Wilhelm Sasnal

Kunsthalle Zurich

Broad, densely tangled brushstrokes pile up on the surface of the canvas. They compose an impenetrable green wall that hangs threateningly over a small, scattered group of people. In Wilhelm Sasnal’s Forest, 2002, painting alla prima reveals itself through its rapid gesture and simultaneously blocks out every image that could be hidden in the background. The young Polish painter has produced an enormous quantity of work since 1999, and a large selection of it was here presented for the first time in a public institution.

Behind the narrow, labyrinthine entrance to the exhibition waited a forest of paintings that remain “dark” in all senses of the word. Sasnal’s landscapes, portraits, interiors, pictorial narratives with texts, and gestural and geometric abstractions are executed in the most diverse painterly styles. Although many of the abstractions possess a Pop-like clarity, they also make reference to a range of image sources so broad that it can hardly be accessed. The work’s nuances lie in a very personal constellation of motifs—drawn from the news, art catalogues, literature, comics, and record covers, among other sources—in which the intimate and the public converge. Even the discourse that could connect photography to painting seems forgotten, so that a near-photorealistic modulation of specific forms can be augmented by drippings, elements of free drawing, or comic schematizations. In this subjective topography one can orient oneself only by following subjective rules.

Sasnal’s subjective appropriation of the most divergent sources is reminiscent of Raymond Pettibon’s approach to drawing. In Sasnal’s paintings the world likewise turns into an unstoppable stream of images, to be read and written again and again, raised to the second and third powers. But while Pettibon’s stories extend in different directions through a cluster of individual pages, Sasnal’s work is open to a sequential reading, though one charged with cross-references, capable of being read back and forth. This exhibition took up this filmic element with a linear ordering of the works in dense rows that drew one to meander along the sequence in the hall. In the library space, one could also see Sasnal’s Super-8 shorts on DVD.

Often Sasnal’s palette is reduced to shades of black, gray, and white, with just rare hints of color. In their somberness, the paintings seem like afterimages, shadows of pictures. Singular moments are caught in memory, emblazon themselves on the mind, and perhaps interpolate themselves later in connection with other images. Sasnal uses the immediacy and multiplicity of painterly possibilities to open up a complex visual and tactile memory of a media world of luminous and glittering image surfaces. In the same way that bits of schematic information combine in the brain into memories, personal thoughts grow out of his image series: “It is when one neuron excites its neighbours, and they in turn fire up others, that patterns of activity arise that are complex and integrated enough to create thoughts, feelings and perceptions,” as Rita Carter put it in her book Mapping the Mind (1998). The dissolving of the brushstroke in Forest answers the compression of individual black points in Hive, 2003, into a swarm that emerges unmediated from the broad green ground.

Hans Rudolf Reust

Translated from German by Diana Reese.