Non-Presence. A Mirror as a Reflection and Illusion of Reality. A Return to the Interior,
fragments of disertation, Łódź 2015
The paper figure of a woman and her reflection in a mirror, photo: Katarzyna Miller
Part I. Description of the question
Non-Presence. A Picture Exists Beyond The Picture
Inside the Picture
Non-Presence – a Picture Exists Beyond The Picture
The cycle of paintings which is the answer to the subject raised in the title of my dissertation was created between July 2013 and November 2014. The works are presented in a way which corresponds to the form of their exposition in my atelier. The presentation also includes certain elements of a painter’s workshop: a floor splattered with paint, painting tools, such as stencils which at first had been instruments used to create pictures and eventually became autonomous means of expression.
In the presented cycle ‘a picture exists beyond the picture’. It means that my painting is not limited to just works on canvas surrounded by a frame. A painting works in an installation as a performative form, variable and determined by the context in which it came into being. A work is a meta-project which, although it does not ignore the value of its individual elements, expresses a total, open and mobile form. The act of creation is shown in it as a process, a process of discovering and confirming one’s identity through the choice of appropriate means of artistic expression.
The cycle matured as I grew mature. When I was beginning work on my doctoral dissertation, I was not able to foresee the final shape of the project. The fabric of the paintings was a personal story – a story of a meeting with a ‘mirror
The meeting with a ‘mirror’ was in my life the meeting with Love.
I told this story in a recording used for the installation ‘Liberation of a Voice – Liberation of an Image’ presented at the Ghetto XXI exhibition. (…)
Thus, meeting a ‘mirror’ as a metaphor of confronting the truth has a double meaning. When we get to know what is true, we also get to know what an appearance is. And although the division into the true and the false image of reality is always – in a sense – a matter of convention, everyone comes to a point in life when such a division has to be made.
In my personal experience confrontation with a ‘mirror’ was a meeting not only with my deepest identity, but also with its reflection shaped by the external world. It was a confrontation with the false image of goodness, love, womanhood, the image which separated me from my nature and from who I was. The return to the inside – to my own heart – proved to be a process of accepting my humanity which lasted for several years. It was a gradual liberation from the image which I had been carrying inside me. It was getting to know myself and life anew, without a point of reference, only in His non-presence.
The context of presence or relative absence of God is important for understanding my work and the shape of what was created. The subject of the dissertation does not consider the issue of an image or a reflection as an idea, but is connected with a direct experience. The works created, or to be more precise, the process of creation itself, became an expression of emotions and feelings which accompanied me at the time when I was working on the project. My confrontation with myself and my image was related to confrontation with Him and His image in the experience of a Meeting. What I was doing was to a great extent an attempt at squaring up with Him, the Not-Present. It also unmasked the illusion concerning ‘Him’ – my love. At a certain point creating became an attempt at giving a name to the reality which separated us. As I was painting or destroying paintings, I resisted something that I could not otherwise get in touch with. In this way art helped me to reveal what was my inner truth.
A mirror appears in my work as a symbol. At first it is hidden in the greyness and emptiness of the pictures – the symbol of dead and illusory world. Then it becomes a figure, first abstract, then a human silhouette. The figure is someone similar, but at the same different, alien. Finally, all these symbols are united into a much bigger area, becoming one image of a human inner world, life, and path.
I formulated the title of the cycle referring to a photograph of a female silhouette cut out of paper juxtaposed with a piece of a looking glass. The photograph was made while I was working on a drawing on a plexiglass mirror, onto which I wanted to transfer a realistic image of a woman. At a certain moment I leaned the silhouette against the mirror on which I was drawing. The image which resulted struck me as absurd on the one hand and as realistic on the other. It presented a girl who did not find her face in the reflection, but ‘an empty form’. I don’t know whether the mirror showed her ‘paper’ identity or something else. Yet, as I looked at the photograph, I found a situation in which I was myself. At the same time I realized that the photograph represented something which had been visible in my painting for a long time. In this way the picture in the photograph became a starting point for the formula of the topic, describing the present and closing the past with one brace. The motif of returning to the interior included in the title of the dissertation indicated my need to express myself and my identity in the painting on which I was working.
What is the source of the need for destruction, for going ‘beyond the picture’ in my painting?
Why does the picture begin to disturb and does the way delineated in the topic compromise the one which I had followed before?
