LIFE IS MOTION, BY DR. DAVID ANFAM
Among the most indelible hallmarks running through the vast phenomena clustered under the otherwise familiar portmanteau name of ‘modernism’ were time, motion and memory. Indeed, however we define this slippery subject – from its beginnings in the nineteenth century to the equally imponderable stage in the second half of the succeeding one when it phased into history – these themes now seem almost like the sole constants in a multiform, ever- shifting flow. As such, they straddled the entire spectrum of the arts and more besides, including physics and psychology – to the extent that random examples attest to their ubiquitousness. In doing so, the precedents help to locate both the heritage and import at the core of Mark Dziewulski’s pictorial concerns.
In painting, consider the direction that began with Impressionism’s urge to capture the fleeting play of light and atmosphere by means of evanescent brushmarks, continued through the overlapping planes found in, say, Cubism or Futurism and culminated in Jackson Pollock’s skeins conjured with poured pigment. Pollock’s famous words attest to the mentality that was at stake in them and vividly anticipate qualities that Dziewulski’s architecture and painting alike explore:
energy and motion
made visible –
memories arrested in space
Modern music echoed these preoccupations – from Richard Wagner’s leitmotifs that evoked in sound the mingling of past and present in nature’s primal energies and the psyches of his protagonists, via the mechanistic pulse propelling such tone pieces as Arthur Honegger’s Pacific 231 (1923), to the swirling rhythms that have pervaded jazz in its myriad forms. Likewise, it should suffice to cite T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ and James Joyce’s Ulysses (both 1922) – each moving fluidly across time and space – to show that modernist prose and verse shared comparable preoccupations. If not, then the title of a poem by Wallace Stevens says it all: ‘Life is Motion’ (published the year after the aforementioned literary annus mirabilis). This could as well be the subtext for what Dziewulski has to date sought to at once freeze and animate in both two and three dimensions.
As for Dziewulski’s own foundational discipline in particular, Frank Lloyd Wright stands as a prime instance, among many others, of an architect who in his iconic Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1943-59) created a concrete (the double entendre is irresistible) merger of temporality and perambulation that thereby engages the beholder’s durational awareness as he/she traverses its up/down spiral. No wonder that Dziewulski’s buildings and public sculptures, such as the Museum of Design and Performance in San Francisco and Hong Kong’s Ribbon Symphony (2003), utilise curves and folds. In essence these configurations not only exude an organic aura – by no coincidence life’s building block, DNA, of course has a twin helix structure – but also entail a sense of perpetuality. Why else should the Möbius strip and the conventional sign for infinity assume more or less the same shape?
From here it is a short step to Dziewulski’s latest paintings in which another temporal mode, transience, interacts with an interrogation of how we see each other and, ipso facto, ourselves. Short because infinity and finality are flip sides of the human condition. We long for one yet end with the other. Speaking of which, the architect/artist again inherits a tendency that lies on the cusp where modernity segues to post-modernism. Namely, the question of identity.
Today, any discussion of identity perforce entails assumptions that the self is mutable, constructed and layered. Truth to tell, this paradigm is at least as ancient as the riddle that the Sphinx posed to Oedipus (‘What goes on fours in the morning, on twos in the afternoon and on threes at night?’) and as modern as Jorge Luis Borges’s fictional Pierre Menard (who rewrote Cervantes’s Don Quixote so that the boundaries between originality/ authenticity versus reinvention/artificiality became impossibly blurred). As one historian of the topic has observed: ‘The case of an impostor then leads to thinking about hiding, revealing, masking, transforming what at its most vertiginous becomes a protean sense of self.’ From here stems the enigmatic tenor that informs what Dziewulski calls the ‘spatial intrigue’ to his architecture and the idiosyncratic elusiveness that marks his current portraits. They pivot around the tension inherent in whether the modish ‘selfie’ is really the self and how far any image – which is necessarily static in the face of restless reality – can render its essence or life-force.
A final and significantly quintessential modernist medium, the cinema, perhaps offers the best window onto the haunting visages – poised between recognition and abstraction – that people Dziewulski’s, so to speak, painterly photo booth. Speci cally, it is Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) wherein the layers of self (to recall the title of a recent sculpture ensemble by the artist) are laid bare, dissolve into one another and then reform as though existential autonomy were chameleon-like and de-centred, depending upon how we see ourselves through the eyes of others.8 Even Bergman’s preference for black-and- white cinematography parallels Dziewulski’s prevalent monochrome. In the same breath, though, Eliot had already anticipated this complex personal tug between veracity and arti ce when he wrote in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (1920) of how we engineer the presentation of self in everyday life:
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet
But heir as he may be to modernist precursors, Dziewulski still belongs thoroughly to the twenty- first century. These works are not simply akin to Gerhard Richter’s use of the blur to point the dialectic between photographic memories and painted immediacy. Rather, they derive from the ephemeral imaging peculiar to the smart phone’s digital system. Thus, the mechanical and the existential, cyberspace and painting’s virtual spaces, coalesce. Mutatis mutandis, presence counters absence. A mood reminiscent of cinematic flashbacks, dissolves and those frequent moments when water – especially in the Hollywood film noir – acts as a metaphor of memory prevails. Except that this stream of consciousness is cut short by a certain reflexivity, especially insofar as the pictures’ fracture reveals their making: pencil strokes, areas of bare canvas and so forth remain visible. Hence materiality grinds against metaphor. The illusion of transparency also adverts to time since layers presuppose seeing one thing through another, which requires perceptual persistence. Moreover, the brightness about these works reflects, paradoxically, a dark cast. In short, Dziewulski’s mother has Alzheimer’s. His traumatic encounter with that disease – keyed as it is to recall and its lack, forgetting, the loss of self and futile repeating – is their living muse.
Dr. David anfam
A critic and passionate art lover based in London, David Anfam is the Senior Consulting Curator at the Clyfford Still Museum, Denver. His diverse writings include Abstract Expressionism (Thames & Hudson, 1990; second edition 2015); Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas – A Catalogue Raisonné (Yale University Press, 1998), which received the 2000 Mitchell Prize for the History of Art; and Anish Kapoor (Phaidon Press, 2009). Since 1990 Anfam has also contributed essays to some 70 exhibition catalogues, including Robert Motherwell’s Elegies to the Spanish Republic (Dominique Lévy, New York, 2015) and Pier Paolo Calzolari (White Cube, London, 2018). He received his BA (1976) and PhD degrees (1984) from the Courtauld Institute of Art. Most recently, Anfam’s exhibition Abstract Expressionism – the largest survey of its kind ever held in Europe – opened at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 2016 and toured to the Guggenheim Bilbao. It witnessed more than 360,000 visitors.
© Art Ex Ltd 2018