Staś and Matyszewski: Digging in topics related to death [INTERVIEW]

The paintings that make up the Digging In cycle tell the story of life and death, or rather the delicate boundary between the two states — Paweł Matyszewski and Irmina Staś in a conversation with Michał Jachuła

Michał Jachuła: What prompted you to paint together and how did it all start?

Irmina Staś: After the Power of Abstraction exhibition in Minsk, Belarus, the participants started a kind of game: Everyone had to do something with a canvas and pass it on. The canvasses circulated between Iza Rogucka, Grzegorz Kozera, Bartosz Kokosiński, Paweł and me. As a result of the exchange, there were some very surprising joint works created. At one point I received a canvas with a background that Paweł had done, and I painted my elements on it. We all really liked it. I thought, it’s too bad that I can’t use a background like Paweł’s in my paintings — in the sense that I already had my own arsenal of gestures that I used. I am always looking for new ideas, but looking is not about stealing a friend’s ideas. I didn’t say anything to Paweł at the time. A little while later, Paweł suggested that we paint together. It turned out that he had similar feelings about our collaborations. I was very happy to agree right away. I think that because I value Paweł’s work very much, I had no problem accepting his interference in mine. An additional reason for beginning a collaboration was the subject matter of our paintings. They are very different formally, but very close thematically. I’m fascinated by the phenomenon of cyclicality in nature. I’m trying to create a painted description of nature. Organisms are biological landscapes, built out of transplanted elements from various environments. I try to fit the admiration of vital corporeality and a sensation of an approaching end on one canvas. Paweł takes a completely different approach to the subject of the body in his painting, he looks at it from a different perspective.

Paweł Matyszewski: As Irmina mentioned, we ‘overlap’ in our search. We’re united by such subjects as the penetration of nature and the organic world, transience and rotation. Yes, our processes are formally different. I’m also more gloomy and decadent, I focus on slightly different areas and in a different way. The challenge was in figuring out how to do it to avoid a simple enumeration of gestures we knew. The painting we mentioned earlier was the seed of collaboration, although I had never planned anything like that before. We didn’t really know each other well, all we had was a few days’ trip to Minsk for the Power of Abstraction exhibition. When we decided that we would start a joint project, it turned out that the studio next to Irmina’s was vacant for a few months, which made the work much easier.

M.J.:The title of the exhibition is Digging In. What are you ‘digging’ in?

P.M.: Connotations of death, digging in the past, in the subconscious, are very much justified. It’s also rummaging in and penetrating a common painting space. I would add that it’s diffing in the present and imagining a future with the aftertaste of a catastrophe.

I.S.: We dig in themes related to death, we put elements associated with transience, with decay into our works. The subject of death is close for us both in painting. But we also dig in our private things. For me, the studio is a private place, even an intimate one. We let each other into the most intimate space — the space of our own paintings. What we like and accept, we steal for ourselves, for the painting, and throw the rest away.

M.J.:How did you carry out the project?

P.M.: The beginnings were cautious and exploratory. I brought a few canvasses I had started, and in return, I received Irmina’s started paintings. I painted and waited for the next layers of Irmina’s paintings; the next elements were a surprise. In later stages of our work, we started talking more, negotiating, although there were also spontaneous actions. It was actually exciting — waiting for what you would see on the canvas next, what new situation you would have to address. But the longer we worked together, the more meaningfully we would approach the canvas and we knew exactly what situation and what problem we wanted to capture. I worked mainly in the evenings and at night. Even though we share the studio for a while, we never worked at the same time. I need solitude.

I.S.: The work process was different, but it was surprisingly gentle and we will probably remain friends after the end of the project. We worked side by side, but separately — there was a studio wall between us. Later, circumstances changed and we used one studio, so I worked during the day and Paweł in the evenings and at night. I would get Paweł’s canvas with his background, and I could paint what I wanted. But this formula was quickly exhausted. For me, it wasn’t easy from the very beginning, because I always paint on a white canvas. Some of my paintings have black backgrounds, but those are applied at the very end, after the whole picture is composed on white. I started to paint on white and handed over the first canvas like that. Paweł has a very strong need to create his characteristic blue, grey, foggy or muddy space. The effects of working on a white canvas were probably also satisfactory for him. Ultimately, several lighter works were created, but not devoid of a dark, mysterious character.

