October 21 to November 5, 2014
Flying into Frederik Chopin Airport in Warsaw, Poland, with my sister, Terese Pencak Schwartz, I thought about my focus for this long-overdue trip. It had been well over 30 years since my last visit, and so meeting some of my many cousins who live there was my primary focus. The secondary focus was to get a sense of the contemporary art scene in Poland today, and to research the possibility of arranging cultural art exchanges. With the fall of Communism in 1989, and Poland’s joining the EU in 2004, I wondered how Polish artists were responding to these rapid changes that were both economic and cultural.
We chose to travel a route that was centered on the regions where my cousins live. Due to time and itinerary constraints there were many things that we did not see or do. Since our attention was mainly on contemporary art we also did not venture into too many National Museums with grand historic collections, though those too, are worthy of visiting.
Our first stay was in Warsaw with our cousin Ewa, her husband Janek, and her mother Barbara. They graciously hosted us and took us on tours of Old Town, Wilanow Palace, and the new Warsaw Uprising Museum. While I did not get to Copernicus Science Centre, their website indicated that works by Shawn Lani and Bruce Shapiro were on exhibit there. These were two of the artists that had I included in my 2005 exhibition, Vortex: Art Matter & Motion, at Sebastopol Center for the Arts. It was nice to see these artists getting the international exposure they deserve. Warsaw has several excellent modern and contemporary art museums, among them are Centrum Sztuki Wspolczesney (Center for Contemporary Art), Zacheta Narodowa Galeria, and MOMA Warszawa, which was showing work by Ai Wei Wei at Brodno Sculpture Park.
From Warsaw Terese and I drove south on the greatly improved highways and headed to the Center for Polish Sculpture (Centrum Rzeźby Polskiej) in Orońsko. The Center, which had been the 19th-century estate of Polish painter, Joseph Brandt, includes an artist-in-residence program with lodging, enabling us to stay for the night. We met with Urszula Kaszewska, the director of education, who speaks English very well, however since it was the weekend, most of the staff was unfortunately not there. The next day we toured the grounds, workshops, studios, galleries, and museum.
On view at the Museum of Contemporary Sculpture was “Kunszt, 7. Triennale Mlodych”, (7th Triennial of the Young, October 4 – November 30, 2014). The exhibition showcased the work of 25 artists from Polish universities providing a solid overview of the media, techniques, and concerns of Polish art students. The work on view demonstrated a definite commitment to important political, social, and environmental issues. The museum’s brick walls and spotlighting provided a dramatic backdrop for the exhibition. One of the pieces that I found to be quite provocative was Sub Rosa II, 2012, by Ewa Pawlata. The large structure consists of white hinged walls arranged similarly to a multi-panel altarpiece. On the surface is an array of predominantly black and white photographs. These had been manipulated to form kaleidoscope mirror images—thus creating an abstraction of the original subject matter. The images are framed by decorative patterns, contributing to the overall sense of austerity, reverence, and beauty. Behind the structure, like the wizard behind the curtain in OZ, is a book on a pedestal with the original photographs. The text and photographs divulge that the artwork is a statement about the ritual slaughter of animals.
We left Orońsko in the early afternoon, driving to Lublin where we planned to attend a multi-day international conference titled “East European Art Seen from Global Perspectives: Past and Present”. After immediately getting lost in the winding streets of this lovely old historic town, we arrived at the location just as the last session for the day was beginning. The conference, held at the Galeria Labirynt, was presented entirely in English, and while I do speak Polish I appreciated hearing the scholarly material in a more familiar language. The evening program included four speakers, and a lively question and answer session chaired by Andrzej Szczerski, a lecturer at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. There were a number of very interesting topics such as “Ukrainian Modernism”, and “Pioneers in Eastern European Experimental Art”, but a presentation by Maja and Reuben Fowkes, was of particular interest to me. Their paper, titled “Towards a Planetary History of East European Art”, considered the relationship between the treatment of nature in Stalinist-era Social Realism attitudes that used nature as propaganda for the state and the problems of alienation from nature in modern cultures. The Fowkes also gave examples of early East European artists, such as Rudolf Sikora, whose work from the 1970s was engaged with ecological concerns. By the end of their talk my perspective of the subject was definitely broadened, especially by taking into consideration other economic ideologies, beyond capitalism, in relationship to environmental art. The Fowkes’ founded the Translocal Institute for Contemporary Art in 2013, more information is available at www.translocal.org.
