New York

Rafal Bujnowski, White Dress (American Night), 2021, oil on canvas, 26 × 26".

Rafal Bujnowski, White Dress (American Night), 2021, oil on canvas, 26 × 26".

Rafal Bujnowski

Named after, and starring, an ancient pigment made from the soot produced when oil is burned for illumination, Rafal Bujnowski’s exhibition “Lamp Black Love Story” was a meditation on darkness, light, and how the interplay between the two can suggest new operations of the painted surface. Bujnowski first came to prominence during his art-school days in the second half of the 1990s, when he was a member of the Ładnie collective—named for a Polish word that roughly translates as “pretty” or “nice,” chosen to sardonically memorialize the befuddled faint praise he and his contemporaries (including Marcin Maciejowski and Wilhelm Sasnal) were receiving from their professors at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków. In his early works, he toyed with banality and bad taste, critiquing both commodification and the valorization of artistic labor. For one project, he made paintings of everyday objects that he would sell for the price of the thing depicted; for another, he provided instructions for creating DIY portraits of Polish-born Pope John Paul II. In addition to being a good-natured provocateur, Bujnowski is also an accomplished technician—despite the de-skilled appearance of those early pieces—and this show was organized around half a dozen lampblack canvases in which carefully measured brushstrokes coalesced into elegantly nuanced, uncannily lenticular effects.

Like the other so-called carbon blacks, lampblack has a vanishingly low albedo—or reflectiveness—but also an unexpected vibrancy and tonal richness that can sometimes make it seem to swim with improbable hints of blue and brown. Bujnowski deploys it to create fields for highly precise modes of gestural intervention, brushing fine grooves into the wet, thickly laid oil medium to produce barely-there compositions whose sketchy presences edge in and out of focus like Wittgensteinian duck rabbits, depending on the viewer’s perspective. Instead of hybrid fauna, however, the artist’s subject here is human bodies—solitary and conjunct—that seem at first to be one thing and then another. Figure I, 2019, for example, features an apparently masculine torso encased in what toggles between a short-sleeved T-shirt and a funeral shroud coated with preserving bitumen, whereas in the neighboring White Dress (American Night), 2021, Bujnowski sets up a kind of monochrome recapitulation of the #TheDress photograph, the rando viral phenomenon that split people into #blueandblack and #whiteandgold camps during the winter of 2015. Made from curving swaths of paint overlaid onto a horizontally brushed background, the garment’s draping evokes an Azzedine Alaïa bandage dress whose grain, as you move around it, morphs across a palette of blacks and charcoals. A trio of larger works titled Couple I–III, 2022, depicted pairs of bodies in space that seem to alternately caress or wrestle with each other, while Portrait (American Night), 2021—at just under sixteen inches square the smallest painting on view—offered a kind of miasmic apotheosis of the artist’s experiment, with only a swirl of onyx murk where the subject’s face should be. And in Sun/Lamp, 2022, the final work in the dark/light suite that anchored the exhibition, a lightbulb dimly glowed from behind a disk of corroded metal, directing attention to the source of illumination rather than to the surfaces that receive it.

In a nod to Bujnowski’s still rangily eclectic practice, the show also included a handful of loosely related pieces in other media, such as Shadow on Paper, 2022, a set of five ink drawings (with more displayed on a video loop) depicting stick figures posed along a kind of abstracted shoreline; Sand Castles, 2018/2022, an array of ten photos documenting the artist, clad in a white dress shirt and black trousers, balancing atop several small pail-shaped mounds of the titular material at the seaside; and Shell’s Shells Collection, 2022, a low vitrine filled with 218 bits of wholly unremarkable flotsam and jetsam the artist gathered from an unnamed beach. This last work frankly felt a bit like a throwback to the days when Bujnowski was primarily intent on poking holes in the supposed exceptionalism of the artistic gesture. But, as a self-deprecating gambit, the piece was a harder sell here in terms of its mood, especially in such close proximity to examples of the artist’s genuinely innovative painterly achievement.