Jakub Julian Ziolkowski
In a Wonderland of Obsessions
He’s one of the youngest artists in the Deutsche Bank Towers in Frankfurt, yet his paintings set themselves radically apart from a current understanding of conceptual painting. Instead, in Jakob Julian Ziolkowski’s surreal scenes, personal fears and obsessions merge with art historical motifs. Achim Drucks embarks on a journey through Ziolkowski’s hallucinogenic universe.
||A slap in the face of minimalism and cool, calculated conceptual art—excess instead of less is more. Jakub Julian Ziolkowski’s grotesque imagery virtually overflows with skulls, blossoms, and magicians’ hats. Armies of miniature soldiers and beetles march across canvases while spider webs and other structures cover the surface. Ziolkowski’s works resemble biotopes in which the motifs lead an alien life of their own. Bodies lose their form, merge into one another or turn their insides out. His painting Clash (2010), for instance, depicts the violet collision of a man and a woman during which the heads of both burst open. The flesh of the two monumental naked figures hangs in shreds, the bones are exposed. It’s the war between the sexes—just like in a splatter film.
In a self-portrait from 2008, one sees the artist as a skeleton wearing glasses, with a lit cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. A tangle of white arteries winds around the bones, while plants are sprouting out everywhere: death and decay form the basis for the proliferation of new life. The head appears to be especially fertile—this is where the image is at its greenest. A red object sticking out in the grass recalls a fly agaric mushroom, whose active substance has long served shamans as a hallucinogenic. Ziolkowski, however, as he explains in an interview with the American fashion magazine W, needs no such stimulus for his work. He even does without preparatory sketches or photographic imagery, and gives himself entirely over to the power of his imagination—a method that recalls the Écriture automatique of the Surrealists. He describes the creative process of his bizarre visions as chaotic and intuitive. For him, making art might not be a form of therapy, but the work certainly leads to a kind of "emotional ventilation" of the mind. "Painting is a crazy machine that propels itself," says the artist. "And the faster it goes, the less predictable the decisions and less conventional the outcomes become."
These unconventional results quickly catapulted the 1980-born Polish artist to the ranks of the young stars on the international art scene. He finished his studies in painting at the Jan Matejko Art Academy in Kracow in 2005, and that same year one of the most prestigious Polish galleries for contemporary art featured him in a solo show, the Fundacja Galerii Foksal in Warsaw. One-man shows at Hauser & Wirth in London and Zurich followed soon thereafter. Ziolkowski’s paintings were considered to be one of the highlights in the much-discussed generational show Younger than Jesus, which was on view at the New Museum, New York, in 2009. And now, an entire floor in the Deutsche Bank Towers is dedicated to his paper works.
Ziolkowski’s success is amazing in that his work is radically different from the artists who have previously dominated contemporary Polish art. In 2005, for instance, Artur Zmijewski represented the country at the Venice Biennale—a video artist who embodies a confrontational, politically engaged concept of art. Monika Sosnowska’s sculptures investigate modernism’s post-communist legacy, and when it came to painting, the first artists who came to mind were Wilhelm Sasnal and Rafal Bujnowski, whose reduced, conceptual Neo-Pop works refer to everyday objects, private snapshots, and images of mass culture. In this context, Ziolkowski’s obsessive, highly personal work seemed like a bizarre anomaly. But he is not alone: in his paintings, Tomasz Kowalski also taps into surreal strains, outsider art, and lone wolves in Polish art history, such as S. I. Witkiewicz. The painter, writer, and philosopher, who died in 1939, liked to create his paintings of distorted figures and dissolving forms under the influence of drugs.
Ziolkowski’s image machine is propelled by a variety of different artists and influences. In his gouaches in the Deutsche Bank Collection, one can see the dark outlines and clumsy forms of Philip Guston’s late work, as well as elements of Picasso, cartoons, and children’s book illustrations. He shares his weakness for skeletons with James Ensor, while his absurd creatures are reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch. His palette extends from the dull hues that call the Warsaw Pact era to mind to the garish colors of chewing gum and plastic toys. He often lets figuration, abstraction, and ornament collide. Ziolkowski digs around in the bowels of art history and combines what he finds with visualizations of his own fears and experiences. These include personal tragedies, such as his mother’s death by cancer, a trip through Vietnam, and his weakness for the James Bond actor Timothy Dalton, who in one painting mutates into Timothy Galoty, singer of the fictitious band Dead Brains. Galoty’s brain, however, is anything but dead. As fresh as a daisy, it has burst apart the musician’s head and meets the viewer’s gaze with its white eyeballs.
The body is Ziolkowski’s main theme—it’s no wonder, given that he’s the son of two doctors. From an early age, medical books and their disturbing illustrations enlightened him as to what actually lies beneath the skin. And so his paintings often depict bones, muscles, and veins; this view into the body’s interior also evinces a profound doubt in consumerist society and its flawless surfaces. In times of computer-generated perfection, Botox-smooth skin, and eternal youth, he shows what goes on beneath the washboard abs, inside the guts. Again and again, he addresses the organic, the cycle of life, death, and decay. His exploration of the fundamental questions of human existence has the macabre humor that once characterized medieval death dances. Thus, for instance, a huge snake slithers in Esophagus (2008)—the painting owes its title to the medical term for the gullet. The animal resembles a serpentine intestine stuffed with heads, limbs, and strange organs. The site of the scene, which is painted in hues of psychedelic green, purple, and yellow, is a meadow full of fish, bottles, and crawling tongues; at the horizon, an armada of volcanoes rises up, smoking cigarettes. A completely absurd scene—naïve Sunday painting on LSD.
Ziolkowski’s "dirty" works are also diametrically opposed to modernism’s requirement of purity—and the utopias of progress and rationality. Yet he grew up in a city that was planned as an urban ideal: Zamosc, in the southwest of Poland near the border to the Ukraine, was built in the late 16th century according to the design of the Venetian master builder Bernardo Morando in Italian Renaissance style. The city plan of this "Padua of the North" and its chessboard-like system of streets is based on the human body: the large market square is the heart, the castle is the head, which is connected to the city through the main street, the spine. Zamosc was a multi-cultural city where Poles, Armenians, Jews, Germans, and Greeks lived. But then came the horror of Nazi occupation. The Jews, around half the inhabitants, were deported and murdered, while tens of thousands of Poles were chased out of the city to "Germanify" the area with German settlers. Anyone who offered resistance or who fled was shot dead; others were recruited as forced laborers, and children and old people were brought to so-called "senior villages," where they froze and starved to death. The knowledge of these dark abysses of human behavior and the end of a very real utopia forms the subtext of Ziolkowski’s works.
The artist reacts to this horror with a body of work that conjures up a universe of opposites. Ziolkowski holds fears and obsessions at bay with images in which life and death, horror and the grotesque, the beautiful and the repulsive are juxtaposed; he creates scenes in which his figures are subjected to a variety of tests. "I sentence the protagonists to a pleasant or unpleasant environment, to joy or tears," explains Ziolkowski. "I explain it so to myself: this isn’t my problem, but yours, you sit ‘there,’ and I sit on the other side, and here—unfortunately—it isn’t very nice either. It’s not the paintings that are scary to me but life itself."