Karol Radziszewski, Hyacinth, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 78 3⁄4 × 118 1⁄8".

Karol Radziszewski, Hyacinth, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 78 3⁄4 × 118 1⁄8".

Karol Radziszewski

The past decade in Poland has witnessed a sexual revolution in reverse: The increasingly conservative Polish government, which turned staunchly right wing in 2015, chose the LGBTQ community as its handpicked public enemy number one. Never particularly welcome in Polish society regardless of the regime, LGBTQ people are now targets of relentless negative state propaganda. The Polish situation has come to mirror the American culture wars of the 1980s, with art shows at public institutions targeted for inappropriate content funded by “taxpayers’ money.” That Karol Radziszewski’s midcareer retrospective, “The Power of Secrets,” attracted similar attention from the state-run nationalist media was perhaps not coincidental with the fact that the Polish culture ministry recently appointed its own director to head the Centre for Contemporary Art in place of the progressive Malgorzata Ludwisiak.

Radziszewski works more like a researcher than like an artist in any traditional sense. He acknowledges the work of others, accumulating materials and ephemera through his Queer Archives Institute, a growing collection of artifacts: photographs, documents, video interviews, LGBTQ underground and official press reports, and leaflets dating back to the 1960s. The artist, who turned forty this year, decided to use his retrospective to ceaselessly promote the battle against homophobia. But despite the accusations leveled against it, the exhibition was curiously sex-deprived for a “gay show.” If anything, it was solemn and melancholic, a testimony to how the display of joy has been removed from openly gay art under current political conditions.

Radziszewski narrated his life story as a parallel to the history of the gay liberation movement. He was born in 1980 in the Polish People’s Republic when the AIDS epidemic had started spreading in the West, and as a child he played with Barbie dolls and drew himself as a princess or a pink fairy. Enlarged depictions of such images were on the walls, along with the artist’s paintings of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and former Polish president Lech Walesa. In the 2000s, when Radziszewski’s art leaned toward graffiti-like, gay-themed painting, he started DIK Fagazine (2015–), whose primary focus was to show real gay lives around Eastern Europe. Later, he teamed up with Ryszard Kisiel, who had established the first Polish gay magazine, Filo, in 1986, and who had amassed an enormous collection of gay-related publications from around the world. This collection would become the core of the Queer Archives Institute, which also includes the Czech photographer Libuše Jarcovjáková’s photos taken inside a gay nightclub in 1980s Prague and the German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans’s portraits of members of the Russian gay community in the 2010s.

Radziszewski’s exhibition focused on how the 1980s, a time when Poles dreamed of Western consumerism, were a tragic decade for the LGBTQ community. Gay men were contracting hiv in socialist Poland, too, if on much smaller scale than in the West, but they were not part of the official history of the gay activist movement. This double exclusion of Polish homosexuals—from their own community and its history—seemingly motivated Radziszewski’s appropriations of other artists’ works. His painting Hyacinth, 2019, is loosely based on the East German artist A. R. Penck’s West, 1980—a work filled with imagery of the Communist oppression that led to Penck’s defection from his home country—replacing, for instance, the figure wielding a hammer and sickle with a representation of the secret police who spied on and blackmailed gays to recruit them as part of the Polish government’s so-called Operation Hyacinth. The exhibition also offered an alternative pantheon in the painting series “Poczet (The Gallery of Portraits),” 2017, in which various important historical and cultural figures, such as the writer Witold Gombrowicz, are written into the poczet (retinue) of its title as part of a secret gay history.

Much of gay life in ’80s Poland happened in secret: Sex took place in public urinals called “mushrooms” (represented in the grandiose steel sculpture The Mushroom, 2019), and the secret police covertly tracked its reluctantly clandestine participants. The exhibition’s most beautiful moment came at the end, with Kisiel’s photos of socialist-era cruising areas at the seaside. That the shared secret stays with men possibly already dead lent power to Radziszewski’s at times by necessity very loud show.