At the close of the session we mingled a bit with the speakers and audience, then took a look at the artwork on view in the gallery. The exhibition, “Uczulenia Na Kolor” (“Color Sensitivity”), examined the subject of color through an experimental approach by exploring various perceptions of color, its multiple functions, as well as its ability to express contrasts such as thought/emotion, truth/illusion, and art/nature.
In two pieces from the Refleksy (Reflections) series, 1965-75, artist Jan Ziemski created the illusion of movement by using color and 3-dimensional slotted overlays that optically separated and animated the colors. Conversely, in a three-panel painting by another artist, daubs and grids of pure and complimentary colors were used to create the illusion of woven, textured, color field tapestries.
It was now late and we still needed to find our hotel. Catching the last of the staff just as they were closing up to go home, we asked for directions to our hotel, and to our amazement, it was Google Maps on their laptop that quickly showed us the way through the narrow winding streets of Lublin to our hotel, and a good night’s sleep.
The next few days were spent in the rural Southeastern part of Poland, meeting more cousins, visiting ancestral cemeteries, and exploring the two small villages that my parents were from. The countryside was quite beautiful, with tidy farmsteads, dark tilled fields, and forests in fall colors. I was amazed to discover that the small village of Zyznow, where my father, Frank Pencak, was from, looked so much like the town of Bodega, California, where I live.
Following the deeply moving visit to our parents’ homelands we headed west to Krakow. This UNESCO listed city, with a long and fascinating history, was the former capital of Poland. Established in the Middle Ages, Krakow is considered the artistic and intellectual center of the region. We stayed in a small apartment very near the center of Old Town. The next morning we met with our young cousin, Jakub, a woodworker, and his fiancée, Angieszka. The two of them kindly gave us a private walking tour of key sights in Krakow. While briskly walking through the crisp fall air we talked and admired the remarkable architecture of the many churches, palaces, civic buildings, and the 14th-century Jagiellonian University, where Copernicus had studied. The next day Terese and I strolled about on our own, photographing the intensely picturesque city; with horse-drawn carriages, heroic monuments, and endless towers and spires fading into the distance.
Then, as I was backing up to photograph the historic Cloth Hall building (Sukiennice), I nearly bumped into the Goethe Institute. This is where my friend, Michael McGinnis, has his piece, Superplexus, on display. I knew his work was being shown somewhere in Krakow, but was still thrilled to see it so far from home, in the midst of such an appropriately eloquent setting.
Many large and notable museums are located in Krakow, but also numerous fine art galleries can be found throughout the town. On my last day in this gorgeous city I visited the Galeria Dylag, which happened to be right across from our apartment on St. Tomasza St. I spoke with one of the gallery owners who gave me a tour of the show they had just opened, “Abstract Dreams – 1948 to 1953,” paintings by Mieczyslaw Janikowski. I admired the organic color-field abstract paintings, reminiscent of work by Gorky and early Mark Rothko, and reflected on the connection between artists across continents, and throughout all of art history, then and now.
The perspective presented here is based on the time and itinerary constraints of this particular travel experience. With this in mind, it is my impression that Poland has a very sophisticated and vibrant contemporary art scene that reflects the current global themes of political issues and social commentary. The use of a wide variety of media was apparent, from traditional painting, sculpture and graphics, to unusual materials such as coal and thread, along with a plentiful use of performance, installation, video, digital and other new media art. The arts appear to be well supported, with municipal sponsorship, and many free or low-cost art venues and events. I was truly impressed by the number of interesting, and relevant contemporary art exhibitions on view throughout Poland. Even more inspiring were the upcoming shows and art conferences, making a return trip to Poland a part of my future travel plans.
Selected List of Polish Art Venues
(Many of these websites offer an English version.)
Copernicus Science Centre, Warsaw
Centrum Sztuki Wspolczesney, Warsaw
Zacheta, Narodowa Galeria, Warsaw
Centrum Rzeźby Polskiej, Orońsko
Galeria Labirynt, Lublin
Galeria Dylag, Krakow
Bunkier Sztuki, Gallery, Krakow
Slide show Gallery: