New Things

When it comes to Irmina Staś’s works, two motifs come into play: the artist’s personal experience and her formal affinity with post-war Surrealists. While both readings have a certain basis, they do not yet exhaust Staś’s painterly universe. To the contrary, they are only the beginning.

According to Lena Wicherkiewicz, the organic quality of Staś’s paintings evokes associations not only with the interior of the human body but with the whole gamut of biological critters, plants, and microbes. In Wicherkiewicz’s words, Staś’s works represent the “miracle of life” and “ceaseless concern with it.”1 Her method of depicting the organic microcosm is intrinsically linked to the formal qualities of her works. Typically, they are said to oscillate between abstraction and figuration. This is true enough, as they may indeed be classified as so-called allusive abstractions, meaning that they distil reality into simple forms that do not represent any specific objects directly, yet still contain their perceptible echoes.

Staś is often compared to post-war Surrealism and matter painting, representing the same kind of allusive abstraction, though underlined by the dramatic experience of the war, as is the case for Erna Rosenstein and the artists of the Second Kraków Group: Maria Jarema and Jonasz Stern. And yet, despite the undoubtable similarities, if you put Staś’s paintings next to those of Rosenstein or Stern, they are set apart by a number of obvious differences. Staś’s works are far removed from that sort of drama, and do not exhibit an existential torsion precipitated by the collapse of faith in the modern project, such as the possibility of a more egalitarian society free of stark class divisions and nationalisms. While deploying a language close to that of post-war Surrealists, Staś couples it with the apparently contradictory universe of rational post-Constructivist abstraction.

The story of abstract art, like any great narrative, relies on contrast. Art historians such as Piotr Krakowski have narrated that story relying on two notions: “cold” and “hot” abstraction.2 The former rests in rational dividing lines and disciplined composition; the latter unreins expressive instincts and yields to the primacy of unrestrained gestures. Those differences first emerged in the interwar period and became even more apparent after the biggest humanitarian catastrophe of the 20^th^ century.

According to Dorota Jarecka, “What attracted Polish artists ca. 1948 the most to Surrealism was the concept of the painting which afforded the opportunity to construct the concept of modernity as a third way beside the one-way-street of Social Realism and dead-end Kapism. Surrealism (or supra-realism) was then understood in the broad sense, not so much as a style as a Weltanschauung, a life philosophy, a specific perspective on painting free of the obligation to imitate reality, a perspective focused on the observation of the ‘internal model.’”3

While apparently much closer to the camp of post-war Surrealists who developed their art in reaction to the war experience, Staś in fact draws upon both those sources: the expressive response to the failure, or the frightening degeneration, of the modern project and the Constructivist avant-garde which attempted to lay the foundation of that very project. In Jarecka’s words, “Art comes back to surrealist cruelty at the time of a crisis of culture, a reassessment of values.”4

Both camps, Constructivists and Surrealists, were aiming at self-effacement of art, which they saw as the inevitable end to the avant-garde project. A descendant of both camps, Staś is nonetheless a staunch defender of art’s permanence and immutability. She thus breaks off from the modern story told in the spirit of cultural evolutionism. Two negatives yield a positive, and art is no longer understood to be a part of the system of culture which follows a predetermined track of development.

Although formally split between two worlds, the intuitions of the architects of the first modernity were founded on a similar perception of modernity and the role of art in modernity. These intuitions could be correct even if they never snowballed to devour ever more of life and dissolve in it. According to Zbigniew Dłubak, modern art can only be achieved by combining all parts of the avant-garde, both Constructivist and Surrealist.5 If Staś’s paintings are to be described in purely formal terms, they show a predominance of orderly, symmetrical, nearly ornamental compositions painted in an elegant flat way. There are no thick touches or “un-painterly” materials glued in pigment. If paint engages the canvas in a more complex relationship, it never tears away but rather moulds into the surface of fabric or paper.

For the avant-garde, utopia of the artistic language was intrinsically linked with social engagement; artistic experiment and the belief that the value of art lies in its socially utilitarian role went hand in hand. The objective before the war was to build a new world; the objective after the war was to rebuild the world that had been destroyed and to save scraps of the modernist project. Staś is not involved with the development of a project that would be yet another embodiment of modernity or, unlike many artists who explicitly build on the modernist legacy, write footnotes to the history of the avant-garde and analyse avant-garde perspectives. After all, Staś grew up in a world where post-Enlightenment modernisation is daily bread but at the expense of those who did not jump on the train speeding towards a vision of a rosy future based on the development of science and technology. She grew up in a world where the cosmic race had come to an end when did the cultural competition of the two superpowers divided by the former Iron Curtain, revealing that its actual background was legitimised by humanist ideals and cognitive idealism only to a very limited degree.

