The Painter’s Eye and Brain

Grzegorz Sztwiertnia, The Painter’s Eye and Hand, 6 May – 18 June, 2003, Zderzak Gallery, Cracow.

For many years Grzegorz Sztwiertnia has been playing with various definitions of the artist’s persona and its relation to artistic production.

During the 1990s, the thirty-five year old artist was recognised, hiding himself behind a screen of his erudition and mockery, only by a limited number of viewers.

Such an attitude allows him to examine the sick body of culture and focus on the missing elements of our incomplete cultural mosaic.

Sztwiertnia has mastered both the brush and the pen; in addition to visual forms (performance, installation, video, painting) his work includes text and literature.

Several years ago Sztwiertnia decided to open Synoptic Clinic . The list of his solo exhibitions includes his first individual show Five poets, five painters, one artist(1992) and Psychotrops (1998) at the Zderzak Gallery; Psycholab (1998) at Wyspa Gallery in Gdansk, and many others.

In all of these exhibitions, the soul speaks through the body, or the disabled body. Sztwiertnia’s “artist” is a second-rate demiurge/creator; a human handy man whose mistakes and blindfold searching are paradoxically somehow still permissible.

He manifests human creativity, which is never ex nihilo; it neither starts from a concrete beginning nor ends in fulfilment.

The artist’s being is defective, but his very defects are his strength. His artistic production is inseparably connected to his eye, hand, and brain.

Illnesses of the soul are made manifest through the functions of the body. His work examines the psychophysical limits of the organism and perpetual force of nature’s mistakes.

This exploration is both direct and distanced, oscillating between an almost painful literalness and articulate irony in its attempt to reveal wounded or absent spirituality.

Sztwiertnia is like “the traitor” of his work and we are his victims.

This special kind of distance towards his artistic activities allows Sztwiertnia to manipulate the meaning of his work very precisely.

In this sense, Sztwiertnia’s work is firmly situated within a conceptual tradition with its stress on the “chosen” and “correct” content.

His works are framed with very precise titles, descriptions and instructions giving the misleading illusion of excluding any meaning other than that explicitly provided: an illusion in excluding non-defined works of art.

In his most recent exhibition, entitledThe Painter’s Eye and Hand, held at Cracow Zderzak Gallery in May- June, Sztwiertnia becomes a “phenomenologist” of his own vision in order to explore the truth and false aspects of perception, through the practical application of Merleau-Ponty’s and Lacan’s concepts.

As usual, Sztwiertnia approaches these topics through the use of professional medical books and their illustrations.

In contrast to his previous projects, Sztwiertnia gives no working instructions either to the “artist” – the protagonist of the show – or to the viewer.

The origin of the apparently abstract paintings can be deduced only from their titles. Upon entering the space, the viewer is confronted with the book entitled The Painter’s Eye and Hand by Ignacy Witz, published in 1966.

The book, from which the show takes its title, was found in a second-hand bookstore and is exhibited here as a “ready-made” in a vitrine.

The display attempts to perverse a deconstruction of the book’s title. Sztwiertnia expresses his disappointment with the content of the book, which does not touch upon the problem of the brain of the artist and the viewer.

The gallery is filled with paintings of wounded eyes and hands, surgical instruments and throats, on specially painted walls.

The first part of the show includes images of tracheotomized throats (Throat Issues series), in which the cut purple vaginal larynxes seem to mock the throat’s function as an organ of communication.

This question of function is emphasised by the inclusion of paintings documenting the tubes used after tracheotomies to enable patients to communicate and breathe.

Without proper instruction, these tubes would seem to serve other functions than merely facilitating communication.

The next room confronts the viewer with paintings of the eye described in the title. Pathologically changed irises are painted with very precise, almost alchemic control of colours.

Entitled Painters Eye (after removing the epithelium from the cornea, in order to see better), they recall Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs. Like surrealistic objects, these paintings “see” us inasmuch we see them.

In juxtaposition, on the opposite wall, the series of paintings entitled Sharpening of the vision tools is placed between two grey hemispheres quoted from a medical diagram of an impaired field of vision.

The paintings in this installation show abstractions of surgical diagrams of the eye.

The exhibition at Zderzak Gallery is accompanied by a monograph devoted to Grzegorz Sztwiertnia’s painting. It develops certain motifs known from the artist’s previous solo shows, particularly from the exhibition entitled Farbenlehre, held at the Bunkier Sztuki Gallery, Cracow, in Summer 2002.

Farbenlehre perversely referred to the theory of colours invented by Johann Wolfgang Goethe, later applied by Rudolf Steiner to the rules of eurhythmics.

The central work in the exhibition was Eurythmicon, which consisted of many elements: video, colour strings, eurythmical analysis of expression and languages of the soul.

The second part of the exhibition, evoking again the motif of vision, the unconciousness of perception and impact of colours, included the work entitled New history of an eye.

In describing the work, Sztwiertnia comments: “…Coloured images of the cornea rendered by so called videokeratography (videocartography) (colour analysis of eye’s cornea) is in a direct way connected to the quality of seeing (near-sightedness/far-sightedness). Refractive surgery of the cornea is a new improved method of serious sight defect’s correction. New history of an eye creates a rare chance for a viewer to have a look at his/her own seeing.”

In his former text from 1994, entitled How the thought comes into being, Sztwiertnia distinguished a few methods of anaesthetizing a human being.

One of them, described as Half-opened method, consisted of keeping eyes half-open in order to achieve a partial vision of everything: “half of the evil, ugliness and stupidity of ourselves and other people.”

The “poetic visual irony” of Sztwiertnia’s “artist” and our own defective seeing might be justified as a self-defence mechanism, a protection against full vision.

Similar motif appears in Jaques Lacan’s analyses of scopic field, in which mechanisms of perception are interpreted as filters protecting us against the excess of vision.

Mistakes in the field of seeing deform the vision in order to make the picture compromise the distinction between the truth of desire and fear, etc.

The viewer is shocked to realise that the beauty of these seductive organs, both in the Painter’s Eye and Brain and in Farbenlehre, is the result of pathology.

Sztwiertnia appropriates these common gestures of copying, and reveals beauty in pathology that the “original” prototypes deny.

Moving from the physical to necrosis, the final effect is to reveal the mentioned lost element: “spiritual life of tissues.”

He functions within the realm of that which is forgotten and displaced from the official paean of progress: fear, “sickness onto sense,” contemplation, melancholy, much like Diagnostic View by Luc Tuymans from 1992, or Three Small Cuts from 1999 by Ellen Harvey.

It seems probable that the next exhibition of Grzegorz Sztwiertnia’s work will bear the title referring to Maurice Merleau-Ponty: The Painter’s Eye and Mind.

According to Sztwiertnia, the brain depicted in the picture is really the brain of the audience. He forces the viewer to assume an active rather than passive role in the creation of meaning, turning the audience into artists, scholars, searchers of the lost,forced to recall what has been forgotten.

Playing with and borrowing from the specialised discourses, jangling with the languages of philosophy and medicine, he creates “miscarriage work” (as described by Andrzej Przywara).

This necessarily inauthentic pseudo-creation surprises us with its derisive hybris depriving the meaning like the projects of the dadaists and surrealists, creating an inexhaustible laboratory of reality that actively resists the trap of popularity and perfection.