Two female figures, seen in profile, are ringing separate doorbells. ‘I’ve seen you before,’ says the one. ‘I wasn’t expecting you here,’ says the other. ‘Maybe that’s the point,’ they say in unison. Two paintings (Bzzz and Bzzz Bzzz, both 2013), hung on either side of the foyer in Dorota Jurczak’s exhibition ‘Bzzz’ at Piktogram, convey the awkwardness of an unexpected though familiar encounter, in the gauche threshold between waiting and entering. The two women are not actually speaking, though, and the fact that both figures are buzzing a doorbell does little to unite them because each is alone in an earth-toned interior, perhaps a stairwell. They don’t see each other, either – their eyes are missing – though the buzzers seem to stare back at them.
Jurczak’s exhibition – the first solo show in Poland of the Warsaw-born, Hamburg-based artist – is a free transposition and expansion of simple motifs, rendered in a moody, knowingly indie style that almost borders on twee. Buzzers, matches and human heads are whorled across works and media, the sorts of symbols that rhyme like the moulting shapes of a dream. The iconography here is less symbolic, though, than talismanic. Therein lies the works’ strangeness. The flat, figurative delicacy of Jurczak’s paintings and etchings nod to highly stylized decorative-craft traditions, while all the works in the show – from the paintings on canvas to lifeless mannequin sculptures in garish colours to a cast bronze wall work to coloured glass vases filled with wooden toylike heads – adhere to a faded belle époque aesthetic. The work is part Edward Gorey (in its sense of a comic macabre), part Elsa Schiaparelli (in the detail) and part Kai Althoff (in its mood, reference to craft and bohemianism).
The associations developed across the group of works via a process of resemblance are Jurczak’s own. For the ‘Zapalki’ (Matches, 2014) series of paintings and three etchings, it’s as if the heads of the two girls in the doorway have shrunk and become objects: the matches, again in profile, share their sharp noses. There’s the nightmarish suggestion that a head is a thing lit on fire, or that the head ‘buzzes’ like a doorbell. In one canvas (Zapalki, 2014), seven black-headed matches, with eyes and noses, are seen lit, heads on fire, falling through a blank background. These, in turn, are re-translated into the three, upright mannequins in the exhibition’s central room (Untitled, 2015), crafted by Juczak in the bright colours of Polish folk textiles. Then begins the terror of the birds (‘Brahma’ series, 2014–15): five paintings of looming, atonal, black painted passerine shapes, one eye squarely in the middle, against a bright monochrome background, as if the matches or noses have expanded again, flattened once more onto the canvas.
How do these works correspond? Maybe they don’t and that’s fine – sometimes a match is just a match. The modest, carefully, quietly assembled, yet still eerie series of works is surprising to me in its removal from the many demands placed on artistic production today – conceptual super-loadedness, the presentation of history or research, ‘collaboration’ as method, referential specificity, or the return of the documentary ‘real’. Jurczak, seemingly indifferent, approaches her production with an unfashionable yet determined individualism – what used to be called a ‘signature’ or ‘style’. In particular, the tonality of her work is a classic ‘uncanny’, or familiar made strange, which – when taken as a ‘reference’ or tactic – has been done so often as to seem nearly zombified. But – Juczak’s innocently uncanny exhibition made me think – what happens when the uncanny itself repeats, and the unfamiliar becomes familiar again, at least until the next match burns?