Beyond the Boundaries of a Painting

Dariusz Lesnikowski


Observing the evolution of Katarzyna Miller’s painting manifestations, we simultaneously follow the uncompromising actions of the artist who seeks the true dimension of the word painting. Starting with its traditional understanding as a mimetic reflection of the reality, the painter gradually extends the meaning of the notion and finally she definitely goes beyond the customary boundaries of the territory reserved for that phenomenon[1]. Hence, at a certain stage of her work ‒ when we take into account the physical status of a painting’s existence ‒ it reached the dimension of the whole of the painter’s environment, including the space, the testimonies of her creation and objects imbued with personal, private and intimate emotions.

For Katarzyna Miller, the painting ultimately ceases to be merely an object isolated from life. It is an apparent testimony of experience, or even the experience itself. It becomes an integral part of the artist. Art is identified with experience, understood not as an enriching single emotion, but as a process of recognizing and shaping identity that serves to reveal the truth and at the same time to achieve the unity of paintings and the artist herself.

At first, the artist succumbed to convincing suggestiveness of illusion in two ways: in terms of creativity, understanding what the painting is and in terms of what the truth-obscuring curtain of convention, illusion and hypocrisy of everyday life is. After a dramatic breakthrough, at the moment of a significant personal experience, her art began to correspond with life, and it even reached the limits of the life itself. It ceased to be external to it. It became the life itself. In art creation, such identification of life with art is not always safe (e.g. Viennese actionists, some of whom: Rudolf Schwarzkogler, Otto Muehl spectacularly transcended this delicate boundary). Katarzyna Miller achieved this state not through that kind of ‘actionism’, but she transforms the situations and the status of the painting in her artistic activity.

The story of her artwork is based on a record of the process of a search for the man’s true identity and the real essence of the surrounding world. To adopt this kind of approach means to reject what one considered to be the truth so far, to confront something with the image of something. It also refers to the system of values which was imposed by the surrounding environment. The basic problem was to give a comprehensive answer to the question who am I? in relation to the human being, the woman and the artist. Katarzyna Miller met the challenge to find the essence of the phenomena that had been hidden behind a curtain of her own projections and expectations, but also conformism and inertia.

The psychic experience, which had previously been beyond artistic expression, became more and more evident and influenced formal activities. Gradually, a peculiar arrangement of forces resulting from the struggle between what is true or false led to the progressive destruction of the traditional form of a painting and the change of its understanding.

The abandonment of the former creative practice also paralleled the adoption of a new attitude to life characterized by an attempt to touch what is unknown ‒ or once simply rejected ‒ by a woman who seeks to verify and redefine relations concerning herself, others, the world and finally God.

There come reconfigurations of a few basic motifs and symbols that are present in her artwork. The relation to a human figure as a motif, its evolution becomes a clear reflection of the gradually appearing changes which the idea of the mirror and the idea of the painting underwent in her artwork.

From the very beginning the human figure constituted the imagery element of almost all Katarzyna Miller’s works. The approach to the woman’s image developed in particular periods of her creation showed perfectly well the way the process of looking for her identity took place. Thus the successive stages of reaching the meaning of the painting took place in parallel with the painter’s personal life search.

The artist’s early paintings are well-painted works, with expressive clear composition, a well-thought-out colour scheme. The feminine image, both the one rendered more elaborately and the one only sketched, was part of a careful and traditional representation of the world; the painting was created with faith that it reflects the truth about man and human life. The feminine figure was then one of the components of the conventional views of a human figure in the interior. The mirror, one of the motifs which are actually or presumably present in Katarzyna Miller’s works, was then a metaphorical synonym of the painting and creation in general.

When it turned out that behind the facade of illusion there hides the other true, unconventional life, the image of the woman changed. The painter, looking for adequate means of expression, went away from the correct sharpness, deprived the characters of a part of their characteristic features. They were henceforth more sketchy, superficial and undefined, as if imperfect, and consequently more ambiguous.

The figures, ‘paper’ and obscure, became a projection of the condition of the artist herself; the mirror was a source of demystification. These acts of creation were accompanied by a subdued palette of colours. The greater contribution of the drawing factor dramatized the message. The expression of emotions became more important than an anecdote.

The human figure slowly disappeared from the plane, and the mirror became a symbol of a lie. Gradually, the artist began to use a paper-cut stencil ‒ simple and rough ‒ which became a piece of painting itself. It was replicated, differentiated by additional artistic devices. The image as a material object was released from the obligation to falsify the reality. The mirror became a tool revealing tawdriness and mediocrity of what we had so far considered to be the only right thing. The form and status of the mirror were processed; it adopted the shape of a human figure, it was a reflection of a person; then the phenomenon of the mirror extended to the whole surroundings.

