Stefan Szczesny

Dumont Hall

In a tour de force, Stefan Szczesny has painted some seventy “soul” portraits of various prominent figures, from Friedrich Nietzsche to Andy Warhol, from El Greco to Bob Marley, from Novalis to John Lennon. What connects these figures is their meaning for Szczesny—their influence on his intellectual, emotional, and artistic development. Forming a personal pantheon, they also remind us of the irreconcilable diversity of ideas that contribute to a serious identity—the impossibility of overcoming contradiction and explaining all one’s elective affinities. Szczesny has in effect portrayed the protean range of his internal objects, as psychoanalysts call them, and in doing so reminded us that there is apparently no privileged object, and by implication, no realm of culture more significant than any other.

There are three things that make Szczesny’s pictures interesting in the context of contemporary culture: their defense of painting; their refusal to establish a hierarchy of figures in terms of intellectual, emotional, and artistic importance (to make an evaluation beyond that of the initial choice of objects, seemingly random to the point of fortuitousness), and the general sense of the reduction of all culture—high and low or avant-garde and kitsch as they used to be called—to spectacle. While there is a sense of high theater, indeed opera, to Szczesny’s project, with each of the figures a grand character or aria, the overall effect is of a nihilistically levelling pluralism—the cultural nihilism of today. No doubt it is more like a swamp than a wasteland, but cultural abundance can become burdensome, especially when not filtered through some standards and for some end.

Nonetheless, Szczesny’s nihilism is engaging, his devotion to his array of heroes peculiarly moving. I can submit myself to the sensuous flux of Szczesny’s painterliness—even when it verges on nihilistic homogenization—but not to the individuals whose sacred essence he distills through that painterliness. There was too much of a religious atmosphere in viewing so many all-time greats together in one place—none of them alive, except through paint. Szczesny created a virtual church of modern (in the broadest sense) saints, each with his attribute, and each promising a miraculous cure for some intellectual, emotional, or artistic ailment. But each seemed peculiarly pathetic and passé: there was no clear reason to believe in them, except that Szczesny does and that they are general cultural icons. In the end, Szczesny’s rhapsodic treatment of these historical figures erected a barrier between me and them.

One wants to believe as Szczesny does, one wants to be inspired the way he is, but in the end one is forced to be critical, and forced to admit that one admires the Paganini-like play of Szczesny’s paint for nostalgic reasons—for the way it evokes the grand tradition of subjective, expressionistic painting—and forced to admire ambition on such a grand scale. But I was left peculiarly unmoved despite being moved, because so much immortality in one place turns me off, particularly when it is thrust at me as indisputably immortal. Also, while the dizzying intensity of Szczesny’s paint honors its subjects by suggesting that their ideas and works remain eternally vital and forceful, it sometimes seemed to stuff them with gestural straw, turning them into scarecrows. Was this his unconscious being critical? Was he unwittingly letting us know that charisma is a social construction?

Donald Kuspit