M.J.:Tell me about the painting problems you faced while working together.

I.S.: The main point of dispute was colour. Accepting or not accepting a colour, the presence or absence of a background, or the colour of the background itself. I use pure, saturated colours, while Paweł prefers muted hues, mixed with white or black. Sometimes, I would paint an intensive element, and he muted it, applied a white glaze, and so on. It motivated me to use even brighter hues, as if all my colours wanted to break through the delicate layer of Paweł’s space. With the use of glazes, the paintings are more integrated, they take on a weight without losing their spatiality.

P.M.: It’s true, we both perceive colour and contrast differently, we have a different temperature and saturation. I think that this difference was stimulating. In addition, while working together we could afford to experiment more often, the lines of authorship were blurred. Sometimes people who visited the studio were unable to decipher the authorship of some of the elements. The big challenge was determining the technique, because I paint mainly with acrylics, and Irmina uses only oils. So we had to establish a technical order. Interestingly, apart from the mixed technique, we created only acrylic or only oil paintings.

M.J.:Can your paintings be treated as one painter ‘interfering’ with the work of another? Did you enter into a harmonious symbiosis in the course of your work, or the opposite, into a kind of struggle?

I.S.: There was both symbiosis and struggle, which changed dynamically. You described it accurately as one painter ‘interfering’ with the work of another. This whole collaboration is on the one hand a fun adventure, and other the other hand, it’s a constant struggle for appropriation of the painting. I’m aware that we both do it, and the effect of fighting each other is interesting. Our works are the sum of the struggle for our own space in a collaborative painting, enriching each other with painting means and the fascination with the work of another painter. There is a completely new quality, which neither I nor Paweł would have achieved on our own.

P.M.: I would describe our work as co-creation. I treat painting together as an opportunity to create something new that we wouldn’t have done alone. A big positive surprise was, for example, the painting Tank, which is not only based on paths we have trod before, but ultimately is a completely separate entity — it is difficult to attribute its authorship to Irmina or me. As for the course of our work, it was different, we had differences of opinion, but not so that they paralysed our work. Not all decisions suited me completely, but I knew that it was the same with Irmina. Besides, I started the collaboration not to smuggle in as much as possible of my own work and engage in a battle of characters, but to create something together from worlds that are so close and so distant at the same time. I think we were lucky and we skilfully measured out acceptance of our own ideas. What was surprising was the fact that so many people were shocked that we were working together, as if it were some unimaginable hardship.

M.J.:Was the creation of paintings preceded by drawing sketches, together or separately, or maybe by working out concepts for individual works together?

I.S.: There were no sketches, no, only quick hand-made pencil outlines on random pieces of paper to illustrate what we were talking about.

P.M.: While we worked together, we created both spontaneous projects and ones we talked about and planned for a long time. We completed most of the ideas we agreed on, but there were also plans that we didn’t carry out and created something completely new instead. Some works were supposed to refer to specific phenomena or problems, others were pure intuition. Most often the concept emerged during conversation, an exchange of thoughts, sometimes we made quick compositional sketches to explain the problem in detail.

M.J.:How do you think about the collaborative paintings, also in the context of their authorship?

I.S.: The paintings are exactly half mine and half Paweł’s. I can’t imagine trying to weigh or measure the authors’ contributions to a collaborative work. After all, sometimes one spot changes a painting and builds it. For me, what counts is not who did how much, but the fact that we worked together, not alone.

P.M.: I think the same way — it’s a joint action, without measuring or thinking about which work is more one person’s or another’s.

M.J.:Can such individual works or a set of works be included in the genres of painting, and if so, in which genres?

I.S.: For me, the collaborative works are landscapes. Sometimes it’s an internal space, abstract, but always a space, always a place.

P.M.: The direction of the landscape is on the right track. However, the works vary widely, they have a great deal of freedom or they’re specific tales and stories with a greater or a lesser content load.

