Bożenna Biskupska Epiphany of Time
Private View: 31 January, 6pm – 8pm
The exhibition will be on till 16 March 2019
Conversation with Richard Demarco: Friday, 1 February 2019, 12.30pm
l’étrangère is proud to present Epiphany of Time, the first exhibition in the UK of work by the Polish artist, Bożenna Biskupska. The exhibition showcases Biskupska’s ongoing series of paintings entitled Cages, many of which are shown here for the first time.
Each painting in the Cages series is created using thick layers of oil paint, confined within a rectangular boarder; some are ‘slashed’ through by thick diagonal lines or interrupted by additional rectangles within. The works are left to ‘ripen’ for a long period of time, often for a number of years until the artist decides to release them when they ‘mature’ enough. The materiality of paint, transformed by time, reveals colour and develops texture which adds a sculptural dimension to the work.
The process where time plays a central role in transforming the materials is key to Biskupska’s practice. Referencing existential and metaphysical issues such as mortality, aging, decay, as well as creativity, healing and wisdom that comes with time, imbues the paintings with a meditative and spiritual dimension.
Bożenna Biskupska, Slit Cage, 2008, oil on canvas, 150 x 100 cm
The paintings can be seen to explore limitation or confinement and bring associations of fixed, enclosed boundaries. They also attempt to define the artist’s own creative space where she attempts to harness the process of the metamorphosis of paint. Thus, the work enables conditions which permit ‘something to happen’, providing the foundations for allowing the structure of the paintings to become stable. The fluidity and formlessness, often associated with the feminine, are fixed within the boundaries imposed by the artist that clearly reference geometric abstraction but through their expressive nature give the feeling of being in flux.
Born in Warsaw in 1952, Bożena Biskupska studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Poznań (1970-1972), and at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw (1972 -1976) where she graduated with a distinction. Her practice encompasses sculpture, painting, experimental theatre, performance, sound and video.
In 1982 Biskupska won the First Prize on the 4th International Biennial Exhibition of Weaving Miniature, Savaria Museum, Szhombathely, Hungary. In 1984 she was granted a two-year Polish Ministry of Art and Culture scholarship. In 1986 she won the First Grade Prize of the Stanisław Wyspiański Award for painting and sculpture. She represented Poland at the 41st Venice Biennale in 1984 and at the 14th International Biennale of Small Bronze Sculptures in Padua, Italy in 1986. In addition to exhibiting in numerous institutions throughout Poland over the years, Biskupska’s works have been shown internationally including France, Italy, the USA, Hungary and Germany.
In 2004 she co-founded In Situ Contemporary Art Foundation based in Sokolowsko, Poland. From 2012 onwards, a number of festivals have taken place there every year such as Contexts, Sanatorium of Sound, and Hommage to Kieslowski, which focus on ephemeral art, experimental music and film.
Her works are included in numerous private and public collections including the National Museum in Szczecin, the Polish Sculpture Centre in Orońsk, the Art Museum Łódź, the State Museum of Auschwitz – Birkenau, the Museum of Lubuski Region of Zielona Góra, The Museum of Warmia and Mazury, Studio Gallery in Warsaw, SBWA Gallery Warsaw, BWA Galelry Opole, The Museum of Szhombathey, Hungary, the Humboldt University in Berlin, the Polish Museum in Chicago and Kokusai Koeki Co. in Tokyo.
The exhibition has been curated by Małgosia Sady.
With many thanks to the Polish Cultural Institute for their generous support.
Bożenna Biskupska, Epiphany of Time
The paintings of Bożenna Biskupska do not give much away. Her paintings range in scale from A3 works on paper to canvases the height of a human. Within the edges of each work is a painted border. This rectangle runs inside the edge of the material substrate, forming a second border between the ‘inside’ of the painting and the ‘outside’ that is the rest of the world. There is therefore a slim no-man’s land between the border and the edge. Each work is unframed, for it contains its own frame within it.
