New York

Zofia Kulik

Lombard-Fried Projects

Polish artist Zofia Kulik, part of a perfomance duo (with Przemyslaw Kwiek) until 1987, has been occupied for the past several years with composing black and white photomontages that, formally at least, recall stained-glass windows. In these works she combines photographs of a naked male figure (most often her friend Zbigniew Libera, also an artist) in various military poses with prints of, among other things, banners, commemorative wreaths, missiles, as well as stills from television or videos of military parades. Kulik’s photomontages are born of a passion for mining Poland’s communist past: for collecting objects that reflect that vanished era and recording the events that shaped it. In Kulik’s case, it means returning to her life as the daughter of a dressmaker and a military officer; the latter—as the artist recently mentioned in an interview—“was in the Propaganda Department [of the Peoples Army of Poland].”

Kulik’s strategy—investing art grounded in personal experience with a veiled political message—is one commonly employed by many artists from the former Soviet Bloc, and is continuous with their past practices as it was obviously one of the easiest ways to get past communist censors. Thus coded, art could comment on the difficulties of life under a totalitarian regime—difficulties as subtle and psychologically complex as the problematics of being dependent on government sponsorship while maintaining one’s status as an outsider or a dissident. With communism gone (at least in its previous incarnation), Kulik confronts a new challenge: how to effectively investigate the past, which continues to serve as a vital source of references for both her art and life, without succumbing to nostalgia. She responds to it by presenting the communist past as a system of signs in which the line between the real and the imagined became hopelessly blurred.

The monumental photographic tableau Facade of 500 Exposures, 1995, which depicts a naked man flanked by two fully dressed, identical, bowing women, seemed to depict at once some bizarre ritual and the scene of a crime. The figures were enclosed in a Gothic niche in which a large picture of a skull was prominently displayed. Male nudes graced the top of the composition, floating above the niche like angels or Christ ascending to Heaven, echoing the Gothic forms, which were also evoked by the rhythmic configurations of missiles and root vegetables that framed the composition. Borrowing equally from religious iconography and the Social Realist tradition, this work embraced the esthetics of the two fundamental ideological forces—communism and the Roman Catholic church—that conditioned and polarized the lives of Poles from the end of World War II until the late ’80s. Kulik further complicates this matrix of references by investing her work with an ornamental quality complemented by the highly associative connections among the tableau’s various parts.

The desire to position her art between an ideologically inflected “real” and a “fictional” mise-en-scène (a reflection, perhaps, of both the harsh realities and the absurdity of everyday life in Poland) was also evident in Kulik’s smaller pieces, such as her three-color Cibachrome photographic collages collectively entitled “Still Life,” 1995. Filled with skulls, fruit, and candles in the shape of a cross, chains piled on top of each other in order to suggest a human brain, as well as pieces of blood sausage, these eschatological pictograms employ religious symbols and motifs to speak of oppression and perhaps persecution. By her provocative referencing of religion, which until recently was considered the front line of resistance to communism, Kulik communicates her own feelings of ambiguity about the ideological vectors that condition present-day Poland

Marek Bartelik