For many years I had been painting so-called bright pictures, colourful paintings on canvas. I had wanted to express love – the love which I felt for nature and simple, human, earthly reality with my sensitivity to form and to phenomena in which I had been trying to find the ‘live’ face of the surrounding world. The image of this reality attracted me and that was why I did not reach to what was beyond my sight or touch. Another person, the view from the window or merely the interior of my studio had been sufficient inspiration for painting. And although the painted world changed in time, faded or was getting more ‘made up’ than related to impressions, my intention was invariably to preserve a certain truth of what I saw and experienced, the truth which I intuitively wanted to enclose in the painting.
When life struck the world which I had been painting, it fell apart before my eyes. I woke up in the dark, in the world ‘without picture’. I lost track of who I was or what I saw. The previously unidentified world of appearances in which I had unconsciously functioned suddenly manifested itself to the full.
Like a demon, the caricature of the reality, stood beside life and mocked it. It also mocked my paintings which I suddenly discovered anew. The figure depicted in them was in fact enclosed in them. It was, as it were, painted and not painted at the same time. Wanted and unwanted, as if it was non-present, divided. Now, in the ‘new’ reality, I understood why I had repainted most of my pictures.
The reality of a dream, the ‘reality’ of a picture as an unreal world and at the same time the area of alienation and isolation became to me a synonym of a glass surface of a mirror which separated me from life and which I intended to break. ‘A mirror’ was not only my imagination or a reflection. It was an experience of a contact with an uninhabited space, empty and cold as glass, an endless space, whose boundaries you would like to find and go beyond. This space, like the surface of water, reflected only now and again mask-like faces of sleeping people.
After that experience, the return to the old way of painting was no longer possible. ‘My picture’ had fallen apart. The motif of return which I included in the title of the dissertation implied my need to express what remained alive and true in me and which had previously been concealed or disguised under the surface of the pictures which I had painted. Yet I was not sure if I would manage to express through painting what was the essence of my life. I wanted to paint life, but I didn’t know how to do it. I felt that the only thing to do with life was to UTTER it.
When I decided to create a cycle of paintings I had no vision of the final effect. I was not interested in painting as a formal game limited to just the aesthetic dimension. I also had a sense of a certain analogy of a two-dimensional ‘mute’ painting on canvas with a symbolic wall, a curtain which I didn’t wish to raise. Therefore, as was standing in front of the canvas with a brush in my hand, I felt an urge to destroy the canvas and not to create. And this is how the process of creation began.
I began to treat the painting techniques as I wished at a given moment. I started painting grey and blue pictures which I then cut up. To me, a painting became a symbol, evolving gradually into a broader, ambiguous form, going beyond the frame of a single work. Painting became my life space in which I functioned. In my home – studio, a place where I had worked and lived for the last two years – the borderline between life and art was became blurred. I wouldn’t be able to explain many of my realizations, which were expressions of feelings rather than realizations of a concepts, without referring to the context in which they came into being. They do not show a ‘mirror’ or a ‘figure’, but to some extent they are themselves a reflection of me and of what I was carrying inside of me.
When in August 2014 at the Ghetto XXI exhibition I created the above mentioned installation ‘Liberation of a Voice – Liberation of an Image’, I had several dozen ready paintings in my studio, but I still felt that they were not what I wanted to express through my art. The works, limited only to themselves were not the equivalent of what was inside the human soul, the human identity which I was searching for. In the intimate space provided by the exhibition I created an interaction of words and images using the cut-up grey and blue canvases and my own voice. What resulted was a total image – one consistent tale about life and a human being. That realization became a breakthrough in my decision to finish my doctoral thesis. It helped me to look at my artistic work from a distance. I became aware that I was painting no matter what means of expression I was using. I realised that painting was an inseparable part of me, of the path of my life, that it accompanied me, following right behind me or even coming ahead of me. I noticed that, as an organic part integrated with me and not detached from me, it created the image of that path. In this way, within the space of my studio, among all the accumulated paintings, I discovered the symbol of the ‘interior’ – the symbol of my identity.
The question asked in the introduction to this chapter was deliberate. It haunted me when I was working on the cycle, especially at the beginning of the process. Today, however, as the process of creation is over, it seems that my doubts about the identity of an image perceived as my individual way of artistic expression were groundless and premature. Although I cut up and destroyed several canvases, I have never given up using a painting as an art object. Its shape has merely undergone evolution from iconoclasm of a sort and destruction of form to its reintegration. What is more, my painting in the form in which I present it has maintained its identity and is a whole of which I am a part myself.
