The white walls of Jan Kaps in Cologne provide a stark contrast to the pitch-black materials that Warsaw-based artist Cezary Poniatowski employs in the majority of his freestanding sculptures and wall-mounted works. ‘Hearth’, Poniatowski’s first exhibition at the gallery, addresses the associations of black monochrome with severity and power in works that repel more than they entice.
The most accessible piece is, arguably, Anger (2020) – an armchair made of old carpets without an inner structure or cushions, so that it sags and falls in on itself. Occasional puffs of smoke rise from the seat like outbursts of the titular ire. This carelessly treated item of furniture, with no supporting framework, evokes the ‘left-behind’ angry white man, who sits in his armchair frustratedly venting his rage.
It is from precisely the materials missing in Anger – wood, upholstery – that Poniatowski makes his relief works. The painting-like Untitled (2018) comprises abstract shapes with sharp, zigzag outlines that have been upholstered onto a blackened wooden support, some of which have later been torn off to leave only traces of their presence. The doomsday aesthetic of this distinctive relief is reinforced by Poniatowski’s materials: black pleather, plywood and staples used for insulation in the socialist-era housing blocks of the artist’s native Poland. The darkness of Poniatowski’s visual universe seems to speak to the social upheavals wrought by the formerly socialist country’s economic transformation and the removal of state structures of support – a trauma that fuels the nation’s current culture wars, reflecting the political tensions between left-wing factions and the alt-right government.
The small floor sculpture Motherland (2020) refers even more explicitly to the toxic climate in Polish society. A pitch-black box, topped by devil-like horns draped in netting, appears to contain a burning fire. Surrounded by figures created from barbecue briquettes – although it’s unclear whether they are there to protect the fire or to be consumed by it – the box emits a disturbing, sardonic giggle. The artist’s titular motherland is, he implies, a place of insecurity and danger.
Horns make an appearance in most of Poniatowski’s reliefs as a kind of demonic revenant. In Yard (2020), for example, the padded areas resemble abstract hybrids of devil’s horns and hammers and sickles. Sawn-off sections of branches framing the relief suggest a border of stunted trees, while several embedded pairs of binoculars evoke an uncanny sense of being under observation. Yard seemingly signals a withdrawal from an aggressive, hostile environment. Yet, with their various openings and windows, Poniatowski’s reliefs seem to hint that the demons of a broken society will always try to gain access. Elsewhere, the wall-mounted work Untitled (2020) consists of a number of black ventilation slits through which loom kraken-like bulges – although it remains uncertain whether these forms are seeking to gain entry or to escape. Here, again, private space appears either endangered or dangerous, depending on your perspective.
Deciphering the iconology in ‘Hearth’ may not be straightforward, but the viewer’s efforts to do so are rewarded by a range of distinctive works that offer an excellent interplay between form and content. The aptitude of Poniatowski’s current practice is thrown into even starker relief by the show’s inclusion of four older, large-format paintings: Providence (2016), Love Stronger than Death (2016), Untitled (2017) and Nekromantik (2017), whose more figurative demonic figures and landscapes lack not only the conceptual ingenuity but the material complexity of the artist’s most recent works.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
Main Image: Cezary Poniatowski, Anger, 2020, installation view, Jan Kaps, Cologne. Courtesy: Jan Kaps, Cologne
First published in Issue 211