What turned out to be fictitious was not only the image of the world, but also the picture of various values such as truth, goodness, love, and eventually God. Other passions and needs, yet not recognized or secret, became more dominant. Life with its attributes slowly revealed its true colours, was stripped of illusion and false pretences.

Katarzyna Miller’s painting is not free from numerous transgressions. For her the strongest, most dramatic act of transgression was to abandon her belief that a painting as an object of art could become a credible equivalent of the reality. Not only did she reject this conviction, but she also confronted the physical shape of the painting, causing its destruction. What is important ‒ the concept of the painting considerably expanded, including also its material vehicle. The painting was not so much the visual aspect of the depicted motif, not its representation, but also the torn canvas loaded with numerous contexts and associations ‒ transparencies and openings, and also what was behind it. The painting, which had only had a flat surface before, enclosed what was once external. The real life, not covered by its imitation, permeated through the rip[2].

Later Katarzyna Miller activated the whole space around the painting as an object, incorporating it into the area of installation, which further extended its scope and meaning. The whole message became the painting, without dividing it into the painting canvas and the independent surroundings.

The art itself was also revalued. It lost the fetish value, was demythicised, degraded both as a value and as an object. It suffered physical destruction that reinvigorated it, making it an element of life. Painting gained specific quality as a substitute for what had so far been perceived only as a recognised gap.

The means of artistic expression used in the creative process constitute the elements of an original painting language. Once it belonged to the world of illusion and it depicted the world in a fallacious way. Gradually the artist changed this language, rejecting false elements in order to leave only those which were not artificial and mendacious.

Such an artistic and human act required a radical action. That is why, when it was not enough to abandon the old painting practices, the artist entered the space of the installation. A broken, degraded (or just getting more powerful) painting stretcher dramatizes and lends credence to the artist’s experience. Finally it comes to the integration of visual and verbal components (the installation Voice Release – Painting Release) – intimate recordings which are complementary to the works of art, contributing the element of the truth to the comprehensively understood notion of the painting.

After passionate negation of the traditional form of a painting, Katarzyna Miller returned to it, but today the painting is different. It is spatial, including morphological components which are independent of it, and technologically it makes an impact with varied textures. The images of women in her works are suspended in space, timeless, helpless, as if without any weight, similar to the figures on Mannerist gravestones and paintings. It might be the moment just before crossing the boundary, before the final removal of the obstacle which prevents us from recognizing the source of life inherent in man.

When viewing these latest paintings (a type of vertical works showing elongated, incomplete figures), we should remember that they are the result of a dramatic search, a logical evolution, during which superfluous, photographic details defining the human figure were abandoned, in which the rules of composition resulting from the division of paintings were subject to destruction. We should have in mind the special, toned and cool palette of colours discovered by the artist to signal the mental states typical of the situations of negation, disaffection and self-criticism. The figure in the form of a stencil becomes a universal sign. Rendering individual projections into the form of diptychs or triptychs makes the message even more universal. The painting simultaneously reveals existential questions that provoke a further search and, in the artistic layer, they force the emergence of new, seemingly similar though different works.

In the traditional approach to art the painting represented the artist and the artist stood behind the painting. Here the painting becomes part of the experience, a witness to the human drama. It goes beyond the limits of the frame. It is not just a reflection of the reality, attractive yet untrue. It is not an illusion, not a mask. It is life.

Dariusz Leśnikowski

[1] The artist acts like Joseph Beuys – though here the actions were prompted by a bit different motivations – who related to sculpting in a wide context; it was both a physical act but also an idea. For him a sculpture was, for example the students’ party founded by the artist, the organisation of ‘non-voters’, or a written document, not to mention the compositions made of grease or felt. See P. Krakowski, O sztuce nowej i najnowszej, Warszawa 1981, p. 117-118; Joseph Beuys – teksty komentarze, wywiady, ed. Jaromir Jedliński, Warszawa 1990, passim.

[2] Wolfgang Welsch writes about breaking the ‘reality’ by modern art: ‘The traditional art put trust in the existence of the reality which it could reproduce, surpass or beautify. (…) When, after all, the contemporary painting refers to the reality, it is only to show how unreal the reality is’. See W. Welsch, Narodziny filozofii postmodernistycznej z ducha sztuki modernistycznej, transl. J. Balbierz, [in:] Odkrywanie modernizmu. Prze­kłady i komentarze, ed. R. Nycz, Kraków 1998, p. 437–438.