In Tomasz Kowalski's Psychedelic Paintings, Sleep, Dreaming and Wakefulness are Equally Present

At Tim Van Laere Gallery, Antwerp, Kowalski's works point to our anxious existence in a brave new world

In his 2013 book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, critic Jonathan Crary articulates an exasperated, contemporary state of permanent awareness produced by hyper-connectivity and continuous consumption. As if providing an antidote to today’s demand for perpetual presence, the works of Tomasz Kowalski suggest a conception of society where sleep, introspection, dreaming and wakefulness are equally present. Kowalski’s universe is oneiric and psychedelic. His paintings and works on paper are populated by uncanny figures that recall the malformed bodies of German expressionism, the improbable scenarios of surrealism and the ludic energy of Philip Guston’s cartoons. Yet, they are fully grounded in the present. In a nod to the near-comic impossibility of finding rest today, the 2018 painting Pillow depicts – in rich oranges and whites – a foreshortened human figure atop a giant face, lying between its cheek and nose; in lieu of a pillow, there is an oversized, closed eyelid.

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Tomasz Kowalski, She Has Funny Cars, 2018, oil on canvas, 1.6 × 1.3 m. Courtesy: the artist and Tim Van Laere Gallery, Antwerp

Tomasz Kowalski, She Has Funny Cars, 2018, oil on canvas, 1.6 × 1.3 m. Courtesy: the artist and Tim Van Laere Gallery, Antwerp

Kowalski’s exhibition, ‘Proto-Weather’, at Tim Van Laere Gallery, contains around 50 works, including 12 oil paintings and a large selection of recent works on paper. The pieces on view (all works Untitled, 2017, unless otherwise stated), collapse the interior spaces of rooms and hallways with outdoor settings – both urban and natural – and conjoin what lies inside and outside the mind. One painting from 2017–18 sees the head of a figure reproduced within itself, multiplied recursively, each time slightly smaller. The figure is surrounded by what appears to be Earth; emanating from its palm, the planet spirals out from its spherical shape into an ethereal form. Such multiplication of selves reappears throughout the show: in one gouache, a head and its eyes are reflected in a series of bubbles; in Untitled (Two Eyes) (2018), a face is stretched to the point where it doubles over and two sets of eyes peer at one another.

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Tomasz Kowalski, A Room, 2018, oil on canvas, 1.5 × 1.2m

Tomasz Kowalski, A Room, 2018, oil on canvas, 1.5 × 1.2m

‘Proto-Weather’ transmutes a generalized feeling of disorientation: a loss of context that reflects the fluid, shape-shifting features of daily existence lived everywhere and nowhere, between screens and the physical world. Within the pictures, several portraits of urban spaces feature facades made out of reflective surfaces resembling screens. In one drawing, flattened-out buildings undulate in an empty environment. The effect is compounded by the use of panels that support the works on paper and canvas, augmenting the number of pathways and viewpoints. It amounts to a labyrinthine setting where image and architecture distortedly resemble each other. In The Weather (2017), the streets have been emptied of inhabitants and buildings reflect one another like a hall of mirrors leading into the void. The grids that envelop a face in one gouache signal a state of permanent control in today’s technology-led societies, pointing to selves that are fragmented and multiple. The recurrent presence of clocks, eyes, keys, mirrors, screens, windows and several currencies grounds Kowalski’s dreamy cosmos in the reality of the now, pointing to our anxious existence in a paranoid brave new world. ‘Proto-Weather’ shapes a critical and associative portrait of a present marked by accelerated change. Kowalski’s works capture the diffusion of a centreless world and the ways in which such conditions impact our perceptions of basic categories, such as selfhood, space and time. They assert the unconscious as a liberating force – at once in and out of this world. Despite the show’s depiction of our swirling moment, it manages to find a way out of this ongoing privatization of space and time.

Main image: Tomasz Kowalski, Dog's Dream (A.I. Dreaming), 2018, oil on canvas, 1.5 × 1.2m

Issue 196

First published in Issue 196

June - August 2018

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