Gate to the Present
Wilhelm Sasnal in the Haus der Kunst in Munich
Wilhelm Sasnal was still a complete newcomer at the turn of the millennium. Today, the Polish artist is one of the heavyweights in the international art market, despite the fact that his painting is all about dialectic and distance instead of grand gestures or cynical humor. An entire floor in the Deutsche Bank Towers in Frankfurt is dedicated to Sasnal’s works on paper. In time for his major show at Munich’s Haus der Kunst, Kito Nedo describes the indescribable lightness of Sasnal’s painting.
||Architecture and people; moments, historical events, banal details: Wilhelm Sasnal’s paintings flicker on the retina like television images zapping from channel to channel. They jump between figuration and abstraction, allusion and extreme focus, private life and world history. The categories we normally use to classify someone’s work in a programmatic, stylistic, or even traditionalist sense miss their mark in Sasnal’s case. But this doesn’t make him an outsider. On the contrary: like someone obsessed and with great international success, the Polish artist delivers an art that’s from now—beautiful, pragmatic, modern paintings, apparently uncontaminated by ideology and unburdened by too much ambition to be art. This is evident in his major exhibition at Munich’s Haus der Kunst. The productive principle at the heart of the work of the Polish artist, who was born in 1972 in Tarnów, is not excess, but rather a casual balance. Neither a lord, a lunatic, a cynical jokester, nor the last savage—instead, Sasnal prefers to play the role of the gentle, industrious rebel.
The fact that his work and his person have nothing mystical or genius-like about them also has to do with the fact that as a genre, painting has long since lost its claim to being the discipline of disciplines. Yet working with paint on canvas still remains a relevant means for Sasnal to capture the world around him and record his impressions in a constantly growing atlas of images. His material can take the form of events or snapshots from his private life or world politics. In Munich, for instance, the pastel-colored silhouette-like painting of his native city, Tarnów, (2003) is on view, as is the famous profile of his smoking wife Anka (2001) and the 2010 painting of his son playing video, Kacper. There are also references to art history (Bathers at Asnieres, 2010), to Art Spiegelman’s famous graphic novel about the Holocaust (Maus 5, 2001), to natural catastrophes (Tsunami, 2011), and to world politics (Power Plant in Iran, 2010).
If there is anything specific in his work, then it is certainly the speed with which Sasnal works. Painting is the medium in which you can make quick statements about specific events. I paint pretty fast, and that makes it possible to react right away," Sasnal stated at the opening of his exhibition in the Haus der Kunst. That’s how it was with the two new Gaddafi paintings from last year that are now on show in Munich. He was deeply moved by the way in which public media exhibited the dead body, says Sasnal about his painting of the Libyan dictator. The media image disseminated everywhere reminded him of an art historical icon: Of course I had to think of Mantegna’s The Dead Christ." At the Haus der Kunst, the scene appears twofold: once close to reality, and once as a tangle of bright colors. Between them was a moment of reflection: I had the feeling that I went too far. That’s why I painted the whole thing again, as a play with colors." Instead of a revision, the painter produced a retroactive correction, a commentary. In this manner, painting becomes a dialectical balancing act in which the reflection on the subject and the ongoing questioning of his role as a painter have to be weighed against one another: what are these paintings supposed to be, these pictures of a deposed dictator whose body is presented to the media like a trophy? Should the act of painting restore something like dignity to the corpse? Is this allowed? How far can a painter go?
Sasnal alludes to these questions in his work, but dispenses with superfluous detail: I don’t need that to describe the situation. The body on the mattress, surrounded by photographers—that’s enough." In any case, the title Gaddafi steers the reception of the painting in a specific direction. With other paintings, the media image referred to is less relevant. When it’s important, I use the title to give the viewer a hint as to where the image comes from or why I’ve used it. Sometimes the painting gets along without it. In these cases, I trust in the viewer’s intuition, which helps to get at the roots, or he views the painting his own way. I like it when people interpret my paintings on their own."
The fact that Sasnal transforms both historically charged material and banal media imagery into painting with the same receptive reserve has already brought him a reputation as a direct descendent of Pop Art. Recently, for instance, a German newspaper wrote: Wilhelm Sasnal is the Polish Roy Lichtenstein." But does anything really connect Sasnal—who uses newspaper images, comic strips, publicity shots of celebrities, and his own photographs for his paintings—with the classical American Pop tradition? It seems more that Sasnal’s work proves to what degree Pop methods are firmly anchored in today’s art mainstream.
And yet—his statements, some of which are contradictory, feel like they’ve been lifted from Warhol: In most cases, I don’t think about the result when I start the work. I embark on a search and don’t anticipate the end, that is, I follow my intuition. I don’t see myself as dogmatic when it’s a matter of finding solutions. If nothing happens, I just paint the work again."
Sasnal’s paintings aren’t mystical, although his success seems to be. The art world has been scratching its head over the cause of this success for some time now: is this artist, who has been masquerading as a Polish country bumpkin for years, in truth the cleverest among his contemporaries? Along with figures like Pawel Althamer, Paulina Olowska, and Monika Sosnowska, he’s part of a generation of young Polish artists who made the leap onto the international stage in the late nineties to show their work at biennials and in museums and galleries worldwide. At the turn of the millennium, Sasnal was still considered to be a complete newcomer; today, the painter is one of the market’s heavyweights and is represented by galleries like Jörg Johnen in Berlin, Sadie Coles in London, and Iwan Wirth in Zurich.
Sasnal says he doesn’t want to paint pleasant paintings, doesn’t want to be reduced to a label. I don’t want to be identified with a particular style. I don’t want to be stylish." But how does he mean that? He certainly doesn’t behave like an anti-artist. Of course his paintings are completely stylish and beautiful. They don’t run after the zeitgeist, but curl up against it. That’s where these déjà-vu moments come from. His paintings are charged with formal and thematic allusions. Their aesthetic recalls the milky painting of the Belgian Luc Tuymans. Sasnal’s method of ambiguity, his incorporation of newspaper and private photographs that together form a kind of world atlas, are reminiscent of Gerhard Richter. Sasnal’s drawings remind one of the Californian Raymond Pettibon; this also applies to the works on paper in the Deutsche Bank Collection. The ink drawings, reduced to lines and contrasts between black and white, have something comic-like about them, whether it’s the grid structures that look like disco balls or the scenes that seem right out of a film noir. In the ink drawings, eras and styles from East and West merge into a hermetic narrative that we can only catch glimpses of.
So who is Wilhelm Sasnal? What position does he stand for? There’s no easy answer to this question. Because he refuses to be pinned to any one subject, style, or theme and presents himself as strangely timeless, he succeeds in remaining contemporary. But this has nothing easy or speculative about it: Sasnal’s paintings are his gate to the present. In the staircase to the east wing of the Haus der Kunst in Munich is a quote written on the wall: painting is not a game, and nothing anyone does is for fun; it demands a responsibility that I take very seriously."
02.03. – 05.13.2012
Haus der Kunst, Munich