M.J.:Landscapes can be symbolic. They can also contain the narrative Paweł mentioned, or be a portrait of a place, which Irmina talks about. Can we say that your cycle is a coherent whole? What is Digging In about?

I.S.: It’s a symbolic landscape, of course. I meant a place, a certain space in which the compositions Paweł and I created meet, and where systems are constructed, sometimes abstract and sometimes referring directly to compositions we know, like Wreath I and Wreath II. Their titles refer to the floral funeral or holiday wreaths we are familiar with. For us, however, the space in which this composition is located is equally important. In the first work, green plant elements, dry branches, bodily forms of skin and bone, networks of neurons and blood vessels, fogs and membranes form a circle in a white space full of air. In the second work, however, a similar composition arrangement is suspended in the stifling, heavy space of black, with the fragments emerging from the darkness. Collection is an example of the landscape of the inside of the body. It is full of fleshy pinks and bloody reds. Individual forms are placed on a pink background — the colour of the inner layer of skin. Collection consists of organic forms of rings and burned holes, conventional tissues sewn together with thread and dissolving blood vessels, roots, a multicoloured foggy circle, a star frozen and aggressive in its precision, a phallic shape that spins as if in a dance with a cloud of smoke or dust, a clump of hair forming a flower pattern and a mountain of warm ashes. All this is in one canvas, but the elements do not touch each other. Everything is equally important and necessary. Collection creates a diverse landscape of the body’s interior. The paintings that make up the  Digging In cycle form a coherent whole, but the individual works differ in many respects. They all tell the story of life and death, or rather the delicate boundary between the two states. The works also combine a repeating arsenal of gestures and sources from which we draw — dominated by organic forms. Some works, like the Wreaths I described, are serious, even catastrophic, but in others, like Urological Landscape or Holiday, there is a note of humour and distance to matters over which we have no influence anyway.

P.M.: Let’s start with the fact that our work is an experiment. Co-creation on one surface is a sociological adventure, a simultaneous collision and coexistence. The cycle is also a kind of a diary, because some motifs result from specific events, although that has not been stated outright. Urological Landscape may seem funny, but the source of inspiration is not the most pleasant. Tank is very painterly, shimmering with nuances, but at the same time it appears like a flood or a littered pond. There is a lot of sexuality, but sometimes not obvious. This balancing in content and form is of great importance, leaving no paintings with a ready answer. What is coherent is the aura, which disturbingly encompasses presentations of pulsating biology, vital and dead. The works are muted and crowded, and the layering of elements is both pleasing and irritating. In addition to the ubiquitous nature, there are also cultural and religious motifs. Images are a platform for discovering multi-layered stories — a mixture of our commitment, fascination and fear.

M.J.: You’re going to show a large selection of paintings at the Le Guern Gallery — the fruit of several months of collaboration. What do you think about the completed exhibition? Are you planning to continue your collaboration?

P.M.: It’s almost a year of our shared experiment. I am glad that we decided to collaborate, because it was an unprecedented experience, both on artistic and personal grounds. It is true that not all the themes discussed together have been brought to fruition, but maybe it’s better that there was a selection. Each of us has their own plans and projects, which at least in my case were waiting in hibernation, and now their time has come. Whether it will be a longer break, or a matter that’s closed, time will tell. For me, this is the end of a stage on many levels — I moved to a different city for the sake of the collaboration, I led a nomadic life style, travelled often. Now I’m coming back, and we’ll see how that turns out for me.

I.S.: In the course of the work, my attitude towards the results varied. I found some of the paintings difficult to accept, but I gave myself time and when new ones appeared, the euphoria came back. I think the greatest advantage of the whole set is variety. I have my favourite paintings, which are very inspiring for me, and certainly this collaboration will not be without influence on my further independent work. We are not a permanent artistic duo. From the very beginning, we agreed that we were working on an exhibition, that it was a one-off project. But I have the feeling that we haven’t managed to paint all the pictures yet.

Michał Jachuła, Paweł Matyszewski, Irmina Staś, 2017