Andrzej Zieliński insists on using the elements of the sculptor’s supply room—bronze and other metals, marble and other stones, various sorts of wood and plastic—in a way that is as painterly as it is sculptural. And why not? Paints and pigments have rarely been long absent from the sculptor’s hand. Call it polychrome if you prefer. It was common in the ancient Greece that so inspired the Renaissance masters who, mistakenly, believed the marbles they’d seen being excavated had always been pure white rather than gaudily painted. In Golden Age Spain, devotional statuary with naturalistic details in full color was meant to make the sufferings of Christ and his Saints seem shockingly real. Closer to the present, sculptures from the recently colonized Africa moved Matisse and Picasso to revolutionize European art were often painted, so it’s no wonder that under their influence, Picasso seemed to rule nothing out of bounds for sculpture, as we’ve been reminded by an extraordinary recent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In all these times and places, sculptors have considered applied color to be a material of choice just as readily as anything else.
The call for truth to materials was merely a nineteenth-century perversion, though one strand of modernism carried it forward into the twentieth (Henry Moore: “Stone, for example, is hard and concentrated and should not be falsified to look like soft flesh”). Zieliński, by contrast, recognizes that materials are so many elements in a fiction. That “the truth is out there” may be the ultimate fantasy. I love how, in System Restoring, 2014-2015, Zieliński is willing to cover his fine stone with gaudy purple paint while leaving unpainted a carved handprint that, in this context, at first appears to be faux marbre. What Zieliński’s imagery suggests is that the everyday mechanisms with which we are haptically and visually enmeshed—miracles of twenty-first-century technology—are somehow deeply imbued with our own irrationality and awkwardness; they, too, have experienced what Sigmund Freud called Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, the uneasiness in culture—the literal translation of the title better known in English as Civilization and Its Discontents. Maybe that’s why we like them so much. We see ourselves mirrored in them.
I’ve always liked Stevie Wonder’s idea of what superstition means: “when you believe in things that you don’t understand.” By that definition, most of us are prey to superstition most of the time, and a it’s good thing too. We really don’t know what goes on in the heads of other people, and yet we continue to believe in some of them, to invest our faith in them, notwithstanding. Those strange devices we use every day, and in which we somehow see our own distorted reflections, are not dissimilar. Very few of us really know how they work, or what goes on inside them, yet we continue to believe in them, because they are familiar, they are close to hand and they seem—most of the time, anyway, to function.
Already in his paintings, but even more so in his sculptures—which can go so much further in playing games with our sense of what’s real and what’s fictive—Zieliński seems to be asking us, in a witty and understated way, to take a second look at ourselves in relation to and as revealed in the seemingly magical devices through which we increasingly mediate our relations to others, to ourselves, to our “data” (it wasn’t long ago—within living memory!—that most of us didn’t even know we had data), and (not incidentally) to our money. I find it striking that many of the titles of Zieliński’s sculptures turn into questions. Or rather, they conclude with question marks even though they don’t exactly take the form of questions. I’ll let one of those titles stand in for the rest: Syncing Up? My feeling is no, we’ll never quite sync up.
“Andrzej Zielinski: Open Sourced” continues at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College, 12345 College Blvd, Overland Park, Kan., through January 17th; the sculptures will remain on view through March 20. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Friday, Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday. For more information, 913-469-3000 or www.nermanmuseum.org.
–Barry Schwabsky, Art Critic, The Nation