Biskupska refers to these works as klatka. Each is dated but otherwise untitled. Klatka is the Polish for ‘cage’, the wooden box or wire mesh that imprisons an animal or bird inside but that also provides a measure of protection from, say, the neighbour’s cat. Klatka can also refer to a square or a staircase. There are a number of Polish towns and villages named Klatka.
Biskupska’s Klatka paintings revel in their own materiality and in the relationship between materiality and time. Biskupska applies paint in thin washes and thick, crusty layers. She rarely uses brushes, preferring instead a wide range of tools about which she says little. The key ingredient then is age. Each painting is left, often for years. Biskupska dates them by the year in which they were started, rather than completed. Epiphany of Time, Biskupska’s aptly named solo show at l’étrangère, London, is the artist’s first exhibition in the UK. Many of the works date from over a decade ago, when the world, and the paintings it contains, were quite different. Today, paint leaches into yellowed paper, bleeds across decade-old canvases.
Standing in front of these works is a beguiling experience. Even among the dozen or so on show at l’étrangère, and even taking into account the work’s highly restricted forms, there is so much to focus on. There is so much colour and texture: a jewelled teardrop of bright jade; a smooth stripe like blue and white china; cracks of black and gold like roots or nerves or tributaries. Gunboat grey. Fire-alarm red. Pond gunge yellow. One painting forms a blazing field of ripe yellow; another is very quiet – a small, off-white canvas marked only by broken stripes of lumpy cream. One border looks like bathroom sealant, but amateurishly applied, with beads of orange-brown resin, dappling the pale paint like mould. Another forms a jaunty cottage window. Formally, these paintings share something with the colour field painters of the 1950s and ‘60s: Mark Rothko (1903-1970) and Barnett Newman (1905-1970). Several works feature large expanses of rippling darkness. These dark (violet not quite black) surfaces undulate with tiny contoured ripples like poured chocolate or the unique ridge contours of every human finger.
The Klatka paintings did not emerge fully formed into the world. Rather they evolved quite directly out of the sculptural practice for which Biskupska is best-known. In the 1990s, Biskupska began to exhibit her human-scale sculptures of one-legged figures
inside cages. An early painting (Klatka, 1991) shows one such figure reading while kneeling atop a cage-like plinth or pedestal against a blue background. This work reminds me of Francis Bacon (1909-1992), whose warped figures were often framed by cage-like interiors. Like Bacon, the klatka is not only an apparatus of restriction or confinement but a visual aid, a device upon which or through which a figure may be viewed.
The Polish word klatka can also refer to a photographic frame, a single exposure in a roll of film. Biskupska, incidentally, was born into a family of photographers. In 1999, Biskupska’s husband, artist-photographer Zygmunt Rytka, produced extensive photographic documentation of seven one-legged sculptural figures that she had produced. This documentation was then co-opted and represented as a work of art by Biskupska, (Packing, 1999) when she exhibited these photographic plates in seven rows within a large, cage-like structure. Seven is a recurring number in her work. Installations such as Packing suggest that, for Biskupska, the two-dimensional is always in fact three-dimensional. The klatka is therefore not only a frame that demarcates individuality (for example, of the photographic image) but also part of a larger framework in which that individuality is rendered anonymous through systemic repetition and the ever-present possibility for (re)appropriation.
Sometimes the paintings ask to be viewed from above. From this perspective, scale shifts dramatically. The mind turns them into maps, like those of Jasper Johns, or three-dimensional models of a landscape far away below. Browns bleed into a sea of sandy grey, like the waters of a wide estuary. Islands of blue half-submerged in frothy white. The Thames paintings of Michael Andrews (1928-1995) spring to mind. Or, more recently, the urgent ecological imperatives in the aerial photographs of Edward Burtynsky (b.1955). Viewed from this angle, those fascinating dark ripples suddenly seem geological: tiny mountains folded upwards by the shifting of a thousand tectonic plates. This in fact is how the works were painted – laid horizontally rather than upright on an easel or hung on the wall. You can tell by the way the wet paint has run down the sides of the canvases. The artist, and now the viewer, looks down upon a world below.
