Radek Szlaga
text  | work  | CV  | publications
Trash Baroque
On the Art of Radek Szlaga


The Dawn and Dusk of Civilisation
In order to capture the essence of Radek Szlaga’s painting, we need to go back to the beginning. Here we are in a dark ice age, a moment before the dawn of civilisation. We are in the caves… The painters are primordial, or perhaps even primitive. The era’s painter is a troglodyte, an ‘archetypal author uninfected by modern ideas.’

*

Troglodytes act in Radek Szlaga’s painterly theatre. It’s part street theatre, part comedia dell’arte, sometimes a puppet theatre, at other times a national stage, a fake (beggar’s) opera or a global theatre of military operations; circus meets baroque mystery play here; the productions include classics, TV adaptations as well as non-fiction. The decorations change like in a kaleidoscope; everyone can play.

Returning to Szlaga’s troglodytes: they may be figures in paintings, but sometimes they ‘leave the frame’; in those cases, they materialise as sculptures, like in the installation Simulations (2009). With their size and appearance, caveman figurines resemble degenerate, repulsive dwarfs here. These are ‘naïve sculpture’ pieces, examples of urban folklore, made using low-quality, trashy materials: hardboard, plywood, salt dough, paper, plasticine, polyurethane foam, stocking. The little sculptures have about them an air of ugly, misshapen worlds.

The troglodytes in Simulations are painters. They try very hard to painted themselves – and their woolly mammoth that one of the painters had mounted. Szlaga’s primitive man has a characteristic low forehead that exonerates him from suspicions of any calculation. It’s the abovementioned ‘archetype of an uninfected author,’ resistant to influence due to low brain capacity.

Szlaga’s grotesque universe is a world without boundaries between the aesthetic and historical orders so anything can happen here – and a lot indeed happens. In one of the works, the cave-dwelling archetype of the uninfected author is adored by two ugly-faced baroque cupids made of plaster. It is possible however that they are worshipping a false idol and the troglodyte’s intellectual innocence, suggested by his low forehead, is but a false trope. The troglodyte-painters’ spontaneity and artistic honesty prove questionable. In Szlaga’s art, the simplicity of naïve painting meets the philosophy of Jean Baudrillard, the magical thinking of Carlos Castaneda, and the topos of the total reproduction of reality from Borges’s stories. There are many indications to believe that the cavemen here don’t paint from nature but rather copy existing paintings that feature other, even earlier images. A quintessence of this frame-tale story about painting comes in the form of a skull held by one of the prehistoric figures in Simulations. Originally, the image of the skull was a work on its own, which was then photographed, scanned, printed and montaged into another work as a model for creating yet another. The caveman has been nicely put in meta-narrative brackets here and the process of artistic reproduction has no end.

*

Beauty, beauty everywhere, I can’t stand it.
Beauty, beauty everywhere, I can’t bear it.
Wojciech Bąkowski, Beauty

Beauty is everywhere, everything is a worthy painting subject, Szlaga’s iconographic lexicon is bursting at the seams, motifs spilling out of his paintings. The troglodyte holds the brush like a mace. The ‘archetypal author’ paints. What he gets is: abstraction, pigs, potatoes. Potatoes with pigs. Piłsudski, his horse, a cow, a hen, again a pig (the Puławska variety). A highlander. An original. A real tough guy. Highlanders jumping around pink safari surrounded by an ornamental border. The Bartek oak. The thousand years of oak growth rings of Polish history, crowned by Jacek Krzynówek’s shot into the goal – the window of Teutonic arrogance. Bad drawings, evil touch, a priest, a horse wagon, Polish national roads, the problem of child abuse in the Church, Jews, skinheads, football. Irrigations in the south. Dark peoples, big hunger, African tribes. A Negro is guarding paintings at a gallery, but he’s kind of splitting. There are two of them, three. They hang lynched; it’s a quotation from a well-known photograph, but crossed out – this is something you shouldn’t do. There’s also Idi Amin, a cannibal against a golden background. Mimetic little foxes. Oil on a T-shirt, a stain on a carpet. Images of tattoos, the image of a pornographic image on the back of a man pasting a pornographic poster on the wall. A peasant ploughing with oil on canvas, the plough drawn by a Black Horse, Mr RDK from Szlagówka. A burning Fiat 126p, open skies, angels descending, a bolt out of the blue. Beauty, beauty everywhere.

