Wawrzyniec Tokarski

They are not narrative images. Yet Wawrzyniec Tokarski’s paintings tell stories—stories that wrap themselves like masks around the images, creep into the consciousness of the viewer and, above all, don’t soon leave one in peace.

Tokarski, born in Gdansk but now living in Berlin, focuses his paintings on the typographical element of emblems, logos, and trademarks. In so doing, he circumvents the obvious impact of their visual triviality by forging conceptual connections with contradictory meanings: “Sprite” turns into “Spirit,” or “Levis” into “Evil,” or typographically recognizable traits from logos emerge partly manipulated, out of context, and charged with new significance. What had been simplistic and unequivocal gets torqued and bursts into irresolvable polyvalence.

Tokarski’s new works, exhibited under the programmatic title “You know what you have to do. Thanks”—but who knows what to do these days?—have become more painterly, more imaginative, and more generously proportioned, so that the typography of the logos and emblems no longer commands the surface of the image. Intense fields of color unfold across the large canvasses and the spliced-in codes are no longer always immediately recognizable. Environmental Damage, 2006, is a giant surface on which the traces of flowing blue paint fascinate the viewer. Emerging only gradually, on the lower edge and to the right, tiny and distorted by the traces of paint, is the symbol for the environment: a figure orbited by circles and which here is upside down. In P.C., 2005, the letters of the title float on a cloudy blue and green background, surrounded by laurels. In Safe, then Sorry, 2005, elements of the UN logo appear like a target against a pink and blue background.

As in his earlier work, here, too, Tokarski questions the condition of the world, the true intention of its builder. In any case, his theodicy turns out rather dismally. In Silly Creator, 2005, tears pour from the omniscient eye—a symbol taken from the warning sign on dangerous chemicals—against a cloudy grayish yellow sky. Such images communicate not just sarcasm but a fascination with the impossibility of grasping the world in all its contradiction.

The largest image, Beauty/Strength/Handicap, 2006, a rectangular painting nearly ten feet high and twenty wide that dominates the exhibition, is also the “most evil” of them all: A woman with blond hair, half-reclining like Venus, occupies the entire surface of the canvas. Her tail is decorated with a camouflage pattern, and her left hand mutates into a machine gun, which props her up. Very tiny and only reproduced in outline, the armless and legless Venus de Milo—the European ideal of beauty since antiquity—and a dinosaur are added. Like a girder, the words of the title extend across the image. It’s a thought-provoking parable for a culture that holds an armless, legless female figure to be the ultimate object of desire.

“I do not believe that art can change the world,” Tokarski said to me in conversation. Maybe he’s right. But art can always sharpen our vision—especially an art like Tokarski’s. And that’s not negligible in a world in which, thanks to the avalanche of expanding communications and mass media, vision threatens to fall into an all-too-willing acceptance of the triviality of their contents.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Diana Reese.