Polish artist Marcin Maciejowski first showed his work in 1996, while he was a graphic design student. With four of his colleagues he was one of the founder members of Grupa Ladnie (Pretty Group), which produced exhibitions, events and video installations for the Kraków club scene, before the members went their separate ways. Painter Wilhelm Sasnal is now represented by European and American galleries, and Maciejowski's first gallery show outside Poland features oil paintings he made in 2002. The 'discovery' of these young Polish artists may well be a reflection of the current art market's enthusiasm for figurative painting.
Maciejowski's earlier paintings give the impression that his main interest at the time was in social commentary, and caricatures of his countrymen remain in the current show: in Five with the Car (all works 2002), for example, in which burly beer-drinkers scrutinize a possibly stolen car. Facial details are described only vaguely, and the application of primary colours over a grey-brown background makes the men's clothing glow. There is a sculptural quality to these pictures that is astonishing, considering how flat the painting is. This combination of blurring and hard lines is one of Maciejowski's trademarks, and simple written phrases incorporated into the pictures reveal that the caricatures are actually clichéd images derived from gossip magazines and newspapers, which the artist has appropriated and turned into painterly jests.
There is always a satirical undercurrent in Maciejowski's art. However, this mocking, detached stance is a comment not so much on post-socialist society as on painting itself. It can be seen in the black and white paintings Edward Sitek's Machine Gun and Henryk Strapoc ('Seagull'), Maker of the 'Bebechoviec' Machine Gun, which depict Polish resistance fighters from World War II. These cartoon-like portraits, which look as if they have been lifted from wanted posters, show resistance fighters as secretive makers of home-made weapons.
Military themes and groups of figures appear in many of these pictures. For example, The Band Rehearsal, a painting which has a vertical strip of monochrome grey down the left-hand side of the picture, features a partial view of a room in which three boys in combat gear are playing musical instruments, their faces blank and interchangeable. But besides providing a straightforward military allusion, the motif of the uniformed band references the Slovenian band Laibach, which in the 1980s used military music and political symbolism to denounce totalitarianism, so that Maciejowski is deftly juxtaposing macho men at play and a genuine historical crisis. Similarly, the most experimental painting in the show, Baze (Base), provides a detailed view of an underground military headquarters - from a perspective that looks as though someone has carefully cut a hole in the ceiling. The scene resembles something from a computer game. As in Band Rehearsal, the artist is giving a quirky twist to the idea of painting as a window on the world.
Unpretentiously, Maciejowski applies the Modernist vocabulary of Fernand Léger or the late works of Kasimir Malevich to Pop culture. His painting is a natural successor to Russian Soz art, which at one time pitted Socialist Realism against Pop art in an ironic ideological critique. Basing his work on a wide variety of pictorial imagery that belittles the individual (such as comics, posters, computer games and statistical graphics), Maciejowski highlights his own situation as an artist in the contemporary world and the relationship between his own enterprise and other, equally valid methods of producing images, and he does so without being condescending or cynical. By thus believing in the ability of painting to reflect on other methods of depiction, he makes a virtue of the stillness of the art form.
First published in Issue 75