Andrzej Kozyra

at the Society for Arts, through September 26

The walled towns floating in space and the strange structures on islands in Andrzej Kozyra’s 33 small tempera-and-oil paintings on board at the Society for Arts remind me of Krakow, where the artist has lived his whole life. One of the world’s most amazing cities, it was Poland’s capital until 1609. Its walled, medieval heart, never damaged during World War II, is a compact cluster of spectacular churches and other buildings from various periods, constituting an islandlike museum of history surrounded by more modern architecture. These compressed spaces, dense and angular, have a different feel from many other old parts of Europe.

In Kozyra’s Island of the Castaways, a huge broken egg atop a ziggurat shape recalls the strange landscapes of Hieronymus Bosch. Crowded inside the egg is a tiny village, while at the structure’s base is a beached sailboat. A ladder connects two levels of the ziggurat while another lies flat–indicating the mix of enterprise and failure characteristic of these works. The pebble-strewn earth turns blue in the background, suggesting a distant body of water. This isolated place devoid of people is a dream landscape. Yet Kozyra’s fantasy worlds are rendered with an elegant precision that makes them convincing.

Kozyra’s paradoxical layering of time is key to the paintings’ meaning. Miroslaw Sikorski in his catalog essay finds their gaps “in the flow of time” similar to “a dream being cut short at the moment of waking up.” He also notes that Kozyra expresses “the history of the world.” The central structure in Tower of Red Flags looks like a Renaissance building with flags hanging from nearly every window, perhaps a gentle parody of royal excess. But a shed of unfinished wood on the roof hints at recent construction, and buckets and shovels on the ground and evidence of digging near the central structure’s base indicate recent activity. The scene’s fusion of construction and destruction is characteristic of Kozyra. In Village, for example, smoke rises from many of the buildings, indicating successful habitation, while in others the roofs are partly fallen away. History is distilled into a single visionary moment.

Kozyra says he’s influenced less by Krakow’s famous monuments than by “the forgotten places, old buildings, abandoned apartment buildings.” In his youth he was inspired by sensual artists: turn-of-the-century painters who called themselves “Young Poland,” and also by the Polish postimpressionists. Then a 1987 trip to Greece, during his sophomore year at Krakow’s Academy of Fine Arts, exposed him to “the culture of the Mediterranean, the ancient atmosphere, the spirituality of landscape.” He turned away from the “hedonism” of his earlier influences, he says, and began to paint sharp-edged images from his imagination; by 1995 human figures had largely disappeared from his work. His imagined scenes are often inspired by actual places, including his grandparents’ village, which had no paved roads when he visited there as a child; the vast steel-mill complex, Nowa Huta, built in the 1950s, near Krakow’s center; and “innocent country landscapes on the border of the steelworks,” representing the boundary between civilization and nature.

Some of Kozyra’s paintings suggest the ecological costs of human enterprise. The mysterious building in On the Edge looks like a preindustrial mill: mounds of powder or grain have accumulated at the base of each of four chutes exiting the building. But there’s nothing at the base of the fifth chute. A forest behind the building looks denuded in the area behind the busy ramps while behind the chute showing no activity it’s green and leafy.

Perhaps Nowa Huta, whose polluting effects have damaged Krakow’s buildings as well as its citizens’ health, inspired the tweaking of ambition in a group of paintings depicting wooden toylike constructions. On the Outskirts of Forest shows models of an airplane and an automobile sitting in front of a dense cluster of trees, some of them cut down presumably to make the toys. And the work in the show that I found most affecting was The Abandoned, depicting a walled yard filled with wooden “cars” that are actually wheelless abstractions. Also lying in the yard are a rudimentary boat, street lamps, a broken ladder, and a white scroll. Punctuating the overall brown of the composition is a small blue globe placed at the top center. While the globe and the unfinished artifacts, which resemble building blocks, signal ambition, the chaotic, deserted yard indicates failure. This mix of aspiration and its abandonment, of construction and destruction, is what gives Kozyra’s pictures their quality of intense, compressed visions of human history.