In my dissertation I will not deal with the ontology of image from the philosophical, theoretical point of view. I would only like to point out that semantic abbiguity of the idea of the image, which is shown in my thinking of an image as a phenomenon, is the nature of the image itself. For me, the image (in the general sense, as a notion) is a form in which reality is revealed and becomes present. I feel and see images with some inner sense, although they do not have to have a clear visual shape. They may be an invisible but perceptible construction of the reality itself – its essence. On the other hand, however, I use the term ‘image’ as a synonym of what is in opposition to being and is its appearance. Then, the image is what covers up reality, simulates it, and thus to some extent also deforms it. The semantics of the idea of the image is thus similar to that of the idea of a mirror and a reflection. As it reflects reality, an image indicates and replaces it. Yet it does not mean that it is always a lie. At times the essence of things coincides with its representation. Then reality becomes identical with its image.
Various stylistic forms were used in the presented wok. These include, among others, the earlier mentioned canvases covered in grey. Although the works have an open and unfinished form, due to its symbolic quality it is an important element in the process of discovering and molding the final shape of the presentation. Painting the so-called grey canvases was my first, spontaneous reaction to the theme of ‘a mirror’. At the early stage of my work the abstract form and grey and blue colours were for me a counterpart of the mirror, apparent reality. I cut the first large format grey canvas in two. The created division reappeared time and time again during the realization of the cycle. It manifested itself in various manners, becoming a division within the form or a division into two separate forms – two paintings. For I started to paint on smaller canvases and to create relations between them – a single composition. In time the paintings started to include an outline of a face or a text in place of the image. The form of these works, initially geometric, in time transformed into a more sensual, animate form which I discovered by tearing the canvas off the frame and dividing it into halves. At that moment, when the stripes of canvas lying on the floor, covered in paint on one side and showing the raw textile on the other, turned in my eyes from a ‘background’ into a form of expression in itself. Experiencing the image as a certain type of a symbol instead of depicting reality was completely new to my artistic work. At the same time, unlike the ‘stiff’, square paintings, the piece of canvas had a painting-like quality and was very suggestive for the very reason it did not depict anything, but presented exactly what it was – a piece of a coarse material.
This made me use the canvas as an autonomous means of expression. For a long time I did not feel the need to incorporate additional, representative elements in the sphere of the canvas silhouette. Even the concise outline of a figure vexed me, because it gave the impression of tautology – transferring to the canvas the very thing the canvas already was. For me these paintings began to have the same impact as a figure.
I tried to mechanically combine the canvases to give them a more complex and sensual form. I wanted to create a multi-element composition whose individual elements would coexist like a line and a spot coexist within the frame of a painting building the painting’s form. However, going back to the subject theme of the cycle I was aware that the form of the works was still too open and raw to present them.
My narrative paintings refer in style to my pieces from before my doctoral project. These works were an attempt at a literal transfer of the contents of the subject into a visual form. I refer in them to the paper figure of a woman which appears in the title of the project. Here, each painting is a closed, formally complex ‘story’ shown on a single canvas. The composition of these works is based on a vertical division of the surface of the painting in whose centre I place a grey silhouette painted from a photograph or copied from a stencil. The stencil plays the role of the medium for the shape of the figure, and sometimes becomes the representation itself. In one of my works I multiply a silhouette of a person creating a homogenous composition which, thanks to its conciseness, refers to some extent to the abstract ‘grey’ canvas, although there the plain of the painting seemed smooth and metallic, while here it resembles a solid stone surface. In my narrative pieces I diversify the painting means of expression by juxtaposing smooth uniform background with elements imitating texture. I create the effect by impressing on canvas a layer of acrylic paint applied on paper.
The narrative paintings are characterized by a colour scale limited to different shades of grey within which I try to build chromatic and temperature relations. In some works I use more chromatic colours which complement the dominant grey palette and at the same time perform the constructive function in the composition of the painting.
The final group of paintings presents anthropomorphic silhouettes painted on narrow, oblong canvases. These works return to the initial idea of treating the image on the canvas as a symbol of a figure. The abstract form of the first, grey paintings was substituted here with a representation. The prototype of the painted figure’s shape may be found in the morphology of the used stencil lying on the floor, which I applied as a ready artifact. I decided to multiply the outline of ‘the lying figure’ on the canvas by assembling the paintings into diptychs and triptychs. In these paintings the illusion of space is created by the progression of grey colour obtained by mixing white and black acrylic or oil paint. The space of the painting along with the silhouette placed in it forms one piece. The form of the representations is simplified, almost graphic. I create the shape of the figure by cutting out a foil stencil and applying a layer of a black transparent acrylic or oil paint. In some of these works I purposefully use a matrix of multiplied shapes, by which I turn it into a readymade artifact. The figures placed in the separated space of a single painting limited by the frame seem to be resting in a void or float in the air. I exhibit these paintings on the walls of my studio or horizontally, on the floor. To a large extent they give the final appearance and the atmosphere to the room by creating an illusory curtain of mirror reflections or other, mysterious creatures surrounding the viewer.