Heavy Metal
The first painting by Radek Szlaga I’ve seen was The Skulls of Painters. It was on display at the Leto Gallery in Warsaw. An oval patch has been painted into the square picture, pink at the top and then smoothly, obliquely turning into yellow at the bottom. Inside it are the black eponymous skulls of painters: Bacon’s, Malevich’s, Van Eyck’s, the Kossaks’, Basquiat’s and several others’. Above runs the inscription ‘Painting,’ rendered in a font familiar from the logo of the music band Metallica.

I didn’t realise then that a couple of years earlier Radek Szlaga had been involved in a skirmish between contemporary art and the far right in eastern Poland. It doesn’t matter in fact because even I had realised that Szlaga the painter and the Szlaga involved in the scandal are one and the same person, what would I have been supposed to do with the knowledge? So I’m looking at the painting and thinking, ‘Well, well. It’s actually quite interesting that all these painters are dead and their skulls have been painted in such an offhand manner. Scrawled, even, but skilfully. They’re a bit like from non-art college, a bit naïve and crooked, but intentionally so. And it’s quite interesting that the Metallica logo changes into a Painting logo, heavy-metal motifs appearing on a very much non-heavy metal background, scandalously pink-and-yellow. That’s a smart painting, I thought, full of inspiring ambiguities. This painter enters tradition like a barbarian, a Goth or Hun, walking on the ruins of an exhausted civilisation, seemingly plundering, but he’s already soaking up the legacy and will soon develop it. A punk rocker who’s come to a philharmonic concert and is behaving ostentatiously and impolitely, shocking the high-brow music lovers, but he’s actually listening, and perhaps even more than the others. A functional illiterate, deliberately writing lopsided letters with his left hand even though he could calligraphy them nicely with his right one if he wanted to. A neo-troglodyte who grips the brush with his fist even though he could hold it delicately with his fingers. Ready to again and with premeditation make all the compositional, colouristic and technical errors, transgress good taste, go all the way.

In Szlaga’s Shed
Let us now imagine Radek Szlaga’s art as a painting exhibition at a fine gallery space. At the heart of the show stands a squalid shed – a structure straight out of the Polish landscape, one of those spontaneous, amateur constructions, created using what happened to be at hand. It could be standing in a garden allotment, behind an ugly unplastered provincial house, or on the side of a national road. Sheds like this are an example of architectural rudeness and arrogance: the easiest way is taken here, no one tries to make it look in any way, what matters is that it stands, opens and closes. The shed builders’ ostentatious aesthetic abnegation has its far-reaching aesthetic consequences, of course. which manifest themselves as side effects – normally this is just ugliness and a disaster, but on the meta-level, this vernacular architecture has its flavour. It’s like Neue Wilde painting in 3D.

So let’s enter inside. In Szlaga’s shed we find a curiosity cabinet – a trashy Kunstkammer. The space is filled with second-hand furniture and spattered with paint; among the objects we’ll find here are press clippings, ‘moustache added’ photos, old books, a 1977 map of Poland, the artist’s academy portfolio, kitschy gadgets, two cupids of exceptionally ugly faces, a bag from a Chinese Carrefour. Objects and paintings pile up in layers here; it’s a chaotic collection, am assemblage of things redundant or at least unnecessary; there’s nothing valuable here, but everything is interesting. The ‘holds it all’ shed/glory hole appears as a metaphor of Radek Szlaga’s art. This shack, sloppy and primitively patched together with this and that, offends your senses with its material crudeness but at the same time impresses you with its vitality, like shanties in Third-World favelas, barely standing and yet unstoppable in their expansion. On a similar basis that the shed has been built into the elegant gallery white cube, Szlaga montages into his visual discourse vulgarisms, kitsches, political incorrectnesses, racisms, prejudices. He builds a language by borrowing from football chants and stereotypical folk ‘wisdoms,’ listening intently to Freudian slips and parapraxes. The space of his painting stretches between the chaotic moloch of the global village viewed on satellite TV and the untidy landscape of transformation-era Poland, where a nouveau-riche’s luxurious and ugly villa stands by a muddy road, a VW Golf welded together using two Passats rushes along, a billboard hangs above all this, and behind the billboard isn’t working an abandoned artificial fertiliser factory-come-Chinese sneaker warehouse. Szlaga replaces the modernist principle of ‘less means more’ with ‘worse means better.’ He directs the spotlight of his art at the contemporary world’s ‘second-rate citizens’; his protagonists include Africans, Poles, troglodytes, rednecks, hooligans and hogs. He draws ‘bad drawings.’ He opens himself up to the unpredictable energy of the mistake, stain, smear and scrawl. In the pot of Szlaga’s art, images are boiled in a sauce of spicy painting,. full of colouristic dissonances, visual distortions, barbarisms and bad tastes; this is utterly freestyle painting, which moves from tenderly polished form and art-school technique to spilt paint without warning or gear change.

