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“Unzipped”: The Expansion of Contemporary Polish Art in Chicago

Robin Dluzen

Outside The Society for Arts at the opening of "Unzipped." Image courtesy of Dariusz Lachowski, transcendentphoto.com

For me, beginning to write about Polish Contemporary Art in Chicago has been intimidating. The reasons for this are varied: the historical prominence of the Polish in Chicago, the vastness of that community, my own ethnic background (I’m half Polish) and my creeping suspicion that the Polish arts community is very hard to penetrate.

I attended the opening of “Unzipped” at The Society for Arts after being blanketed in emails and press releases for the exhibition, an initiative held at a venue I’d never been to to see contemporary arts, and which boasted a huge roster of artists with Polish last names I’d never heard of before. As this was the second week of June, and I was already completely bored with the summer shows at the venues I normally frequent, I grabbed a friend and headed to West Town.

As I walked down Milwaukee, the closer I got to The Society for Arts, the denser the sidewalks became. The scene really looked more like the overflow of a rock show than art exhibition attendees: a hundred people were out on the sidewalk, holding glasses of wine and beer amidst a cloud of cigarette smoke. I stepped inside and I thought, “My god. Any other gallery in the city would kill for this turnout!” I’d never seen so many people in one place to view a single exhibit. In fact, the last time I had to elbow through a crowd to see art was at Art Chicago.

And this was precisely what “Unzipped” curator, Patrycja Wierzba had intended. She explains that “there’s not only an art, but an audience as well that makes a show… to me, art has a social meaning and it has to move the crowd, even if it’s a bit of a commercial approach. I hate to see amazing art in an empty space.”

However, as successful as the party was, the work in the exhibition was obviously the main draw. I’m not sure what I was expecting to see, but what I found was a huge variety of work: large scale installations, digital and video work, painting, drawing, sculpture and textile, all so vastly differing in aesthetic and content, but somehow bound together in a less tangible context of “mood” or maybe “temperament,” that Wierzba explains can often be a bit “melancholic.”

Gallery visitors with Miroslaw Chudy's "The Queen." Image courtesy of Dariusz Lachowski, transcendentphoto.com

Like our city in general, the Polish arts community fights a similar prejudice of provinciality and of “craft”; Wierzba suggests that a reason for the absence of the contemporary Polish artists in the larger commercial art scene of Chicago could be the misconceptions of the American art community in thinking that Polish arts are the crafty, religious objects from the old country. However, at the same time she thinks that the absence could also be due to the trepidations of Polish artists and of the community itself. Wierzba explains that as Poland is “basically 100% Polish,” there could be a defense mechanism in place, for artists to feel that “I’m Polish, I communicate to Polish people.”

 

It’s also interesting to see this exhibition in relation to Israeli artist Yael Bartana’s recent completion of her long-awaited Polish Trilogy 2007-2011, which among other goals, shares an affinity with the “Unzipped” exhibition; Bartana explains in her “500 words” with Artforum.com:

“I met Sławomir Sierakowski…the leader of the semifictitious Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland (JRMIP). Together, we came to the understanding that we share the same interests, namely to question the status quo in our respective countries…You see, Poland had become such a homogeneous society after World War II. He and I wanted to break up the uniformity of Polish society.”

Image courtesy of Dariusz Lachowski, transcendentphoto.com

Though in Bartana’s work, the homogeny refers to politics and society in Poland, I think compulsion towards expanding what constitutes one’s community is at work with the Polish and Polish-American artists in the US, and Chicago specifically.  Wierzba sees this first hand amongst the Polish community she knows so well: “To feel like you’ll be understood by the Polish people, it feels secure…to enter the American society you have to start being more open minded and versatile; it’s a mixed culture.”

 

“Unzipped” artist, Miroslaw Chudy also feels strongly about a more boundless context in which the Polish and Polish-American artists can be read and understood: “I have the impression that the Polish community doesn’t differ from other communities… The practice in art everywhere is very similar. We are all…use[ing] the same language.” As globalized as this sentiment seems, it cannot be overlooked that the artists in this exhibition have opted to be read within the context of their ethnic identity; as the press release for the exhibition clearly outlines, “While escaping the formality and rigidity often associated with Polish artwork, the pieces on display still retain the emotion, mood and expression which are deeply rooted in the Polish culture.”

Dawid Czerniejewski’s "Substitute"

And the deeply rooted emotion, mood and expression are precisely what made “Unzipped” so powerful. Through the different media and techniques, all the works are bound by this which Wierzba identified and curated, from Chudy’s large-scale painting The Queen which references a particular Polish turn of phrase; to Dawid Czerniejewski’s Substitute, a hand-crafted, wooden, bear-skin rug, blending craft, concept and kitsch; to the fashion, installation and content employed in Agga B Raya’s Flying Giants. Admitting to the predilection for “some melancholy and nostalgia” amongst the works in the exhibition, Wierzba is also quick to insist upon the sophistication, intellect and biting wit that defines, but also expands what we all think of as “Polish Art.”