“Andrzej Zielinski: Open Sourced,” Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art

In his latest book, Lights Out, newsman and journalist Ted Koppel writes of the looming dangers of our increased reliance on power grids and other types of apparatus dependent on technology. In a talk here last month, Koppel said that traditional modes of warfare are no longer our greatest threat.

“Our real weapons of mass destruction now,” he said, “are laptops. And we are not prepared for the fallout.”

Andrzej Zielinski has known this since he started painting laptops as an art student at Yale (he received his MFA in 2004). In his artist statement for “Open Sources,” his exhibition of paintings and sculptures at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Zielinski writes that he wants his art to have “classical” overtones formally, as well as project a “threatening shadow” thematically. No small order, but he is largely successful.

Bruce Hartman, the Nerman Museum’s executive director and curator of “Open Sources,” filled two rooms with Zielinski’s new paintings and one large space with his sculptures. This is Zielinski’s first foray into making free-standing objects, and they make crazy sense to anyone who’s been following his work. It’s about time those uber-glazed, fanciful carcasses of digital machinery depicted in Zielinski’s paintings jumped out of their frames and became three-dimensional entities. On canvas, his machines have always pulsed with life; now they’ve been set free and are on 4 wheels.

Watch out. Seeing the sculptures amassed in one room can bring on flashbacks of I, Robot, Metropolis and other sci-fi dramas that now feel too close for comfort.

Zielinski’s paintings have always been boldly juicy, colorful and dripping in paint. This is an artist who is clearly fearless when facing a blank canvas. He effortlessly blends abstraction with discernible subject matter. He then ups the ante with his choice of topics, which continues to be the world of office machines and digital devices. Depending on your viewpoint, Zielinski’s machines are either adorable or in dire need of being recycled.

Initially, it’s Zielinski’s artistic bravura that grabs our attention; what keeps us looking are the double messages encoded in his artworks. He understands how dependent we are on our machines. The resultant ambiguity this generates—a love/hate paradox —is what drives his art.

His aesthetic choices underscore the content. Grabbing every kind of material out there— wood, metal, stone, plastic, paint, paper, other— Zielinski overloads his machine templates to the point of collapse.

In Roaming Mobile, Zielinski props up a gaudy, questionable-looking cellphone onto a slab of alabaster, which in turn sits on a gold base, which is perched on some kind of lavishly painted fake keyboard. The use of precious materials along with disposable ones gives new meaning to the old “Can you hear me now?” ad.

Other pieces, such as System Restoring and What…Still…Uploading?, may be possessed of cheery colors and a kind of gooey happiness, but they all look as if they stayed at the party way too long. As such, these quasi-anthropomorphic creatures function as memento mori. They remind us, uncomfortably, of our own expiration date, and that one day the fun will stop. And we won’t look so good then.

The chunky, distressed look of Zielinski’s sculptures show an affiliation with Picasso’s early, 3-D cubist works, particularly his series of absinthe glasses, a group of which are now on display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. More than a century ago, this kind of decidedly unheroic, funky-looking art turned the world of classical sculpture upside-down.   Now of course, for contemporary sensibilities, this kind of idiosyncratic practice is what is considered classical. But it’s hard to do; there’s a fine line between discernment and over-indulgence in this kind of drill. Zielinski pulls it off here.

His themes can only become more important over time. In the flick of an eye, the internet has become a global change-maker. Machines can either be life-enhancing, insidious thieves or worse.

You can’t say Zielinski hasn’t warned us.

“Andrzej Zielinski: Open Sourced” continues at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College, 12345 College Blvd, Overland Park, Kan., through March 20; NOTE: the paintings portion of the show will close Jan. 17. 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.

Elisabeth Kirsch

Elisabeth Kirsch is an art historian, curator and writer who has curated over 100 exhibitions of contemporary art, American Indian art and photography, locally and across the country. She writes frequently for national and local arts publications.

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