My encounter with Izabela Chamczyk’s paintings has been one of the most interesting experiences in my short adventure in the Polish art world. I remember well when I first came across a picture painted by her. It was during a chance visit to one of Warsaw’s auction houses, where a friend of mine happened to be working. It was just a social visit and I had not expected to see anything interesting there. I was not even particularly looking around at the exhibits when a concentric gelatinous, psychedelic blot suddenly drew my attention. A sort of shiny, decorative goo was hanging from the lyrical-misty and pale-blue background.
I was surprised when I found out who the author was. Of course, I knew who Iza was, but I mainly associated her with her work as a performer and as a heroine of rumours in the art world, an artist famous for her expansiveness and quite radical actions. Frankly, I had never been particularly interested in her work. I was vaguely aware that she was a painter, or rather it would be more appropriate to say that I knew she used paint in her work, but I thought she only did it by the way, as an accompaniment to her art performances. This hotchpotch of information left me slightly confused. I also had no idea about Iza’s experience in Paweł Jarodzki and Dominik Lejman’s studios, nor about the awards she had received at the Geppert Competition and the Painting Biennale Bielska Jesień.
Today, I feel ashamed to admit that I was fooled by common stereotypes. Or rather, by the milieu narrative that comes from a comfortable position of power and assigns roles to artists in a quite arbitrary way, as well as defining their place in the art world hierarchy without an open debate and transparent criteria. From this perspective and for reasons that are unclear to me, Iza Chamczyk’s painting has not yet attracted the attention it deserves. Her works have been drifting on the margins of the artistic mainstream, shown at various group exhibitions in Poland and abroad for almost a decade.
Of course, this does not mean that she has no admirers. However, only astute observers can appreciate her painting: those with a good grasp of the subject. They know how difficult it is to control painting and at the same time to offer something personal, recognizable and distinct today. Few are able to discern the constructive invention applied in the artist’s work, as she experiments with a wide range of media, processes and techniques such as oil, acrylic, nitro, alkyd paints, glass, sand, salt, found objects, etc.
Just after my “discovery” I arranged a meeting with Iza at her studio to see her works up-close. I was not wrong; this was the way her paintings should be seen. Only then is it possible to study the vast kunstkammer of innate visual effects. Each of her paintings is surprisingly individual and condensed; each forms an innate and closed ecosystem. However, reproductions of these pictures do not do them justice, as the scale, weight, texture, and consistency are reduced in the copies, as are all of those things that engross our attention and absorb us when gazing at the original paintings.
This is haptic and kinaesthetic painting – even sculptural. It activates all our senses, including the sense of touch and the sense of balance. The pictures appear to expand in terms of the length, breadth and depth of the canvas, slowly revealing their coats and layers. Of course, the eye, which observes the intricate constructions up-close, has the most fun.
Chamczyk transforms paint into a fully-fledged story, full of drama and sudden twists. The top coat of paint is mixed with the bottom one, slipperiness with roughness, convexity with concavity – all this gives the viewer an impression of being assaulted from all sides, crawling and whirling, engaging the eye in a journey full of enigmatic stains, capricious lines, textures, rhythms, surfaces and colours. These bizarre images do not allow us to get bored unless we lack appropriate focus…
I still don’t understand how viewers can’t see it. Why do so few people appreciate Iza’s painting? How is it possible that she has never had a monographic exhibition in any of the leading art institutions? Are the old, well-established curatorial-gallery milieus and the various “obviousnesses” propagated by them to be blamed for that?
As there is a lack of an open and substantive discussion on criteria in painting (more broadly – in contemporary art), it is difficult to speculate about the answers. There are probably various reasons, and I would be happy to learn the factual reasons why Iza’s paintings are overlooked, e.g., when public museums are shopping for their collections. It is difficult to explain this situation other than in terms of purely subjective criteria, because it is an undoubtedly contemporary art, which has its place in the wide spectrum of currently discussed issues and tendencies. Moreover, her work has grown out of a very specific artistic tradition, and at the same time it has creatively developed this tradition in a separate and individual way. Therefore, such an art style fulfils all the criteria of the Avant-garde.
Of course, the tradition in question is Abstract Painting, or more precisely its organic trend, developed after WWII by such artists as Pollock, Wols, Dubuffet and Fautrier, and in Poland by Jadwiga Maziarska, Tadeusz Kantor, Alfred Lenica, Jerzy Tchórzewski and Jan Ziemski, among others. Within this trend, we may find Tachisme Painting (working with stains), Matter Painting, which deals with non-visual aspects of image structure, and Action Painting, i.e. images which are a kind of a sign or a record of the spontaneous process of their creation. What unites all these different, mostly very distinct and inventive painting practices – united under a single name – is a break with the discipline of geometry and figuration, and an escape towards spontaneous, unfettered expression.
Many of the creators of organic abstraction treated their painting as an activity under the influence of strong impulses, temporary tensions, states and emotions. Inspired by Surrealism, they saw in it a way to explore and manifest extremely subjective, deep layers of the psyche, as well as suppressed drives and desires that are inaccessible through introspection. Some of them took on the role of constructors, introducing raw materials such as wax, paraffin, gypsum, sand, paper, dust, waste and even wood or yarn into their pictures. A separate issue was the painting process, which openly allowed creative experimentation involving reaching for new tools (brush handle, nails, knives, open hand, and fingernails), random execution (spilling, splashing or pouring paint, dripping and rolling it over the surface of the canvas), subjecting the image to the forces of nature (such as rain or fire), and finally the exploitation of the chemical properties of painting reagents, which can interact with each other.
