If you don’t speak Polish, you’ll have to take my word for it, but even her name is cool. Here, you try: ahg-NESH-kah, zah-VEE-shah. Such a satisfying sound. The first name is relatable but restrained, the last once belonged to a medieval knight everyone’s heard of and derives from the Polish for a particularly deep-seated kind of envy. A screenwriter, for example, looking to name a Lisbeth Salander type, or a Kalinda Sharma, would do well calling the heroine by this name. It just works, whether for a visual artist, labor organizer or assassin.
Our Zawisza is a painter. One who tells me she discovered her talent in the nick of time, well into high school, thanks to the kind of teacher who makes you want to learn, even after you’ve been judged all those times as hopeless at drawing. Seems it’s the students coloring outside the lines who make the best assassins when it comes to composition, texture, and color.
It may be a stodgy, simplistic division, “abstract versus figurative,” but the circularity of thinking it elicits with regard to Zawisza’s work, well, that’s perhaps the main point here. Delicious freewheeling shapes pinned onto canvases defensible as landscapes, still lifes and other greatest hits. Compositions as disciplined as they are messy, firmly grounded yet ungoverned by gravity, simultaneously controlled and haphazard in a way that evokes tension of the highest order. Layers of ideas that leave behind artifacts of a mind changed, often over and over again. Discoveries, that is clear, rather than assertions. Testaments to a searching, humble process. Kitchy, fetching first glances that reveal the drama of their emergence upon closer viewing. Altars for grandiose nostalgia (calm waters, an abandoned boat, the solitary figure, a blazing setting sun) littered with actual debris. Cacophonies frozen into perfect silence. Semiotic puzzles of the highest order, if you ask me.
I would define Zawisza’s artworks as carefree, exuberant meditations on absence and loss, but that may say more about me than it does about the art—or the artist. Maybe what they really are is mirrors of a kind, designed, either deliberately or incidentally, to reflect the viewer’s own preferred axis of wonder. Conjectures notwithstanding, what Zawisza’s paintings certainly do embody is a lightheartedness, a not taking of themselves too seriously. But this is not the work of a humorist. Instead, these are dead-serious scenes from a life with the top layer stripped away—scenes from any life, every life—stockpiled with spare commentary by a diligent documentarian.
Zawisza works chiefly in oil on canvas, with liberal doses of collage. She couples spirited brushwork with controlled stenciling to give form to full-blown canvases that typically begin with a snapshot she took or a photo clipped from a magazine. For a creator of worlds, she is also quite the collector of the drips, stains and clutter that reveal the mechanics of her creation: many of her paintings start out as dropcloths on the floor of her studio while she paints something else. Accidents wind up as building blocks. Some wind up the centerpiece. Here, too, we witness the documentarian at work, in a literal sense: Zawisza’s paintings contain the unedited tracks of a woman at work in her studio.
Another distinguishing feature of Zawisza’s work consists in the way her pieces tend to form clusters: diptychs and triptychs, mix-and-match miniatures, distinctive series, fugues open to rearrangement and reinterpretation. Acting like atoms incapable of not joining into molecules, many or most of these paintings gain their ultimate meaning from the way they belong among one another, as though it were matching or contrasting itself that the artist most wished to analyze, or allow viewers to explore. Considering what a powerful draw that is for me, I should hedge once again: for some viewers, the way the artist works in malleable series and sets is especially compelling.
Just over one year ago I hung three of Zawisza’s miniatures in my home. I’ve regarded them daily since, and whatever questions I might have had on day one persist, impervious to time and to erosion through familiarity. Are these three works or one? Are they figurative or abstract? Is this world-class conceptualism by an undiscovered superstar? Or are these simple, modest studies in form and color, and is that maybe enough?
Last November I happened to be in Lisbon on the opening night of the group show Black on White at Galeria Monumental, curated by Kasia Haber of Warsaw’s Apteka Sztuki, the gallery representing Zawisza. As one who has been photographing the artist’s work over the past year for her portfolio and marketing needs, I felt like more than a viewer. A mystery shopper, maybe, or some unofficial agent, though one embarrassingly unschooled in artworld rhetoric and sorely unprepared for my side of the conversation with folks mesmerized by Zawisza’s art. I had taken the pictures, I had fine-tuned the colors in Lightroom, I had listened to the artist tell me about her process, but I hadn’t connected the dots yet, I hadn’t figured out what about this artist’s work is so meaningful to me, or what I want to help people notice about it, now that they’re asking. So here’s this chatty Frenchman who describes Zawisza’s work as feminine in the extreme, clearly created by a woman. He goes on about this for a while and then he tells me he wants to know what it might be like to live with this work on his walls. His only concern is for the monochromatism on display—is this too dark, he wonders, too colorless? (Little did he know that when she paints in black odds are she is wearing fuchsia.) As we talked on, I realized I needed to sit down and write a full-blown essay on the subject. To figure out what I want to say to the next close-talking Frenchman, and to have a handy link to share before I duck out of his way.
So here it is: handy link and considered opinion of one enthralled non-expert. (Also, a gratifying start to 2019. May it be a whole year of checked-off plans and considered opinions.) Examples of artwork by Agnieszka Zawisza as photographed by the author are published with the artist’s permission. All rights reserved.