To viewers unacquainted with the art of Agnieszka Brzeżańska, what might have been their experience of seeing the eight oil paintings and two drawings in crayon that comprised this exhibition? A leaflet produced by the gallery informed us that the title of the show – ‘I Love You. Be Good’, as intriguing as it was beguiling – was taken from the last words spoken by an African Grey Parrot named Alex. We also learned that Alex had a highly sophisticated intelligence, with powers of communication and reasoning well beyond what one might reasonably expect.
The pronouncement ‘I Love You. Be Good’ seems to propose a spiritual serenity such as one might associate with the parting words of an enlightened being or, at the very least, a pop star. And, on first encounter, the works here appeared to exist on a frequency of generic New Age sensibility such as might incorporate contemplations of the cosmos, artwork for space-rock compilations or depictions of Tantric consciousness. The colour range of Brzeżańska’s paintings is rich and vivid: midnight blue, lilac, fiery vermilion, Bible black, turquoise on slow fade through jade to desert-yellow. Most of the diagrammatic, abstracted or softly geometrical forms recall populist imaginings of the infinite reaches of consciousness, or silent supernovas, or voids, or heavens – epic scenes from the living theatre of psycho-astrophysical phenomena.
And then there was a touch of what seemed to be, if only as a received idea, the playful infantilism of East European whimsy: of geomorphic space bunny shapes that appeared to space walk or hug, or display concentric patterning as though they were geological contours seen from a great height. These works – each a seeming vista into the design-perfection of the great transcendental unknown or extraterrestrial scheme – appeared to visually intimate the psychic momentum of epiphany, universal mystery or mystical edification.
‘I Love You. Be Good’ was an exhibition that rewarded prolonged attention; the longer you remained with the work, the further these initial responses to the nature of their apparent ‘other-worldliness’ seemed to adjust and refine. The installation emoted a chapel-like or meditational stillness, though this ‘stillness’ might have doubled as that imagined within the furthest-flung precincts of institutional basement storage, or the backroom of a provincial auction house. A temporal element emerged as well, in the imagining that these paintings and drawings could have been made at almost any time during the last hundred years, and left within a deep crease of art-historical obscurity. All of which added, paradoxically, to their burgeoning charisma, individually and collectively.
Moderately sized, these paintings – Tesla (2013), for example, with its vertiginously flaring vortex of blue, black and violet quadrants, or the ghost-like red circle appearing to float against a lavender sky in Melong (2012) – became at once inscrutable and compelling, their peculiar allure balanced somewhere between astral kitsch and the nuttiness of outsider abstraction, as evidenced by their esoteric yet poetic-sounding titles. But then there’s always more.
Sentimental (2013), depicts what resemble two warmly glowing, crypto-humanoid forms, the smaller nestling into the taller, as though in an embrace of unconditional loving comfort, against a background of mottled midnight blue and black. Each ‘figure’ outlined in tangerine orange, the colour contrast is intensely resonant, while the curvature of the forms becomes tactile and sensual – the very articulation, in fact, of the painting’s title. The tension between arresting abstraction and pictorial tenderness is brilliantly achieved.
At this point, while perhaps turning to re-examine the weightless, rabbit-eared forms depicted in star-dotted deep-space blackness in Elegy (2013), the viewer could begin to wonder what strands of intentionality – conceptual, aesthetic, ideological, psychological – Brzeżańska is weaving so deftly yet mysteriously in the apparent happiness explosion of this recent configuration of works.
On the basis of the paintings and the exhibition title, one might guess that Brzeżańska has knowingly corralled the visual language of visionary abstraction into a freshly concentrated form – while anticipating within the work itself those current anthropologies of style, taste, retro-ironic cool and critical discourse that oppose by their nature the open-handedness of wonder and speculation. And, at the very last moment, the viewer might suppose that Brzez˙an´ska is concerned with the vital task of re-opening our capacity for awe, while being entirely aware of the distracting burden of cultural sophistication. An interest she shares, arguably, and most prominently, with Damien Hirst. That’s where you last heard a title like ‘I Love You. Be Good’. And Alex knew that all along.