CMYK
The modernists looked for a new formal impulse in the art of non-European peoples – due to the alleged genius encoded in their primitivism. A hundred years later, all the postmodernist Szlaga can find among the non-European peoples are Coke cans, fake Nike T-shirts, sandals made out of bald Goodyear tyres, and Chinese TV sets powered by gasoline-fuelled generators. There’s no sense in talking about new impulses since ‘everything has already happened’ so if it makes sense to activate any impulses, it’s the old ones – which Szlaga actually does by experimenting with the traditional genres: landscape, realistic figuration, animal painting. portrait, genre scenes. Primitivism still has its power but it’s manifested as the post-primitivism of functional illiteracy and the information-consumer society’s neo-tribalism. There is excess and a very unfavourable proportion of quantity to quality in the field of cultural impulses. A painter trying to react to those impulses and to somehow grasp the surfeit of impressions is pushed into a trash baroque – and that’s precisely what Szlaga practices, highlighting with his painting the infinite wealth of this world, which abounds in trash.

To say that Szlaga’s art is a mirror in which is reflected the chaos of the present in the shape of a multilayered, fragmentary and heterogeneous picture would be placing too heavy a burden on the artist’s shoulders – although in the comprehensive formula of his painting there is room for journalism, politicality, poetry, cultural critique and flashes of intuition that illuminate the nature of things. In fact, by the way, Szlaga’s images are only reflections of other images. This well has no bottom and the painter keeps making it deeper and deeper, painting images within images, representing other images, inspired by images. He photographs his works, paints on the photographs, projects them as slides, and then publishes the visual so obtained in a book. Szlaga’s works are sequences, conglomerates, combinations, oil on cardboard, pasted on a carpet, stretched on a stretcher, mixed media, reproduction of an original photocopy, made from a unique copy, deliberately moved during scanning so that the colour breaks down into CMYK and nothing fits anymore.

*

Despite painting’s immobile nature, the images created by Szlaga seem to be in constant movement. It’s a movement from original to copy and back, the pendulum movement from image through picture to painting and from there again to image, a movement from one convention of pictorial representation to another, a constant quest for new solutions, a brainstorm. In addition, no image is really final here; you have to accept the fact that at any time any ‘file’ can be opened, reedited, a filter applied, recomposed, rescanned, used in a collage. This is a rich reality in which a lot happens – and it probably doesn’t make sense to reduce this wealth in the name of pigeonholing synthetisation. Instead of drawing conclusions, I prefer to think about this art in an incohesive and fragmentary manner. So I think about it as about The White Stripes, who stand knee-deep in the past and yet sound so damn contemporary. I think of the energy of The Ramones, and of 1980s expressionist painting. I think of Immendorf’s Café Deutschland, of images of the kind that Radek would probably like, though I’m not sure because I’ve never talked to him about it. I think of Włodzimierz Pawlak’s best paintings from 25 years ago, intellectually brilliant and daringly done, each one of them differently. Of second-rate sacral art from late-Baroque Polish churches, with their provincial aesthetic authenticity. I think even, why not, of the 18th-century Venetians, with their mists, blurry contours and pastel colour ranges that sometimes come to the fore in Szlaga’s work in surprising moments of painterly virtuosity. Of the shapeless lumpiness of Polish potatoes, of the fact that pigs are like people, and of the nonexistent West Germany. I think of the tristes tropiques, the heart of darkness, and of Werner Herzog making a documentary about the cannibalistic emperor Bokassa – though also of Herzog who in Harmony Korine’s film plays a priest who throws nuns out of a helicopter in the hope for a miracle. I think of indigenously Polish cars, of the Fiats 126p, the Golfs, the Passats, of second-hand Audis. Of badly performing Łódź football clubs whose fans insult each other by calling each other Jews. Of the elegance of Roma playboys, the blunt glitz of golden necklaces and the iconography of tattoos. Of a sudden screeching noise from an interfering microphone, of doggerel rhymes woven into the rhythms of Dorota Masłowska’s prose, and of commercial slogans that stick in your mind and won’t go. And of course of troglodytes.

Stach Szabłowski

more texts