Bozenna Biskupska: Time Beyond Time

at the Polish Museum of America, through September 25

They sit with their backs to each other on square wooden logs, two angular sculpted figures. Faces and arms are barely distinguishable, and the surface of each is roughly textured, full of abrasions and ridges and holes. Rotting corpses perhaps, except that their thin torsos, legs, heads are elongated beyond the realm of naturalistic representation. Instead the dynamic lines of the horizontal legs, the vertical torsos, the outstretched fingers of the one visible hand extend into the surrounding space.

This is On the Way, one of three sculptures that, along with three installations, 13 paintings, and 20 photographs, make up Bozenna Biskupska’s first show in Chicago, at the Polish Museum of America, and her second in the United States. On the Way perfectly balances the apparently contradictory elements of stability and disintegration. Its surface of epoxy and wood chips painted black, gray, brown, and red, placed over wire mesh and welded to a metal frame, suggests organic decay and the impermanence of flesh. Yet the various angles of the linear forms point beyond these figures; jutting into and seemingly altering the space around them, creating invisible force fields. This gives the piece the aura of permanence that may find in ancient monuments, as if a moment of time–for even decay is progressive–has suddenly been made timeless.

In a catalog available at the museum Peter Lachmann, a German theater director who has worked with Biskupska, compares her sculptures to the monuments of ancient Egypt, which “claim to be models of eternity.” But Biskupska seems to be doing something a bit different: monumentalizing a particular moment, making it seem eternal. Catching the Air, also mounted on two square logs, contrasts a sense of permanence with the suggestion of two moments in time. An abstractly elongated figure with a thin head rises next to a shorter figure. Multiple shades of green covering the wire mesh in varying thicknesses combine with the vertical shape to suggest moss growing on tree bark; but a rather large hand sticking horizontally out of the side of each figure contrasts with the work’s stark, upward lines and suggests that the shorter and larger pillar are actually a single figure. While the varied surface suggests a moment of decay, the outstretched hands make the figure seem momentarily alive. The way this mysterious forest being points in different directions–even the verticals aren’t exactly parallel–prevents any one movement, gesture, or formal motif from dominating, however. This work has a presence indeed “beyond time.”

I was able to talk with Biskupska in Chicago thanks to the able translating of Bohdan Gorczynski, who works at the museum. Biskupska pointed out that the space between the two pillars of Catching the Air is where the figure’s heart would be–that it has a “heart made of air.” Reading this empty area as part of the figure made me more aware of the way all its edges alter the space within or around them. Many parts of the surface are not filled in; one can look through the holes, inside the wire mesh, to a dark interior or occasionally to an opening on the other side that introduces light: the figure’s inside is partly “open.” Catching the Air produces conflicting thoughts and emotions. The dramatic vertical figure bespeaks life; its surface suggests decay; the hands bring it back to life again in the guise of some strange monster. Its surface enacts a drama of openness and enclosure, of solidity and emptiness that heightens awareness of entrapment and freedom, matter and the void .

Biskupska, 43, lives in Warsaw, where she was born. A family friend, abstract painter Tadeusz Lapinski, helped get her started as an artist by telling her, “You don’t have to worry about anything–all you need is a big brush and a big canvas.” She recalls being extremely shy as a girl: she often stood in the stairwell of the family home “looking at the yard, afraid to go outside. ….It was a very intense emotional fright.” And when she finally did start going into the yard, she dealt with her fears by trying to control the space, filling it with signs of herself. She and her friends made long lines in the ground, dividing the yards into different “fields”–a way of “filling, invading the space,” she says. Only recently has she understood how much of this childhood game is present in her work.

For most of Biskupska’s life, Poland was not free. Increasing openness in the 70s led to the imposition of martial law in 1982, followed by years of repression. Many artists, Biskupska included, responded by refusing to exhibit in government-run official spaces at all. Her work also changed: a cage motif entered, partly in response to the military crackdown. But the larger of two installations, each called Cage, is surprisingly open. Three large, rectangular metal mesh screens–the same material that supports the epoxy of her sculptures–lean against one wall. On the floor in front of them are two similar screens, their undersides covered with epoxy and wood chips, a mixture Biskupska lays on with her hands and bare feet, and blue pigment applied with a trowel. Their facing edges, lifted a bit off the floor by a metal support, recall old-fashioned slanted basement doors built partly into the ground, angled as if they’re just beginning to open. Biskupska told me she also thinks of them as aircraft wings, which would of course suggest rapid movement through large expanses. Multiple ceiling lights cause the three upright open screens to cast shadows on the white wall behind them, projecting them in different directions, giving them multiple presences. The “doors” in the floor evoke even more dramatic possibilities: they could be a means of flight or the entrance to a dungeon.

In her series of 20 color photographs “Descriptions of Painting I-XX” Biskupska “poses” her paintings in different settings in and around her home–18 of the 20 photos show the same painting–a rectangular picture whose surface consists of thick parallel lines. She places it against similarly shaped windows, or allows various shadows to fall across it, altering its appearance. Her approach suggests a playful children’s story–painting comes to life and walks around and outside the house, trying out different spots–and the related idea that a painting’s environment affects how one sees it. There’s the hint of another narrative too: of the child once scared to go out, now fearlessly transforming her environs with her art. On the other hand, the picture is too small to fill the places we see it in. And in each photo it seems more an installation than a painting: again the viewer is encouraged to contemplate the space around the artwork as much as the work itself.

The other Cage is the piece that most rewards repeated viewing. Two large screens covered with the same thick blue as the floor panels in the other Cage, lean against opposite walls in a large, rectangular alcove. One first sees these blue solid surfaces as paintings, their organic patterns recalling soil or bark. But one panel is a bit closer to the viewer than the other, a choice the artist hopes will encourage the viewer to enter the space. And each rectangle is separated by a metal frame into three squares of which only the top one is illuminated, leaving the lower ones progressively darker. In fact the spotlight on one screen seems to be misaimed, pointing at only part of the top panel. But the lighting is Biskupska’s, and the interplay between brightly lit surfaces and darkness is what gives this work much of its fascination.

The viewer is not offered a unified image but must move between the more and less visible. As the eye moves lower, the vibrant, almost sunlit texture disappears; details dim. In the darkest regions one can hardly see anything. I thought of the woods as evening moves into night and things lose their color and shape, even though one knows they’re there. Similarly, one knows these surfaces continue even in darkness–for Biskupska, there’s still a tree in the forest after the sun sets. These panels’ size and allover quality make them seem fragments of a larger landscape, while their surface density stops the eye, engaging it in a skein of wood fragments, gobs of epoxy, tiny fibers, blue color. Biskupska makes these physical details not only evoke an instant of time but stretch toward eternity.