Sunday, 21 June 2009

Wilhelm Sasnal

Untitled (Kacper and Anka) 2009
Oil on Canvas 180 x 220 cm
Sadie Coles HQ, London
12th June 2009

The press handout says that the twin themes of his new body of work exhibited at Sadie Coles are “food sovereignty and earthly idylls”. It goes on to say how “the paintings of coffee mounds, unmarked barrels, brightly coloured tubs, and a hazy Cuban road: all speak of trade, transportation and global agricultural networks”. Personally I wouldn’t have made the connection between the work and the important issue of food sovereignty, and couldn’t understand why these works would be grouped with paintings depicting “earthly idylls”. However, despite the medium seeming at odds with the message, the paintings were interesting and I have chosen a landscape that is “alluring and yet subtly unnerving”.

This large painting shows a child and a woman standing by a still pool or lake that is filled with debris. The landscape is barren and suggests a beach or industrial wasteland. I suspect that this is painted from his own photograph, and the Anka of the title is the same woman from Anka Smoking 2000. It is interesting that the painting has been extended by a third on the left hand side and the join in the canvas is visible to the eye, if not in this reproduction. This is a key compositional change, as I think the ‘weight’ of the body of water to the left of the child’s reflection adds considerably to the melancholic tone of the painting. The crop of the woman’s head is a definite photographic reference and adds a degree of tension to the image.

The colours are predominantly cool greys with a very cold blue for the refection of the sky on the surface of the water. Most of the brushwork is blended to give a smooth blurred effect but the reflection of the clouds and the bits of debris floating on the surface of the lake are very gestural. Whilst the significance of the scene in hard to discern, the contrast between these interventions and the smooth surface and cool tones draw the eye and focus the attention on the pollution as the subject of the painting. This is reinforced by the stance and gesture of both the child and the woman.

Without seeing the photograph that he worked from we cannot know what has been left out of the painting, but from earlier work I know that he is very selective about the elements included and abstraction of certain details is always a feature of his work. From a distance these abstract marks resolve themselves into the image, but close up the realism dissolves and they are revealed as just paint. For me it is the use of these abstract marks that make the paintings interesting. Clearly they presents a facade rather than the substance of expression, but their use still evokes an aura of compelling melancholia image even though we know that the image is relying on computer generated effects rather than deep seated suffering.

©blackdog 2009


  1. I don't know where in Poland the painter Wilhelm (a Prussian-German name?) Sasnal is living. For tourists (like me) who remember the pure, lovely lakes in Northern Poland (Masuric Lakes) which are enthousiastically praised by all visitors to be locations of such a still unspoilt nature, this painting might be a provocation, but I'm sure it documents -in a half photorealistic, half surrealistic way- real problems of environment pollution in Poland and otherwhere caused by the growing industrial development, consumer behaviours... in socialistic times (I remember the unbearable dirty air in Kraków and its surroundings) and nowadays (although the air in Kraków became as I heard quite better than before)- the "cool greys", the shadowlike silhouettes of the figures (no individuals), the rotten, black things in the water, no grass, no sand, not any animal...- tristesse pure and we ask us: What did lead the two persons to this place?! A place where all life seems to have died, the persons seem to be the last ones of their generation! Yes, there is a deep feeling of sadness and melancholy, but there are some blue of the sky (a "cold blue" indeed, but a beautiful colour I have to admit) and some whiteness of the clouds whilst being reflected in the water (on land we see only grey sky, there is not a bit of any bright-living colour) - and this little blue and this little white do evoke in my mind the imagination of a 'better', of a more beautiful world which could really be , but now unfortunately it is still an illusion unless we all (and the politicians...) will be caring for better, for human conditions to live in- in this way the painting could have a concrete political message, but never agitprop- only an 'invitation to think over!
    Your interpretation is very reflective and precise!
    I read that WS's work will be presented in Dusseldorf this year, in my hometown Munster there was an early exhibition.

  2. Sasnal was born and still works in Tarnow, but I am not sure whereabouts in Poland that is in relation to the lakes. I know he has concerns for the rate of change in Poland and this image must have a personal significance (as it is his partner Anka and their son).

    "invitation to think over" is a good phrase, I don't think painting has enough contemporary currency these days to be agitprop, and as Sasnal is quite prolific with his work he is able to share his thoughts and reflections.