Cezary Poniatowski creates soundproof paintings using pleather and foam once used to insulate houses in the former Eastern Bloc countries. The resulting bulges and cavities work against painting’s norms and enhance the underlying tension and anxieties. He intentionally plays with the senses and instincts of the viewer, who catches hidden glimpses and freezes when encountering the artworks. An interview by Kasia Jaroch with photos by Lola Banet.
What does the world look like through the lens of your work?
What I do primarily operates on the edge of representation and abstraction. Understandably, there are certain suggestions, but they often fade away before the final association is invoked. One can get the impression that the situations depicted in my works are familiar, not foreign, to our world. My art serves as a distorting mirror that focuses on existential threads, where stories pulsate beneath the skin. The suspense is rooted in something hidden, denied, often unconscious.
This world is fantastic, alarming. Abstract, and yet accessible to our imagination. Is it the use of everyday materials, of old carpets and pleather?
I think you are right. I consider that decayed and worn-out furniture as a negative of the human soul. The things I use are often tattered and, in addition to their function, they are shreds of evidence of our relationship with the world, to others and those things themselves. My works are grounded in everyday life but, at the same time, they are unreal. They make an impression of being found in a strange, forgotten warehouse or abandoned workshop. They radiate the energy of a somewhat naive, clumsy, »tormented craft« or »listless design«. That way, their wild, unkempt nature remains romantic.
Your objects seem to live and grow out of the form. What are your preconceptions when creating 3D artworks?
The use of pleather, foam, staples, tacker derived from upholstery techniques is a starting point of my work, but I don’t hold on to it too tightly. The process is long, sometimes I go around certain solutions, but this is the only way to achieve original results. Ultimately, I apply various forms and motifs there and thus my reliefs are pretty complex. The way they accumulate these elements is rather painterly, intuitive. There are several layers, bulges and cavities and parts that intermingle, come out on top or hide underneath. Although the final effect is irregular, dense and wild, I usually stick with the classic rectangular forms. It is a play of light and shadow, of organic and inorganic matter. Reliefs become simultaneously aggressive and soothing. They have a fetishistic effect.
My great inspirations have recently been the works by American artists such as Lee Bontecou and Tishan Hsu. I am utterly impressed by the large, space-consuming works of Jannis Kounellis, but at the same time, I enjoy his more intimate pieces as well.
Having been to some of your exhibitions, I always have the feeling as if the spaces you create and the objects within are constantly, silently watching us. Is your art meant to distract from anthropocentrism?
Voyeurism has been an essential theme for me since the beginning of my art practice. This is where the motifs of peeping, looking, staring and the overall discomfort come from. My point is that looking does not always mean seeing, and this phenomenon becomes an axis of tension.
It also plays with our instincts – as animals, we get alerted in the presence of another being observing us. So, the staring eyes in my works enhance their untamed and primal character. They penetrate the viewer with their gaze and blindly look into the distance.
»Derealization« (2020) incorporates the motif of such a gaze. It is an object made of a carpet that was turned inside out and sewn together with plastic zip ties. The rug’s top and bottom metaphorically represent the known and the unknown, the visible and the hidden. Making the structure of the work visible and exposed adds to its metafictional nature. From the back of the animal-like work, a strange, crooked set of eyes pierces through in the form of binocular lenses. What inspired me to create this object was the recurring sense of derealization or alienation from the world, both mentally and physically. Such a state may come as a defensive reaction of the brain in response to too many stimuli. This »incompatibility« creates an elusive, refreshing, phenomenological distance, and afterward the mind quickly dives back into reality.
I like to think of exhibitions as of films. I want them to stay with the viewer afterwards thanks to the setup of the objects and, sometimes, sound. The goal is to create an impression of reverberation or an afterimage, which slowly crystallizes, comes to fruition and swells.
Can you tell me about your latest creation, which you tentatively named »Confession-altar«? It is an altar covered in black pleather, a very subversive presentation. Can this be considered a commentary on faith and religion?
»Confession-altar« is not a working title. In this case, it’s one of the keywords or neologisms swirling around in my head during the process. It is a succinct way of naming something that cannot yet be named, but it still contains something that expresses the nature of the work. I like to think that my reliefs address the spiritual needs of a community and in this sense my works might serve a quasi-religious, moralistic or prophetic function. They give the impression of artifacts that are meant for rituals and celebrations. There is something pagan about them.
One of my solo shows at Stereo Gallery, »Sick-box«, focused on the eponymous motif of a box that used to be fixed to the wall of a sick person’s room. It was brought in by a priest and filled with various gadgets supposed to help them recover or escort them to the other world. This theme frequently recurs in my work.
How does your work relate to life in former Eastern Bloc countries?
This historical and social context is also important to me. Most of my upholstery reliefs were made using a particular type of faux leather that was originally used to cover the inside of the front doors in housing structures in Central and Eastern Europe during the socialist era. It was a sound-dampening system that I remember from my childhood.
Thus, my reliefs touch the dimension of sound, although they remain mute, deaf, as if the sound was locked inside them. The expressive character of the composition of individual works and the oversized squat elements, their visual weight, may bring to mind the Socialist Realism movement’s sculptural realizations. The reliefs and monuments created at that time were characterized by austerity and monumentalism, and the unification of forms.
I was born in 1987, two years before the overthrow of the communist regime in Poland. So, my childhood was defined by the early 90s – a time of what we in Poland call a »hurrah-optimism« and uncritical admiration of the West. The truth is that it was a time of the birth of ruthless capitalism, crime and struggle to build a democratic state.
I grew up in a free country, but traces of the previous system can be found in the state’s current functioning and in my own identity and sensibility. My generation did not experience life in a totalitarian system, but the fears of previous generations were instilled in our subconsciousness. Trivialized or denied, they became even more internalized. These suppressed tensions and experiences of the previous generation are important components of my practice.