After more than half a century of evolution, organic abstraction is still a living and developing phenomenon. In Poland, the most famous representatives of this trend are Jarosław Fliciński and Piotr Janas, as well as some artists of the younger generation such as Dorota Buczkowska, Krzysztof Mężyk, Ivo Nikić, Sławomir Pawszak, Irmina Staś and Zuzanna Ziółkowska-Hercberg, among others. The significance of each of these artists lies essentially in the development of an original, innate, formally individual style, and thus – in an original, innovative solution to fundamental questions about painting, regarding attitudes towards painting tradition, as well as towards contemporary visual culture, available techniques and creative strategies, and the specificity of the painting gesture, form and matter.
However, being rooted in tradition is becoming less and less important. Today, professional art institutions, closely linked to the global art gallery market, play a crucial role. This is accompanied by an expansion in technology, including the development of new platforms, especially Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. These tendencies have led to the decline of art criticism, and consequently to the disappearance of a substantive, intellectual debate about criteria. Former disputes about art have been replaced by a media spectacle of arbitrary recommendations and attributions of prestige issued ex-cathedra by various centres of the new symbolic power: various biennials, trade fairs, and internet blogs such as the Contemporary Art Daily and even by so-called influencers. To put it bluntly, merit is not important, but rather self-promotion, and this concerns the whole milieu: artists, curators, gallery owners, art dealers, media, and institutions. Artistic value is of secondary importance, because there is no way to measure it anyway.
An interesting phenomenon, which to some extent has arisen at the intersection of the mentioned tendencies is so-called Zombie Formalism. This catchy term was popularized in mid-2014 in reference to the broad wave of young art that flooded international trade fairs in various parts of the world. The word “zombie” was originally meant to mean a painting corpse, i.e., a visual form that returns from the underworld and walks amongst the living, although it has long been exhausted and buried in a grave. According to the critics of this trend such as Jerry Saltz, the only reason for resurrecting dead styles is the demand from the art market, which needs a supply of “fresh blood”. The numerous and various returns to Supremacism, Minimalism, Informel, Arte Povera and Neo-Expressionism have been mocked in this way.
Another interpretation of “zombie” is a selfish, lifeless attitude, lacking authenticity and cynically calculated to achieve art world objectives. This refers to both the artists who are eager for success and the young curators, dealers and gallery owners cooperating with them. And although this tendency is strongest in the Anglo-Saxon market, especially the American one, where the demand for minimalistic objects to decorate luxurious lofts or corporation offices is incomparably greater than in Europe, one can discern in this term criticism of the art world in general, where “professionalism” often means more and more compromises of various kinds, and aversion to risk-taking and nonconformity.
But Zombie Formalism also has its advocates. Favourably-disposed art critics perceive this trend as a kind of double liberation of painting: first of all, it means liberation from the clutches of traditional art institutions, and secondly – from the enchanted circle of historical criteria, according to which nothing in painting can be repeated. This work is not only derivative (e.g. compared to the oeuvre of Jean-Michel Basquiata, Sigmar Polke, Robert Ryman or Julian Schnabel), but it also exists beyond the horizon of the curatorial establishment’s attention. The success of such artists as Joe Bradley, Jacob Kassay, Parker Ito, Oscar Murillo or Lucien Smith is not due to any of the renowned galleries, but to a new group of entrepreneurial dealers like Stefan Simchowitz, and smart campaigns in social media.
So, what disqualifies Zombie Formalism in the eyes of art critics is, according to its defenders, proof of its strength, as it has entered the history of art with a bang, with disrespect for the traditional system of respectable institutions and the entire domain of expert evaluation. However, this would not have been enough to draw people’s attention to this trend, if it hadn’t been for the context of new technologies: how the new media affect our perception and influence painting through this channel.
Artists not only scour history in search of innovative forms, but also constantly transform the present, at the same time problematizing common ways of seeing. And these change with the development of technology – in this regard, Impressionism was the answer to photography, Abstraction to cinematography, and Pop-Art to television, advertising and colour magazines. According to this perspective, proposed by Alex Bacon and Laura Hoptman among others, Zombie Formalism is, above all, an attempt to redefine the painting medium in the face of changes in culture in the era of the Internet, tablets, smartphones, UHD videos and plasma TVs. Ultimately, every object hung on a wall has as much in common with the long history of painting, as with the devices with which we spend long hours every day anesthetizing our eyes. For this reason, visual creativity, especially contemporary painting, is more interesting the more it provokes questions about the subjective conditions of perception or the materiality of the image.
This is also a point of view I would recommend adopting when looking at Iza Chamczyk’s pictures. I do not want to enter into a discussion on whether this is Zombie Formalism, new Matter Painting or perhaps a feminist version of abstract expression. In painting what matters are not words, labels or descriptions imposed from outside, but the gestures, paint, matter, impact on the senses and stimulation of the eye – sensitizing eyesight, interfering with learned habits and provoking new ways of seeing.
I believe that this is also an explanation for the astonishing omission of Iza’s works from the existing lists of the most interesting painters of the young generation. The eye of the curator or critic is not free from perceptual habits. Moreover, for some time the eye has only been trained by looking at reproductions, so it thinks and evaluates art through the prism of ubiquitous photo- and video-projections from exhibitions. They are well-lit and composed, but without exception they are flat and stripped of materiality. Meanwhile, spontaneous, affective art that hasn’t been dressed up still exists – free from professional calculation, and fashionable and curatorial trends. And it is a real challenge to the eye. All we need to do is to look carefully.
— Iwo Zmyślony