Doors and the thresholds that they demarcate are recurring motifs in Dorota Jurczak’s work. In her latest solo exhibition, ‘JOHANNA’, at Künstlerhaus Stuttgart, these twin concepts are introduced by two life-sized bronze reliefs: im 4. stockwerk (mädchen) (On the 4th Floor [Girl]) and im 4. stockwerk (junge) (On the 4th Floor [Boy], both 2017). One depicts a young girl, the other a young boy, each of whom stands in profile and holds a doorknob in their left hand as if they are entering a room – or perhaps about to leave. This ambiguity provides the allegorical framework for the whole show. It suggests a space between the here and the elsewhere, the visible and the invisible; a place in which everything seems tentative.
Besides the two bronzes, ‘JOHANNA’ features several sets of figurative etchings. Meticulously executed and rich in detail as well as ingenuity, they range from delicate monochrome drypoint prints to larger aquatints in a range of colours. These works call forward other motifs that are characteristic of Jurczak’s practice: birds, for example, or the fabulously mysterious, sometimes comical and often grotesque creatures captured in pieces such as sam, we dwoje, we troje (Alone, in Twos, in Threes, 2017) and wykrzyknik (Exclamation, 2017). This wild array of beasts immediately brings to mind the unsettling illustrations of Edward Gorey, while a number of nearby etchings depicting statically arranged figures recall the uncanny stiffness of Victorian family portraits. But, given the fact that Jurczak was born in Warsaw, the Polish School of Posters could also be a reference point. At the start of the 1950s – an era of prescribed socialist realism in the country – the central figures of the Polish School (including Roman Cieślewicz, Jan Młodożeniec and Janusz Stanny) began to produce starkly contrasting posters and illustrations that concealed politically charged symbolism beneath layers of absurdity and surrealism – the former Soviet Union, for instance, metamorphosed into a bear.
Jurczak’s two bronze figures are positioned at opposite ends of the room on white partitioning walls; the various groupings of etchings are mounted on identical modules that stand askew, occupying the space between. Such practicalities are important here, as the positions of the etchings, reliefs and walls dictate that the works themselves can only be seen from one side of the exhibition space. Viewed from the other, the empty sides of the seven display walls turn into white monoliths and are reminiscent of minimal sculptures. This enforced alteration of perspective turns ‘JOHANNA’ into a game of hide and seek – a play of deception in which everything oscillates between the concrete and the abstract. Consequently, the paradigm of the exhibition display as installation – or vice versa – resonates with the ambiguity first proposed by the indeterminate positions of the boy and girl.
Jurczak’s images, like the techniques of bronze relief and etching that she employs, seem slightly anachronistic, although not in a nostalgic or hackneyed sense. Instead, they trigger a strange, familiar feeling, similar to that which is experienced upon suddenly remembering a scene from a dream. But it is the physical display of ‘JOHANNA’ that is its greatest strength. More than a simple spatial component, it consolidates Jurczak’s work conceptually, framing the individual elements and stylistic coherence of her own visual universe while simultaneously accentuating the disparity of her subject matter. While it exists as a single entity, ‘JOHANNA’ remains fragmentary, like a symphony of missing links, of associations in transit, of roving comings and goings. Or is it all just lingering at the threshold?
Main image: Dorota Jurczak, im 4. stockwerk (junge) (detail), 2017, bronze. Courtesy: Künstlerhaus Stuttgart; photograph: Frank Kleinbach