The image of the studio as a formally complementary aesthetic entity caught my attention almost from the beginning of my work. I photographed my surroundings, I observed it, but at the same time I didn’t want to copy it on canvas. The very thing which had been my inspiration in painting this time influenced me as a ready artifact. I felt that it was impossible to enclose the reality I saw in a frame, that its influence, its essence comes down to the fact that it is a part of the real world which surrounded me.
Inside the Picture
*I felt the need to show a creation which would integrate life and creative work (in other words – which would merge painting with reality) from the very beginning of my work on the cycle. Although I had not been able to predict its final shape some inner, a subconscious process of blurring the boundaries between the represented and existing worlds manifested itself – on an arbitrary level and against all rational evidence – at every step of the creative work. It was visible from the moment of creation of the first ‘paintings – signs’, which were rather a kind of my personal, symbolic space than an isolated work of art. The grey and the divided canvases were the first form of ‘non-paintings’ and a beginning of a new way of thinking about the painting as a sign and a certain homogenous whole in which the line between the image of a thing and the thing itself becomes blurred. In my instinctive, emotional actions there was a sense of unity with my surroundings in whose shelter I could do whatever I wanted, regardless of the established form of painting with which – as it turned out – I was identified. Although there is no material trace of the actions which I undertook at the time, I gained experience which liberated a creative potential I had not been formerly aware of. I discovered that painting imposed no limitations on me, so I can express myself by using any possible means, not negating the essence of painting but perhaps exploring it even further. For I don’t have to limit the act to the frame of a painting. I cannot do it because it has crossed those boundaries a long time ago. I experience it within me and I find it around me. Lately, more than ever, my work has helped me to express the things which I was afraid to specify and it has become both a tool of creative expression and an indispensible element of my everyday life.
*fragment deleted from the dissertation, author’s note
The work I present remains a painting cycle which is a concrete, sensual and palpable piece which does not recreate reality but is its integral part – my territory. This IMAGE does not hide anything, quite the contrary – it reveals everything. It shows the backstage, the secret part of painting. ‘The interior of the studio’ became an intimate and unifying space where all my creative experiments were integrated. Because nothing can be excluded from the studio as it is the natural place of creation of all the works which are here. What is more, none of the paintings should be evaluated or undergo a selection. The form of the presentation I chose allows me to show the complete work, the whole creative process on each of its stages. It includes the paper figures, accidental painting actions, by which I mean paintings in progress, which appeal to me so much thanks to their unique, dynamic character: torn canvases, unfinished, raw pieces abandoned at some stage of their creation. In the space of the studio, understood as an integral unity, they still have their place and it is a perfect form of exhibiting for them. For in a painter’s studio everything functions as a form.
Looking back at my whole artistic output I notice consistency and logic in my work. Painting has always been for me an attempt at a complete insight into the essence of the presented reality. I have searched for that essence in nature which surrounded me. During my work on the piece described here I tried to find an equivalent of its image which I carried inside me. It reached me in the form of symbols, in the painted and destroyed canvases, to finally turn out to be the very space which I had been painting for years. The symbolic return to myself which I refer to in the title of the dissertation seems to literally mean getting out of the earlier painted piece and getting into its real, physical dimension. This time I invite the viewer inside ‘my painting’ – the inside of my studio. Its concrete, literal and at the same time metaphorical form turned out to be the finalization of the work which realizes all the postulates included in the subject of my dissertation. I went beyond the concept of a painting as a symbol of an illusory world to go back to it in a new, different meaning where it became a sign and form of reality itself.
When I was devising the theme of the cycle, the ‘Non-presence’ in the title represented to me the paper identity of a mirror reflection. Today it perhaps becomes a symbol of identity. Although it still remains faceless, it becomes a subject. It marks its quiet presence among the paintings or beyond them. It says nothing but still is.
 Łódź, Monopolis, 24 – 30 August 2014, exhibition curator Artur Chrzanowski