This essay was published in English and Polish translation as “Painting Action. Fragments of a Discourse on De-mystification, Appropriation and Collaboration in Wojciech Gilewicz’s Recent Work.” as part of the exhibition catalog for Wojciech Gilewicz: Studio. Bunker Sztuki Gallery, Krakow. January 2012. The following version was published on ARTPULSE.
Brushstrokes. Reflections on Wojciech Gilewicz’s Recent Work
By Marco Antonini
The questions of what art is and what it means to make art have been adapted to diverse social, political and cultural contexts throughout history. Forms of art are not physical phenomena or chemical processes, as they rarely adapt to scientific methods and can hardly be studied in quantitative terms. Philosophical, political and historical analyses of various art practices and contexts have resulted in radically different, if not contrasting, interpretations of their specific and general meanings. It’s safe to say that the distance between each point of view is most probably due to the different approaches and agendas of those who, in turn, have worked on such topics. Interestingly enough, and probably in light of its popularity and ubiquity, painting has often been singled out as the subject of such research lines, even to the point of becoming a necessarily inadequate representative of all art forms.
In recent times, questions about painting have been raised in reply to a-conscious or subconscious-need to reinvent such a burdened art form, adapting it to the dynamism and media unspecificity of contemporary creative practices. The global art markets and their unsurprising attraction to flat, “unique” objects, as easy to carry as they are to display, are among the most important reasons why painting as a form of art is regularly inspected, ritually murdered and punctually resurrected. In many cases, paintings aspire to achieve a self-contained significance, impervious to space and time and as utopian as the mirage of a perennially profitable investment. They are the perfect form of art commodity, although hardly the one with the longest pedigree in the history of human creativity.
Wojciech Gilewicz’s practice deconstructs the work of a painter, isolating the most mundane, automatic (sometimes slightly autistic) and uncreative aspects of the various processes that lead him to the realization of murals, stretched canvases, painted props, backdrops, etc. Beyond fine art, Gilewicz’s projects can be considered a form of context-driven creative labor split between cultural criticism, institutional critique and genuine social involvement.
Many important voices in contemporary art have deconstructed artistic practice and addressed issues of authorship and authenticity in art. Examples culled from Minimalism, Post-Minimalism and the so-called Pictures Generation must have contributed to Gilewicz’s own artistic formation. Robert Morris’ 1961 Box with the Sound of Its Own Making definitely spring to mind. Morris’ box would not make much sense without the concealed recorded tape that activates it as artwork. In a similar way, many of Gilewicz’s works are represented by uncommunicative props, activated by “making of” videos in which painstaking manual labor does not translate into common-sense artistic results. In his work Cuboids, for example, a series of sturdy wood solids are made available to a number of different people (some members of the Gilewicz family, other passersby) with the simple instruction of painting them all with a hand of consistent color, offered by the artist together with the necessary brush. The boring task of painting the solids is documented by quick snapshots. Hastily covered as they are in dozens of overlapping colors, the straight surfaces of the Cuboids become punctuated with imprecisions, smudges and color inconsistencies. Certain areas reveal the colors behind them, while others are more meticulously and evenly covered in thick paint. The stunning physical presence of the solids resonates with the collective performative act that brought them to life. This attention to the illustration of the physical and repetitive aspects of painting as a set of quasi-mechanical actions goes hand in hand with a demystification of the artist’s work and persona. Two main strategies emerge in this sense: appropriation and collaboration.
Gilewicz’s appropriation tactics are often hardly recognizable as such. The canvases from his Revitalizations series, realized in Sanok, Poland, or the ones realized in Long Island City, New York, for the Sculpture Center’s In-Practice series, are verbatim copies of uniconic fragments culled from various urban contexts. When considered as independent paintings, they appear oddly similar to Modernist abstractions or monochromes; still, their texture, color and detail manage to remain subtly evocative and familiar. By choosing to work on supports that are (temporarily or sometimes permanently) applied in situ to replace or “restore” the original fragments of reality upon which they are modeled, Gilewicz also wears the hat of unlikely urban-renewal interventionist. His freshly painted canvases and clean surfaces are anyhow often removed or vandalized; only the most mimetic among them survive the test of time and forced interaction with an unknowing public. This process is revealing of the inadequacy of art-based renewal and beautification projects that are disconnected from both current artistic discourse and the actual needs of the communities they address.
Realized in Belgrade, Serbia, Gilewicz’s public-art intervention Obelisk addresses the history of a failed city symbol, a brutalist monument to the First Non-Aligned Movement Summit of 1961. Reproducing the original marble texture of the monument on painted plywood, applying the plywood to several empty spots over the graffiti-covered base and refreshing the paint here and there, the artist provides a deliberately incomplete service. Executed without legal permission, the intervention makes no sense as a “proper” restoration, and even less to those who covered the monument in tags and graffiti. Gilewicz’s appropriation of physical and symbolic space succeeds in transforming the anonymous monument into a magnet for public criticism and frustration, initiating a conversation about its meaning, relevance and utility within the local community and beyond. As usual, representation and metaphor are avoided. The given context is instead activated via direct action in a process that features painting (whether in its skilled or unskilled form) as little more than a necessary form of labor.
In his recent projects Sale and Studio, Gilewicz has added large-scale collaboration to his black book of artistic strategies. Providing an unequivocal meeting point for the institution and its public, he set up an entire floor of both the BWA Awangarda Gallery in Wroclaw, Poland, and Bunkier Sztuki Gallery in Krakow, Poland, as a free-for-all painting workshop. In short, visitors were welcomed to “make” their own exhibition. During the exhibition span, Gilewicz lived and worked close by the exhibition space, constantly retouching, arranging and re-arranging the small and large paintings created by the audience. Sale and Studio’s open-ended process unveils some of the contradictions embedded in all forms of art making. How are the artworks created by visitors different from Gilewicz’s own or from the ones he only slightly retouches? Who owns an idea once it is submitted to such a collaborative process? Does creativity have an intrinsic value? How important are the “right” context and presentation in judging a work of art and its importance?
As the list of questions extends to include new doubts and a growing sense of general uncertainty, Gilewicz’s goal is met. Imaginary dripping brush in hand, we stand in front of Sale’s awesome cacophony of signs, messages, forms and colors and once again are brought to wonder: What does it all mean?