Radek Szlaga
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Into the Drawing – Towards the Book

The first drawings by Radek Szlaga I’ve seen were stuck on the refrigerator. That peculiar drawing installation in the exhibition at the legendary (and now nonexistent) Inner Spaces at Jackowskiego Street in Poznań showed precisely where Szlaga drew his inspiration from.

A couple of years later, Magda Starska confessed to me that that she had spent some time analysing the work of the members of the Penerstwo collective, looking for common points. The biggest problem she had with Radek since the rest of them she had defined as lovers of pragmatic truth and details of life in its tangible manifestations, and Szlaga simply didn’t fit here. His pictures create a sense of distance, moving away from the viewer either by multiple repetitions or satirical shortcut. But what is common for the other artists, and for Radek too, is the practice of drawing from your immediate surroundings and transforming the ‘overheard’ into art. Szlaga the painter reaches for what he has at hand or before him – the computer keyboard and the TV pilot. As the majority of his peers, he kills time by staring into the screen. Szlaga portions the stream of cultural pap, mixed like the ‘banana breakfast’ from Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, into paintings and drawings. What I’ve always (ever since that meeting with the fridge) found most interesting is that which remains in them as text.

The lopsided, left hand-drawn figures of Negroes ‘canned’ in a square-ruled sheet of paper that I saw at my first meeting were accompanied by what was originally a street slogan: ‘black people from Africa go to heaven because they don’t use condoms.’ The drawing was part of the series Bad Drawings that was later published by Poznań’s Arsenał and whose central motif of a primitive, bad African prompted protests from the city officials and accusations of racial intolerance. Interestingly, those accusations came from a rightwing politician – despite the ostentatiously racist character of those drawings, it was the conservatives who found them unacceptable. They either didn’t get the joke or felt mocked. This is significant because it shows how well Radek has managed to mislead the audience and complicate the ‘lyrical subject’ that makes controversial (and yet sourced directly from the Polish reality) declarations. It’s also an example of how easily Szlaga stirs up controversy – you won’t digest these works without at least some sense of humour. They are a kind of joke test – if you fail the test, you feel offended.

The drawing Potato Ziemek vs. the 40 Thieves shows several dozen (forty, to be exact) mouths, standing out against the black background in a toothy grimace, and a potato looking kind of ahead, up, into the gaping mouths. A great drawing by Radek, like a toothpaste advertisement transformed into a politically incorrect satire, it depicts like a political map the territory of his fascinations. A confrontation of the Strange with the Familiar is in fact a simple juxtaposition: Pole with Arab, or Negro with Potato, and the panic flood of words, stereotypes and stupid/wise opinions is to mask the elements’ fundamental disagreement and incompatibility. The drawing has been featured in the book Good for Home and the Outdoors and the part occupied by Radek’s drawings is its most explosive chapter. The idea of an explosion is fitting here not only because of the visual fireworks that Szlaga serves generously here. In terms of content, we deal here with a total destruction of meanings – every sense that we’d like to cling to is blown up by the author’s nihilistic humour. The number of layers and mutually exclusive themes in every drawing is almost absurdly high. We look at the world’s stupidity and the only way out we’re given is Falstaffian laughter.

Interestingly, Radek’s drawings haven’t undergone any significant reduction over the years. That’s because Szlaga isn’t trying to tell us anything really momentous, rather, he appears to have been increasingly interested in the groundless status of the image. It’s true that his work has achieved a mature austerity, but it still remains impressive and mocking.

The Way
Ever since we’ve known each other, Radek has been talking about a book he’d like to create. Both the Bad Drawings booklet and the contribution to Good for Home and the Outdoors indicated the potential present in Szlaga’s book project – the book medium appears to be perfect for expanding the flat images, ‘thick’ with layers, into a three-dimensional form.

Let’s imagine any one of Radek’s drawings on the surgical table and sliced into the individual layers – what will we see? We’ll quickly notice that none of them is fundamental and in the end we’ll also realise that we haven’t gotten to any bottom of the matter and it’s hard to make any conclusions.

Similarly, the pages of the book don’t lead in any particular direction, even though we do deal with a sort of narrative here. We browse through the successive layers, one by one, as if drilling into the earth (the geological section is a regular motif in Szlaga’s work) but we don’t reach any core or centrosphere. We’ll notice travelling motifs, repetitions and mutations. We’ll start browsing through the pages randomly and reconnecting the separated layers. Our intelligence will overcome the initial confusion. Just as it copes with a world fragmented into images, in which nothing is what it seems.

Michał Lasota

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