This world has been eroded by the impact of colonialism, which relegated vast regions of the globe to the status of geopolitical and economic periphery. It is a world of growing inequalities where the richest citizens of the Western powers are planning to venture to Mars in Elon Musk’s private rockets while the population living under the poverty threshold continues to grow. A world where neoliberal myths borrowed from positivist novels are crumbling with a deadening bang; where being born in one social class rather than another all but determines one’s fate for a lifetime and makes one confined to a fixed social group. The space in between continues to shrink: in the capitals of new Asian economic powerhouses, the glass-and-steel office towers of the financial elite and the expanse of shantytowns are divided by a thin wall.

In early June 2018, the Curiosity rover on Mars identified traces of organic compounds in rocks and of methane in the atmosphere of the planet. They could corroborate the hypothesis that Mars used to support (or still supports) organic life. But the discovery could just as well be evidence of something else entirely. It would be hard to find a better analogy for Irmina Staś’s paintings. Looking and Organisms and Bouquets, one sees organic building blocks but their function remains a mystery. They do remind one of constituent parts of the human body but some of them have a quasi-floral quality, as the title Bouquets suggests. They are carefully arranged, like Dutch still lifes, yet composed of organs, tissues, molecules: universal building blocks of life, which could be either components of the human body or elements of unknown alien organisms that are based on the same carbon matrix.

These building blocks seem concurrently recognisable and strange, which is how Staś builds her paintings. In contrast to the organic dimension of works by Rosenstein, Lenica or contemporary young painters attracted to neo-surrealism, like Kamil Kukla, corporeality in Staś’s paintings is not a nexus of organic and artificial matter but rather it is well structured, like the notes of a scientist researching those organisms. Staś collects particles of matter and carefully arranges them on the canvas as if it were a laboratory testbed. She distils the forms, which lean on the abstract, and makes them unreal to the extent that the spectrum of formal associations they evoke extends to the maximum. Dull green and pinkish conical forms could be body parts or maybe a row of burial mounds.

Staś’s painting is akin to the post-Stalinist-era Informalism, surprisingly mellow, elegant, almost scientific. According to Anna Markowska, “post-Stalinist-era Informalism in Poland did not challenge the medium of painting to the extent it did on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Quite the opposite, Tadeusz Kantor’s Informalism with its retouches, carefully composed with a premeditated choice of colours and an appearance of spontaneity, is an extension of Kapism rather than a radical negation of the medium of painting… Aleksander Kobzdej’s Fissures series is a very sophisticated example of the extension of the medium of painting to include matter structures which add to the textural voluptuousness of the painting.”6

Staś’s Organisms are descendants of Kobzdej’s Fissures but these organic structures, set against a monochromatic background, do not blossom in space, sprouting instead from genuine fissures in the painting and onto its surface. And, as Informalism in the People’s Republic of Poland was derived from Constructivism on the one hand and Colourism on the other, the family tree behind Staś’s work grows denser.

The popularity of Informalism and Geometric Abstraction in post-Stalinist Poland is typically explained in art history as a reaction to the trauma of Social Realism. The reaction was two-pronged. The most obvious was the formal dimension: Abstraction replaced Realism, extravagant texture replaced flat surfaces erasing the painterly gesture. There was also the ideological dimension linked to the role of the artist: the reinstatement of the primacy of expression over laying the foundation of a socialist society. The story of the painters who were “tired of reality” echoes that narration, as internal escape into the depths of one’s own imagination replaces social and political statements and a certain “joy of painting” replaces post-Conceptual and New Media techniques of the neo-avant-garde. The artists who were “tired of reality” were not only disinterested in shaping the political and cultural discourse but also prone to escape into a world of imagination and make-believe far removed from the mission of Critical Art. Instead of the “Cold War of artists and society,” as Zbigniew Libera put it, or the culture wars resulting from growing pains of the post-transition society, what interests them are imaginary wars of armies of insects under the kitchen table.

In working through such kind of experience, Staś evades the pendulum swinging between action and reaction along such axes as engagement versus escapism and realism versus abstraction. She is a laboratory realist depicting not so much configurations in the material world as our perception of it. Looking at her Organisms, one does not really know what organisms these are, but one knows perfectly well that one is looking at oneself looking at paintings. These paintings are not only painterly compositions but also visualisations of our understanding of reality.

Piotr Policht, 2018

  1. L. Wicherkiewicz, To Touch, [in:] Irmina Staś. Touch, exhibition catalogue, Warsaw 2016, p. 4. 

  2. See, for instance, A. Kotula, P. Krakowski, Sztuka abstrakcyjna, Warsaw 1973. 

  3. D. Jarecka, “Artysta na ruinach. Sztuka polska lat 40. i surrealistyczne konotacje”, Miejsce. Studia nad sztuką i architekturą polską XX i XXI wieku, No. 2, 2016, p. 5. 

  4. Ibid., p. 11. 

  5. Z. Dłubak, Z rozmyślań o fotografice (II), Świat Fotografii 1948, No. 11, after: D. Jarecka, op. cit. , p. 17. 

  6. A. Markowska, Dwa przełomy. Sztuka polska po 1955 i 1989 roku, Toruń 2012, p. 85.