If the paintings are maps, then what do these borders denote? Unlike those of a map, Biskupska’s borders are neither thin nor neatly annotated. They leave gaps or bleed into the world around them. Each is thick, multiple. They shift like Poland’s own borders. Biskupska, after all, lives in Sokołowsko, just two miles from the Polish border with the Czech Republic. The village was part of Germany until 1945. In Sokołowsko, Biskupska has her studio in a nineteenth-century former tuberculosis sanatorium. Thanks to Biskupska, the elaborately crumbling red-brick edifice now plays host to popular arts festivals. Like her paintings, this home is a borderland marked by time: both by decay and by the energy of new growth.
If Biskupska’s paintings are maps, her borders need not only be those of the nation state. I see, alternately, a hedge around a suburban garden; a fence around an abandoned factory or an empty patch of land awaiting the developer’s bulldozer; the
legal demarcations that protect a national park such as Broumovsko, just over the border in the Czech Republic. The bureaucratic distinctions and historical accidents which ensure that one human is a citizen of the Czech Republic, another of Poland. But maybe I’m just seeing things. Each klatka, is just paint after all. Paint subjected to time.
Another way to attempt to read Biskupska’s paintings is diagrammatically. This is especially apt for the works on paper, which are more minimal than the canvases. Within each of the thick-painted borders is an either/or. Either a long diagonal line (sometimes from top left to bottom right, as if marked by the artist’s right hand; sometimes from top right to bottom left, as if by her left) or nothing. A blank, empty expanse. Or rather an expanse that is not blank but full of its own marks, textures, colours… Nonetheless, this logic of the binary either/or – the presence or absence of the diagonal line – provides another link between Biskupska’s paintings and her sculptural practice. In a series of works entitled Delineating the Image (1995-2010), thumb-sized bronze figures are arranged in repeated patterns on rectangular, wall- mounted blocks of concrete. Each pattern is based on an order of seven, and each location in the pattern is constituted either by the presence of a figure or by its absence.
Unlike the paintings in all their textural glory, Biskupska’s sculptural works point towards an altogether more austere philosophy of existential presence and absence. Each figure is unique: every one individually formed in clay by Biskupska before being painstakingly hand-cast in bronze at a specialist foundry. But each inhabits a highly repetitive, binary system of existence and non-existence. Life and death are systematised, mechanised, codified. Much of Biskupska’s early work reads like attempts to schematise a fictional runic language. Cages are not always physical. Language, culture, religion, economics, geopolitics, the law: each can form one of Biskupska’s cages – not simply a prison but a frame for the conditioning, understanding and self-expression of each individual.
In the paintings, each diagonal line – like the sculpted figures – is an assertion of individuality, presence, life, meaning, being itself. But the paintings are more exuberant. Or at least they are not always bleak. You get the sense of an artist in love with the materiality of paint, its tactile fissures, cracks, ripples… Even those works without diagonal lines are far from empty. Rather they testify to the possibility – indeed to the existence right there in front of you – of a world without the diagonal line and whatever it represents or embodies. A world come to terms with absence and loss, that remains bountiful without the need for identity, self-presence, being, sense, order… maybe even life itself.
Tom Jeffreys writes about art for publications such as Apollo, art-agenda, Frieze, Monocle, and The Telegraph. He is the author of Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on Foot (Influx Press, 2017) and is working on a new book about birch trees in Russian art, landscape and identity.
Written on the occassion of the exhibition: Bożenna Biskupska,
Epiphany of Time,
1 February – 16 March 2019
44a Charlotte Road, London, EC2A 3PD firstname.lastname@example.org www.letrangere.net