BY Mark Landsman in Features | 06 MAY 03
Featured in
Issue 75

For Your Pleasure

Wilhelm Sasnal

BY Mark Landsman in Features | 06 MAY 03

By their sheer variety, Wilhelm Sasnal's paintings present something of a puzzle. Largely based on pre-existing photographs or images taken from films, magazines, graphics or animation, the works range in subject matter from landscapes to portraits to representations of disparate, seemingly unrelated objects and scenes (cars, the sun, a mushroom, a church, a group of hunters ...). Stylistically they draw freely on an array of traditions, including Photorealism, Minimalism, Pop and gestural abstraction. In short, they lean in multiple directions, alternately figurative or abstract, blurred or razor-sharp in focus, austerely muted or brilliantly vibrant in colour. Those who encounter the work of this thoughtful Polish painter for the first time may, however, wonder: where is the central thread?

One clue resides in the paint itself, to which the artist, through several strategies, takes great pains to draw attention. Keen to emphasize the materiality of the medium (invariably oil on canvas), Sasnal sticks his hands into the paint and smears it around; he squeezes it out in globs directly from the tube; he slathers it on thickly in order to highlight the brushwork; he attaches different pieces of canvas together, making no attempt to obscure the line of separation between them, even as it cuts through the image; or he simply leaves the painted canvas hanging loosely on the frame, drooping like a curtain. The effect is to encourage us to contemplate the elements of artifice. Cemetery (2002), to take an example from his recent show at Anton Kern Gallery, New York, consists of two joined pieces of canvas on which the artist painted a bright, flesh-coloured background, squeezed out several randomly placed blobs of royal blue paint and then smeared each of them with the flick of a finger. You could see the image as an abstract rendering of burning candles on a grave, with each smear of blue representing a flickering flame, or as an overhead perspective, looking down on a graveyard in which the blue smudges evoke individual tombstones and departing souls. Either way it has an insidious emotional impact. Also on view were two untitled head and shoulder portraits, each of a man and each composed entirely of individual globules of black paint squeezed on to a white canvas to form the outlines of the figures. With each globule coming to a point like a Baci chocolate, the portraits immediately set off a chain of thoughts about how the individual parts come to form a whole.

Even in his abstract paintings Sasnal is concerned with the limits and possibilities of representation. This concern is partly responsible for his stylistic variety; it also helps to explain the role of photographs and other found images as a point of departure, as they introduce an extra degree of removal from 'reality'. Likewise his depictions, often presented in slightly off-kilter or asymmetrical compositions, tend to spill out of the frame, as if to suggest that the borders of the picture can't fully contain the thing depicted. And then there is his prominent deployment of the blur, especially in his more recent paintings. Here Sasnal's work draws an inevitable comparison with that of Gerhard Richter. There are obvious similarities between the two artists: both came of age under communism (perhaps an additional impetus for scepticism about the veracity of representations of the world); both exemplify a restless stylistic variety and experimentation with figuration and abstraction; and of course both produce photo-based work that relies on the blur effect. Sasnal's brushwork, however, is far more pronounced, his blur less meticulous; he also offers more extreme and unbalanced points of view.

In fact, the question of point of view and perspective is of more than purely formal significance - it provides another clue to Sasnal's deeper concerns. However bound up they are with issues of representation, his paintings are not simply about the artist's struggle to render the real world in two-dimensions: that concern is part of a broader exploration of the processes of seeing and perception. How does one represent to oneself that which one sees? How does the mind make sense of the visual data taken in by the eye? How are these processes influenced by intervening factors such as desire, fear, identity, power or celebrity? And what is the nature of the relationship between viewer and viewed? These common questions, which lie at the heart of Sasnal's work, go a long way towards explaining what one might otherwise dismiss as a random and superficial stylistic eclecticism. Variety, in other words, is essential to this line of inquiry. Many of the paintings present dramatic - at times Cinemascopic - points of view, whether in extreme close-up, long-shot or bird's-eye perspective. Some of the pictures return the viewer's gaze as a kind of provocation. Car (2002), for example, presents an extreme, slightly blurry, close-up of the back-end of a futuristic prototype, presumably on display at a motor show; the vehicle's exhaust pipes - two large black holes - stare back at the viewer, as if to unsettle whatever impulse it is that craves such machines. Similarly Attack (2001), which resembles an image from a computer game, shows, in long-shot, a policeman in riot gear pinning a man down on the ground and covering his mouth. The man's head, however, is turned sideways so that his eyes meet those of the viewer, producing the ambivalent sense of the spectator's distance from, yet complicity in, the violence.

In other Sasnal paintings we see people gazing or peering off into a mysterious distance or dark spaces. We have no idea what they see or why their attention is seized; we can only look at them looking. In yet other paintings we are confronted with images we can't quite make out. UFO (2002), for example, is a mostly grey canvas with a few dark marks and blotches, presumably based on the kind of cheap trick photograph one sees in tabloids. In the lower left-hand corner there appear to be shadows, while at the top of the painting there are two arrows. One of them points to what looks like the silhouette of a tilted disk (ostensibly a flying saucer); the other points to something outside the frame altogether. Unable really to see anything, we inevitably shift our attention to the act of looking itself, in which we suddenly become self-conscious. At times Sasnal can be a little heavy-handed in pulling this sort of trick. For instance, with Beck (2002) and Beastie Boys (2002) he offers two portraits of rock stars. But in each of these paintings one can only see the borders of the portraits because white rectangles are imposed within the frame of the canvas, leaving large expanses where one would normally expect to see the faces of singers at the microphone. As a comment on celebrity and the nature of fandom, these pictures are rather reductive and facile, but fortunately they are not typical of his work.

Sasnal is also capable of producing paintings that afford an immediate, arresting aesthetic pleasure, quite unrelated to the larger questions about representation and perception. Two examples must suffice. The first is an untitled, abstract canvas painted a dark, pine-green in prominent vertical brushstrokes. Flashes of purple and yellow emerge here and there from underneath the green. On this shiny, almost lacquered surface the artist has made several delicate finger smudges, in no discernible pattern; when the light hits them, these seem to float like lily pads on a still, green pond. The effect is of a fleeting, contented pause captured before its vanishing. The second example, Desert (2002), is a blurry landscape painted in shades of grey. The point of view is a long-shot in which the flatness of the land and the sky are separated by what appears to be an extended, billowy cloud of dust kicked up by some kind of vehicle moving across the picture. Again the impression is of time frozen, of something precariously evanescent - dust in the air - given the appearance of solidity and permanence. We know the dust will eventually settle, but in the meantime we see a world temporarily transformed, and recognize we are unlikely ever to see it that way again.