Warsaw

Radek Szlaga, Guerilla Potato Plantation, 2012, mixed media. Installation view.

Radek Szlaga, Guerilla Potato Plantation, 2012, mixed media. Installation view.

Radek Szlaga

Radek Szlaga, Guerilla Potato Plantation, 2012, mixed media. Installation view.

Radek Szlaga paints his canvases with such a dense layering of colors that the figures he portrays seem to melt into the viscous surface, even as the entire tableau glows with an inner light. But while the sheer materiality of these works indicates that painting is quite literally Szlaga’s primary medium, his recent show in Warsaw, “Freedom Club,” exhibited other components of his practice. For example, Guerilla Potato Plantation, 2012, which entirely occupied one of the show’s four rooms, consisted of slides projected on two walls of the room and, standing in the middle of it, a greenhouse. Inside, Szlaga had planted potato seedlings, which grew throughout the course of the exhibition. The slides offered clues to the complex iconosphere that he operates with and within. Some are taken from details of Szlaga’s drawings and paintings; others depict the hamlet of Szlagówka, where he used to live and where his family still resides. The slides show the village’s inhabitants—Szlaga’s aunt dressed in a head scarf, for instance—and elements of their harsh everyday life: farmyards, chickens, cows. Repeated and recontextualized in his paintings, as well as through the transformation from painting to slide, these images function as graphic signs. Szlaga underscores this graphic quality by scratching the slides, coloring them, erasing, and adding new elements. Bringing his process full circle, he eventually projects these images back onto canvas and paints them, with the resulting paintings becoming in turn material for further development. This can be seen by comparing the slide show in Guerilla Potato Plantation, with the paintings New Great Narrations, 2012, and Guerilla Gardening, 2011.

But Szlaga treats the austere Polish countryside as more than just a source of visual motifs. He also interprets it as a site for the development of potentially subversive ideas. As we learn from the press material, the artist appropriated the title “Freedom Club” from the imaginary organization in whose name Theodore John Kaczynski, the Harvard alum better known as the Unabomber, claimed to act. The artist speculates about how the organization might function and what its members might look like. His reflections on the origins of the terrorist’s ideas led him back to the Poland of Kaczynski’s ancestors, whose countryside Szlaga reimagines as the setting for his depiction of the members of the Freedom Club. They figure in many paintings in the show, among them Bastards Legacy, 2011, the background of which is a landscape with a tree at its center. On it, Szlaga has painted three portraits of “the bastards” in circular medallions, recalling the graphic design of a family tree.

The link between rural setting and rebellious thought emerges also in Bimbrownia, 2012. This installation takes its name from bimber, an illegal homemade vodka distilled from potatoes—an intoxicant produced in secret, far from the prying eyes of the authorities, and therefore representing another form of rebellion. Besides such elements as a crude working vodka filter and paintings depicting foxes and stuffed poultry, the work includes triangular banners bearing the words messianism, grand narrations, and freedom club. There is a sculpted man with a walkie-talkie, supposedly sending a message to a pair of hands coming out of the wall—one also holding a walkie-talkie, the other using a pencil to draw politicized labels for vodka bottles. The unexpected association of the narrative of subversion with elements evocative of rural life reflects on anxieties about potential threats to the existing order, threats that do not announce themselves openly but only through fragmented information: images, signs, and watchwords.

Sylwia Serafinowicz