Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Wilhelm Sasnal, Sadie Coles, London (9 June – 27 August 2011)

The cool, clinical and emotionless interior of Sadie Coles is a perfect backdrop for fifteen new paintings by Polish artist, Wilhelm Sasnal.  Displayed on its perfectly white-washed walls and devoid of any apparent cohesion or meaning, Sasnal’s work emanates an air of aloofness and general distain for any viewer.  His debt to Luc Tuymans is surely unquestionable with his use of washed out colours, faux-naïve brushstrokes and random, mundane subject matter (stylistic tools seen many times for many years at graduate art shows).

One of the few paintings with a title is first encountered when entering the gallery.  The Sun is a curiously anaemic painting.  It feels like a canvas on which the artist had begun a painting but then discarded.  Propped up against the studio wall and forgotten, sunlight from a window appears to have bleached the painting with some scorch marks of orange under-painting seeping through.

The pure abstraction of The Sun seems out of place with Sasnal’s other paintings here, being mainly figurative and landscape.  Monochrome or pastel interiors hang beside a brooding landscape and stark still lives, although depictions of mother and baby, either as fragmented sculptural pieces or a copy of a photograph (again defaced) hint at a deeper level of engagement with a particular subject matter.

The gallery handout clarifies his interest in themes of motherhood, the sacrificial nature of parenthood and the exploration of Catholic iconography in contemporary Poland in these paintings, which begins to explain their curious mix of dated signifiers.  It is a mistake though to think that all of Sasnal’s paintings in this show can be as easily categorised.  Subject matter and context seem less important to him than the manipulation and mastery of paint itself.  All the paintings are oil on canvas, the most traditional of artistic traditions.  From his sculptural and impasto handling in the ‘motherhood’ pieces, which are truly breathtaking when looking at them up close, to the confident and bravado handing of simple tonal palettes in Pigsty and still lives of a bucket and sponge Untitled, 2011 and bottle of medicine on a laptop Untitled, 2011, Sasnal quietly and confidently, seduces the viewer with his mastery with paint.  The seemingly random graphic pieces and studies of Seurat also included in this exhibition appear to be continuation of the artist’s declaration of his painterly dexterity.

With a forthcoming show at Whitechapel Gallery in October, it will be interesting to see how his work translates to a much larger space as that exhibition will be a survey his work over the past ten years.

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