piz Palü and a monk in white fire — this is powerful’. I didn’t want to give it up anymore. These kinds of narratives are formed, resulting not only from the form and how one image looks next to another, but also from what they contain. Assembling these senses or non-senses interests me very much. Content can meet either by analogy or, as in surrealism (which I generally despise), by meeting the ‘typewriter and umbrella’.
It’s not that I like to paint such and no other characters or events. It all has to be treated in terms of convention, creation, ’costumes’ that I put on. The same goes for the framings of the pictures. It’s clearly visible in this exhibition. The image of Thomas Mann is framed using a semi-trivial material like foam insulation, collided with a real, solid frame. I framed Narutowicz in an exaggerated, golden frame, and the frame of the painting, which shows astral bodies, is also elaborated for the exhibition — but not to make the painting look more impressive for commercial purposes. This is a game, a convention. They are not framed to make them look nice. These frames create a kind of extra layer, maybe even semantic.
D.N.: In the video-documentation of the opening, the Rector of the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, prof. Andrzej Bednarczyk, emphasizes that looking at your paintings makes one want to paint and that watching them on the monitor makes a huge difference. Walking around the exhibition virtually (although I know that you can also visit it in person), I also had the impression that it was more like learning about it than experiencing it. What do we lose and what do we gain from the pandemic when it comes to painting? Have any new, significant contents emerged for you related to this unprecedented situation, in relation to painting as a technique, practice, and lifestyle?
W.S.: I think that this statement would be too hasty. Our lifestyle will definitely change due to all these turbulences — the way we communicate first of all, for example what we two are doing at the moment by talking on the online messenger. This is paradoxical, but maybe we will also gain something when it comes to interpersonal communication, I mean making it easier.
However, has it already had a direct impact on painting? Probably on its reception, but not on the painting itself. For example, I have done nothing (and have no intention of doing so) against myself. I will not resign from certain measures just because I won’t be able to present them well on the online exhibition. I won’t change the way I work, so that my images look better on Instagram, I won’t give up the texture, the layering of structures. I work according to my criteria, which is the essence of my work. The question of showing it always comes later. This is not just a pandemic problem anyway. There has always been a question of reproduction versus the original. There were pilgrimages to various places where you could come across the original paintings of old masters or contemporary artists. Reproduction, on the Internet or in an album, has always made us feel that we are dealing only with a substitute.
My current exhibition in Kraków is an exception in a period full of restrictions. The gallery is located in the Academy, so it falls under the Rector’s jurisdiction rather than ministerial regulations. The number of people who will see it, despite the long exposure period, will of course be much smaller. I still treat this period as an emergency, like an accident at work. I believe that in some time everything will return to a relative standard, and we will experience paintings as they should be experienced, i.e. by interacting with them in real life. I don’t feel the drama of this situation yet.
Paradoxically, this lockdown strengthened the enthusiasm towards painting and painters. This year I expected less interest than usual, and on the contrary, I had more of it, which also translated into sales. From April to the end of November, I sold ten paintings. I completely didn’t expect it to go this way. I thought that during the quarantine in which we all found ourselves, there would be no such meetings, conversations, which would then translate into transactions, for example. I also know it from colleagues — there has been no regress. I don’t know what I owe it to, and which mechanism worked. People who have never done it before don’t suddenly buy paintings, it is rather those who were already interested, and this commotion has increased.
D.N.: You’re also a pedagogue.
W.S.: When it comes to didactics, the situation is extremely difficult. You can obviously organize a correspondence painting course — as an experiment or a simple way to earn money. People sit at home, they are bored, you can offer them such an activity. Whereas in real serious didactics, it’s absolutely out of the question. There must be contact with the original. Here we were hit by objective circumstances, first in spring and now in autumn, where we couldn’t work this way. There were particular orders and we had to work online. This year in October, the classes lasted less than two weeks and we had to sit down at the computers again, in November it was the same — a week, and then nothing again. This is a very difficult situation for students. They are losing something and they are aware of it. This year, at the Faculty of Painting, for safety reasons, we organised an admission exam skipping the so-called second stage, i.e. the practical exam. People who were accepted for the first year discussed only their portfolio (which we had received from them earlier) in front of the camera, and then answered theoretical questions. We accepted students in a virtual way. It was my decision because I am the Dean of the Faculty of Painting. My colleagues resented me, but I was just worried that these people wouldn’t be able to come to us. The recruitment resolution cannot be changed overnight. I was afraid that in the event of sudden restrictions we would be left without candidates. Hence the idea to accept them without a practical exam. The situation is doubly paradoxical, because we start classes in October, they are barely implementing themselves, and then we have to go online again. I think it was a particularly unpleasant, unfortunate experience for these young people, because they need to experience direct contact with matter.
Even before the pandemic, there were terms such as ‘instagram painting’. It is a kind of approach to matter that reduces it. Operating with a flat stain, displaying a line of a drawing, i.e. creating something that displays well on the screen of a smartphone, iPhone, or computer. It’s a kind of reducing the distance between the original and its reproduction. I have come across this before, some young people are moving in this direction. The scale remains an element that is difficult to change, because even if the picture is painted this way, and it is huge, we lose some of the experience anyway. I was not going to give up my way of working in this direction to reduce it further, simplify it to make it look better on the screen. I just don’t care. However, such a tendency had already emerged much, much earlier. I don’t know how it works and I don’t follow it. I also publish my paintings on the Internet, on Instagram or Facebook, and I think that everyone who sees how it is made, how I approach it, realizes that they are in contact with the reproduction and that the original would give them something much more. This is a kind of agreement. Before, we did not have the Internet, but we had catalogues, albums, and we were well aware that we were dealing with reproduction. It’s probably too early to make a very radical, unambiguous diagnosis after these several months. I would wait with that, because the matter is developmental.
D.N.: I am curious about your opinion on the belief that Kraków stands out on the artistic map of Poland when it comes to painting.
W.S.: I think something’s up. This was the case in the past, the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków developed a certain tradition. I came to Kraków because I was fascinated by colorism in high school and I wanted to continue pursuing this path here. Being at the Academy, it changed my ways very quickly and I became an anti-colorist. However, I was going to Kraków with the conviction that here I would meet the tradition that shaped, one could say, the entire Polish culture from the beginning of this century, obviously not forgetting the contribution of Warsaw, Łódź, Gdańsk and other milieus. There is a stereotype that has taken hold that the Kraków Academy is conservative. On the other hand, facts are in opposition to this opinion: graduates, especially of the Faculty of Painting, are great artists, they are noticed, win competitions and pursue more or less prominent careers. At the first exhibition, the so-called generational one, for 1980s alumni organised by the MOCAK Museum, the curators admitted that there were mostly painters. Then there was the second exhibition, in the 1970s, in which I participated myself, and here again the dominance of painting attitudes was underlined. The conclusion must therefore be in the affirmative to your question.
‘More News For Lulu’ by Witold Stelmachniewicz at the ASP Gallery in Kraków, photo by Witold Stelmachniewicz