Zbigniew Andrzej Natkaniec — Configurations

20.09 — 19.10.2019

The opening of the exhibition is taking place during Warsaw Gallery Weekend 2019 on Friday, 20.09, 5–9 p.m.

The exhibition is presented in cooperation with the Contemporary Art Gallery in Opole.

The biggest converge with the smallest

In his most famous work of literature, Joris-Karl Huysmans describes he journey taken by the Duke Jean Floressas des Esseintes to England, an undertaking that strays from reality in both its starting point and its destination, at least in the naturalistic understanding of the term. The inspiration for the journey is set within the prose of Charles Dickens, which presents the duke with the image of a ‘country of drizzle and mud’. He ends up finding the ‘English’ climate of rainy Sceaux as a fitting finish to the journey, where he waits for a train (which he will never board) and catches a glimpse of Englishmen talking about the (bad) weather and noshing cow tail soup, cured fish, two pints of ale, a veiny Stilton, and port.[1] A similar impression of  such a ‘shift’ is felt in the works of Zbigniew Natkaniec, where spheres made out of wood and a string are enough to fill the universe and the laws that govern it. And in no case, as in the story of Duke Jean, is it about carelessness or naiveté, or any sort of playful quid pro quo. Quite the opposite, these actions are carried out with a great deal of intellectual exactitude, however this sort of intellectualism is fully dedicated to ‘one’s own purposes’.

Natkaniec refers to his practice as ‘painting in space’. It’s a direct reference to the so-called ‘post-painting sculpture’ of the 1980s, particularly in the art circles of Poznań, where the artist studied alongside a group of slightly older classmates at the university, who would come together to form the Koło Klipsa group and whose works were often referred to as ‘painting in space’. This link points to the artist’s starting point, however it might befuddle the understanding of the direction that Natkaniec ultimately took for his own practice. Certainly, there are a number of things in common, both in terms of the formal – distinct expression, particular use of colour, ‘scenographic’ quality – and the creative – intuitionism, a hermetic iconography, interplay between the tawdry and the absolute. In spite of all this, there is the ‘serious’ humour within Natkaniec’s works that appears to distinguish his work most explicitly from the irony that characterised the Koło Klipsa approach.

The artist, making use of a strictly defined set of visuals and focusing on specific issues that for many years have closed his art within a scope that is an outcome of the form that he has worked out, and the subjects he has devoted himself to. He uses materials that have a proximity to nature, his themes come together as geometric figures in wood, tangles of canvas rope and traces of paint. He works in a distinct, if tedious, fashion – crafting fine elements with a singular pietism, which later become components of his works, and later – as combinational modules – expand into installations made up of many elements and set in shifting arrangements. This time-consuming mode of production and permutation is accompanied by a referential repetition of his motifs. These motifs, while they may not be numerous (such as the forms of, e.g. a chair, paintbrush, flag, stool, hand, sphere, triangle, pyramid) often carry a multitude of meanings, beginning from the basic aspects of the material up through the sacrum.

To clarify the rather suspicious-sounding idea of the ‘panopotential’, it’s useful to consider Blaise Pascal’s view that: ‘Nature placed us so comfortably in the middle that if we change our position on one end of the scale, we also change the other. This inspires the impression in me that there are springs in our heads, placed just so that when they touch one, they also touch the one on the opposite end’.[2] Natkaniec’s works are a many-layered game of Pascal’s spheres. The shift in the notion of geometric certitude is combined with the chaos of a detail, architectural accuracy with notes of expressiveness and precariousness, the everyday with the eschatological. The contrasts and permutational quality multiply the contradictions within these works, escalating the impression of futility within certain compositions, which eventually end up proving entirely natural within the artist’s practice. The eccentric ludicity and metaphysical focus are, essentially, one. The artist captures the structure of reality as a whole composed of layers that are polar opposites, whose points of contact – in spite of the logic of polarity – are revealed. He combines prosaic details, personal memories and emotions with celestial bodies and ‘absolute time’. In a paradoxical fashion, he combines mathematical laws with nostalgic objects, the absolute with clumsy ‘circus-style’ constructions. The atoms of reality swap their functions – as a chair rises into the air like a planet, the moon becomes an architectural detail, and the smallest element of the sculpture studio – a golden triangle on a small canvas – becomes sacred. The panopotential quality of his art is nothing other than an independent version of coincidentia oppositorum – the highest form of unifying reality. The ‘coincidence of opposites’, which is a common theme for many, quite distinct religions, voices the idea of the reintegration of the physical and mental worlds in their primal unity.

This ontological exchangeability in the works of Natkaniec reveals a unique character – it rises into the air and is pulled down in equal measure, while it also introduces abstraction and individualization (endowed with biographical qualities) of existence. Celanowski’s verse: ‘We carry lightness, pain and our name’[3] is an astonishingly precise way to formulate the nature of Natkaniec’s practice. In the constellations and totems of his installations, there is a sort of gleam that is not directly communicated, while it’s also the sort of material that gets dusty or can give you a splinter, crowding you by the amount of material packed into such a small space. And, ultimately, it is between this ‘fire’ in the vision of Pascal and a pile of dirty cleaning rags, there is the intimate space of ‘autobiography’. There are self-portraits that are repeated, and as a sort of official signature for the artist, signs and labels that give each form a ‘catalogue’ number of sorts, medium-sized flags that take ownership of these constructs. Beside the alchemic standard of analogy, the interdependency of all things – that which is high and that which is low is also the figure of the artist-as-alchemist.

The metanarrative quality, multiplicity, concentrated collection, geometry-based construction and the permutation of exchangeable elements in the artist’s work inevitably brings to mind the story of the Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges. The library-cum-universe is made up, according to the librarians’ view, of an infinite number of hexahedral rooms, each serving as its middle. It contains volumes that contain, in turn, all the structures of all words, all variants that the 25 graphic symbols allow for, all philosophical thought and all their refutations. However, it’s not only the monumental combinatorial aspect of the library that inspires the link with Natkaniec’s work, there’s also a link between the librarian’s world-view with regard to the existence of an ultimate order that lies in the depth of an incidental web of the world and the pursuit of a perspective that would shine light on this order. ‘If the eternal traveller went through [in the library of Babel] from any direction,’ we read in Borge’s story, ‘they’d determine after centuries had passed that the same volumes are repeated in the same sort of chaos (which, by way of its repetition, would become a sort of order: Order)’.”[4] Certainly, Zbigniew Natkaniec isn’t quite an eternal traveller, and so he must take shortcuts and opt for laborious alternatives, much like the duke who went ‘against the grain’ – Jean Floressas des Esseintes.

Łukasz Kropiowski

[1] Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against the grain. Trans, J. Rogoziński, Kraków 2003, pp. 135-146.

[2] Blaise Pascal, Thoughts. Trans. T. Boy-Żeleński, Kraków 2003, p. 19.

[3] Paul Celan, White and Light in P. Celan, Psalm and Other Poems. Trans. R. Krynicki, Kraków 2013, p. 111.

[4] J.L. Borges, The Library of Babel. Trans. A. Sobol-Jurczykowski in Borges, Fikcje, Warsaw, 1972, p. 73.