The past that’s so visible in the European landscape is also found in many contemporary European paintings and sculptures, which are often weighted with cultural references. American artists, by contrast, sometimes appear to be relatively unaware of their past, simply going ahead and making whatever they want, working in and for the present. As a result European art can sometimes seem entrapped by historical references, while American art can seem simplemindedly naive; many of the best artists combine these approaches.

The vocabulary of the 38 dense, multilayered paintings by Polish artist Janusz Zadurowicz at the Society for Arts is typical of modern abstract art: there are geometrical forms, irregular checkerboards of color and line, biomorphic shapes, soft-edged colors bleeding into each other. His work also refers to past cultures: We Were Like in a Dream includes abstracted classical columns, a large triangle that suggests a pyramid (Zadurowicz has visited Egypt), and Roman letters and Arabic numerals. But these forms come together to create an almost magical sense of enchantment. Their wonderful mix of regularity and irregularity–the lines are not quite straight, the shapes a bit askew–helps keep them alive, suggests a human hand inventing rather than copying. Zadurowicz is less interested in simple compositional unity than in the complexity of individual areas; his paintings become a kind of environment in which the eye is encouraged to wander.

While Zadurowicz’s dense layers seem to refer to the past, he also tries to see the past anew, as if through a child’s eyes. When he taught grammar school, he noticed that children looking at leaves see “just green spots, red spots–not a concrete object.” His works do include identifiable objects, but these objects and symbols are given no more weight than abstracted forms. In We Were Like in a Dream some columns and a group of three crosses–symbols laden with history–are presented no more vividly than the line of green circles or the row of purple squares next to them. Letters of the alphabet and ten Arabic numerals reinforce the sense that this is the view of someone just learning to count, to name–history as seen by a child who, knowing nothing of the past, sees forms only in the present.

Zadurowicz, 39, who lives in Warsaw, names Vermeer as one of his early influences, as well as a more obvious source–Paul Klee, whose forms he sometimes echoes. For Zadurowicz, Klee “was free of any limits.” Zadurowicz first learned about art from his grandmother, with whom he lived for part of his childhood. A fabric artist herself, she stressed the way light changes one’s perception of an object. She lived near a graveyard and helped him see the beauty in monuments. “Cemeteries in Poland,” Zadurowicz points out, “were the only places that survived the war and communism in immaculate form.” Many of his paintings contain forms resembling burial monuments; in Organ Wall, upside-down U shapes abut and overlap one another, creating layers. His remark that “there were very old trees in the cemetery–the sunbeams through the leaves cast patches of light on the ground” made me think of the paintings in which bits of light seem surrounded by darkness. Lonely Game is dominated by areas of purple that grow darker toward their edges, as if each were a tiny patch of sun in a gloomy forest. The dense detail and dim, otherworldly light in many of these works give them a brooding, Nordic quality at least as strong as their childlike playfulness.

Zadurowicz, who’s trained in theater but not art, began painting in 1981, just as martial law was imposed in Poland. Because painting supplies were hard to come by, he began using things like wall-filling compound and black-market Russian-made hairspray, which was too stiff for hair but “very good for painting.” His early experiments out of necessity led him to more elaborate mixed-media techniques later (which he prefers to keep secret). He often removes large parts of an image so that some paintings might contain pieces of four or five pictures, each partly scraped away.

The result is his paintings’ most powerful and original quality: their extremely varied surfaces. There are flat, solid areas of paint, areas that seem like colored powder, raised lines and streaks, partly transparent designs layered over others as if the painting were a palimpsest. One’s eye moves not only side to side and up and down but in and out, journeying through various levels of depth, layers of time.

The Last Window provides a particularly dynamic view of history. A multicolored houselike shape at the center is divided like a checkerboard into patches of smooth, bright, slightly raised colors that seem both sensuous and solid. But some areas have been scraped away, as if the object were starting to disintegrate. And the title suggests that this isn’t a house but a stained-glass window–repository of old traditions and a dying religion, broken by time and decay. All around the central shape are layers upon layers evoking ruins: triangular shapes, dark circles arranged in a grid, and mottled, organic-looking patches. As in other pictures, the triangles could be pyramids; in that case, the disintegrating stained-glass window, which resembles the shapes of the pyramids and represents a religion that followed Egyptian culture, will perhaps lead to something new, just as the pyramids did. Zadurowicz’s brooding images of decay are simultaneously dynamic and alive and seemingly growing, suggesting transformation, change, hope.

Teekeela Smith is a lifelong Chicagoan who, like Zadurowicz, has had no formal training in art; she also draws on past cultures in many of her 15 images at Aron Packer: there’s a sprawling Buddha in Purple Buddha, a Spanish missionary in The Padre, a man with a spear and shield in Roman Soldier. Her images also recall ruins, with the soft, pale colors and cracked texture of aging frescoes. But unlike Zadurowicz’s works, hers are bright, sunny, full of light and air–partly because they’re not paintings but paper collages. Smith starts by tearing off tiny pieces of magazine covers, then pastes similar colors together on poster board to make mosaiclike areas of color. But sometimes the cover includes multiple colors, and each irregularly torn fragment has a tiny white edge. Smith also often pastes them on with tiny spaces in between, allowing the white of the poster board to show through, and the result is wonderfully airy, lyrical, and expansive. Rather than being led inward and downward as in Zadurowicz’s work, one’s eye is bathed in light.

Smith, 43, traces her work to a moment in seventh-grade art class. “My teacher asked us to sketch whatever came to my mind. I sketched out two little birds, and instead of using crayon to color it I used construction paper, cut into little chips.” She began using coated magazine covers when she discovered that construction paper fades in the sun. Though some of her subjects are contemporary, she frequently chooses historical themes: “I like art dated from the 5th century BC up to the 17th century,” she told me. When she sees older art, “I just feel I was a part of this, I was there.”

It would be a mistake to evaluate Smith’s work as one does Zaduro-wicz’s highly calculated, almost hieratic compositions. Despite her historical sources, Smith is a craft-oriented outsider, not someone working in mainstream high-art traditions. Her compositions aren’t very sophisticated; instead her almost random textural effects are what make her works powerful, giving life to images that might otherwise be appropriate for kitschy plates and placemats.

The Beginning is especially lively. Representing various Biblical scenes, it includes Adam and Eve and some apples; Jacob; Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus on horseback in an image reminiscent of “Flight to Egypt” paintings; and the adult Christ. All the figures float almost weightlessly on a background of variegated greens, blues, and grays. Inspired by the birth of a grandchild, Smith thought of this image as “the beginning like it is in the Bible.” Enjambing figures from various historical periods and recasting them using contemporary materials in engaging, irregular patterns, the artist makes an image that’s very much of the present and that reveals the immediacy of her religion.