2018-04-26 - 2018-07-01

Curated by: Magdalena Lewoc, Marlena Chybowska-Butler

Artists: Katarzyna Kozyra, Katarzyna Szumska

Over the past few years, the artists have worked intensively together as part of Kozyra's original projects – during the "Looking for Jesus" artistic researches in Israel and on the film "Winter Tale", a fairy story set at the Cinema Theatre in Michałowice, near Jelenia Góra, of which Szumska is co-founder. The exhibition at the National Museum in Szczecin for the first time present Kozyra’s multi-channel video installation "Faces" (2006) in tandem with paintings from Szumska's extended cycle "Portraits in Suspension" (launched in 2013).

Since "Pyramid of Animals” (1993) – Kozyra’s diploma study for the famous "Kowalnia" workshop/studio run by prof. Grzegorz Kowalski at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts – the artist has consistently focused on the attention she’s received from critics, as well as from the public at large, becoming l’enfant terrible of the Polish art scene. Her subsequent ventures have been surrounded by scandal and dispute. At the same time, year after year, Kozyra has commanded a strong position on the international art scene, winning a number of prestigious awards (including at the 48th Venice Biennale), and with her works added to major contemporary collections in her native Poland and abroad.

After completing her studies in 1982 at the studio of prof. Jerzy Krechowicz at the Academy of Fine Arts in Gdańsk, Szumska a decade later withdrew from conventional artistic life, moving with her husband, Zbigniew Szumski, to Michałowice – a  small town in Lower Silesia and very much on the periphery of the art world. In Michałowice, the pair gathered a group of artists, actors and dancers; creating the Cinema Theatre – an original formula with an avant-garde lineage.

Working as a stage designer, photographer, actress and manager at the venue, Szumska’s artistic career has proceeded largely as part of team, in joint productions that are located on the borderlines of theatre, performance and visual art. Cinema Theatre’s specific aesthetics – the poetic orchestration of image, sound and stage motion – quickly gained an international reputation. Since the mid-1990s, the troupe has traveled extensively, participating in the world's most important alternative theatre festivals.

Meanwhile, Szumska the painter has functioned on the outskirts of the art scene. In 2013 and in tandem with a change of subject matter – from the landscapes which dominated in her works to portraiture – her paintings again began appearing in gallery circulation. Within several individual exhibitions (including in Wałbrzych, Legnica and Jelenia Góra – which was considered the most interesting event of that year in the field of visual art), Szumska presented herself as a sensitive observer and skilled painter, deftly combining anthropological interests and theatrical inspirations.

This joint presentation shows two charismatic, creative personalities; each with different temperaments and artistic biographies. Kozyra and Szumska refer to areas of their artistic practices in which they can meet and create an inspiring dialogue. Characteristic for both artists is acting on the borderline of visual arts, performance and theatre. As with Szumska’s quarter-century, creative connection with the theatre, where visual arts are the basic reference point, Kozyra for many years has realized projects inspired by the performing arts – including dance and opera – often casting herself as protagonist. By giving special status to performative arts in their artistic experiences and inspirations, both artist are adept at exploiting the creative potential that lies on the borders of those disciplines.

Both share a focus on action and efficiency in performances that reflect the nature of being in the world of modern man and that impact on the creation of individual identities. In doing so, they display intuitions similar to those of the intellectual leaders of the so-called the “performative turn” in the humanities – Richard Schechner, Victor Turner, Erika Fischer-Lichte and John McKenzie.

The performative experience cannot be achieved at its most basic level without use of a body. Attempting to overcome the classical elements of the structure of the performance, such as text, character and story, contemporary alternative theatre refers to work with the body and the presence of actors on stage. Szumska’s experience from the Cinema Theatre – whose productions center on image and action and marginalize or omit the text, and in doing so make the body and subjectivity of the actor the main carrier of story and plot – reveals itself in the way she takes on the challenges of the painting studies implemented as part of the cycle "Portraits in Suspension".

Since the beginning of her artistic career, Kozyra has made observations about the body and cultural ways of disciplining it central themes in her work. Courageously transgressing moral taboos in realizations that cast her own body in the main role, the artist has aroused objection and indignation, revealing the somatophobia deeply rooted in our culture. New ideas – such as those of philosophers Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Richard Shusterman, which rehabilitate the body as a source of knowledge – have yet to settle in the public consciousness. As a result, a more nuanced reading of her artistic realizations and in ways that reveal their emancipatory potential often is overlooked in the prevailing intellectual and philosophical climate.

Concomitant with performance and body, both artists treat identity in their works. For Kozyra, identity is perceived through a gender perspective that is akin to Judith Butler’s concept of performative gender and analyzed by the artist in subversive, anarchic poetics. Szumska meditates on the relationship between the face and the mask, as well as the individual history of the figures portrayed in culturally mediated images. With great sensitivity and attention, she explores the possibilities of processing expressive images of faces in the era of "inflation of faces", with digital overproduction of pictures referring in a fresh way to the long history of European portraiture.

Among the works selected for the presentation at the National Museum in Szczecin, those of the so-called “body paradigm” and “facial paradigm” offer the main access codes with which to identify identity issues. They are indicative of a reversal in trends favoring the face – perceiving it as source of all our knowledge, including about ourselves – that dominated in contemporary culture and theoretical reflection until the 20th century.  

In Kozyra’s "Faces", where "dance portraits" of the artists invited to cooperate are split into pairs of synchronized images – a filmed performance from a distance and with the face framed in close-up – and in Szumska’s "Models for Submission" – built from faces and torsos of those portrayed painted on separate canvases as part of the “Portraits in Suspension” series – the tension between these competitive ways creates a new artistic and intellectual quality in the understanding of identity.

Magdalena Lewoc

Translation: Rick Butler