Kazimierz Kalkowski

at the Society for Arts, through January 6

The bizarre figures and gnarled forms in Kazimierz Kalkowski’s 29 ceramic sculptures at the Society for Arts recall the tradition of the grotesque: in her catalog essay, Zofia Watrak links Kalkowski to Bosch, Brueghel, Callot, Goya, and Daumier. But his work is also in the 20th-century apocalyptic tradition–of Yeats’s line about the center that cannot hold, of Rauschenberg’s expressions of cultural chaos. Using various approaches, including the incorporation of texts, Kalkowski creates images whose parts seem to be exploding, riven by some unseen force.

Like many of Kalkowski’s reliefs (hung like paintings), Sculpture Composition IX seems to be set underground, among tree roots. At the left and right edges troll-like figures sit with stacks of papers before them as if they were office workers. The right figure leans forward, creating an implicit movement completed by the left figure’s backward lean and by a chest of drawers that swerves off to the left as if twisted by wind. Meanwhile the heads of three other figures point toward the right, one head snaking out like a root. At the bottom a checkerboard or tile floor–whose squares echo the piles of paper–angles out from the picture plane, its precise grid contrasting with the bulbous organic shapes and interrupting any implied movement. While some of the charm comes from the look of fairy-tale illustration, the work’s real power lies in its explosive composition. The office work and grid elements seem to represent traditional knowledge or rational thinking, whose authority the composition denies.

Themes of dominance and enslavement inform other pieces. Sculpture Composition XXVIII shows a woman under a parasol seated in a “carriage”–one mostly made up of a man on all fours, the top of his skull wide open. A curvy branch emerges from his head to become a nasty-looking critter fondling the woman’s breast. Apparently the piece depicts the revenge of the oppressed. Though historically Poland has often been subjugated, Kalkowski–who was born in Gdansk in 1954 and remains a Polish resident–told me that he was most influenced by turbulent recent decades, with the rise of Solidarity and the breakdown of communism. His art training was traditional, stressing discipline, which is perhaps why his work, like that of many contemporary Poles, shows exquisite skill and attention to detail.

Watrak exaggerates when she writes of Kalkowski that “there is no distinct border between creatures and objects”–but only a little bit. The ape-faced figure in the relief Sculpture Composition XV sports a head like a tree trunk with the grotesque face at the top; the other main figure is

cadaverous, a near skeleton. Seated on what appear to be bicycle wheels, they play “chess” on the board between them using pieces shaped like spheres or horns. If chess is often a metaphor for civilized interaction or arcane knowledge, here it seems the sign of a lost world, of an intelligence now vanished as humans have mutated into more primitive forms.

Sometimes Kalkowski heightens the sense of degeneration by contrasting disorder and order. A horned figure rides in a chariot in Sculpture Composition XXVI; head thrust back and face up, he seems triumphant, yet the three “see/hear/speak no evil” monkeys in front of him suggest the willful blindness of the powerful. The vehicle seems to be guided by a creature with rootlike hair, and there are twisting branches throughout–to which the precisely executed Euclidean forms of the elegant undercarriage and wheels are in pointed contrast.

The contrasts in Sculpture Composition XXI are even more extreme. In this relief, a skeleton appears to be having anal intercourse with a less distinct figure, who in turn appears to be screwing the figure under him–from whose head a demon rises to challenge the skeleton. At left is an Adonis-like man utterly different from the chaotic, imprecisely limned figures at right, though he also appears to be under attack by demons. Like the chariot, the classical figure seems to refer to more stable periods of human civilization.

Part of what’s scary is the radical difference between him and the rest of the piece: it’s almost as if looking at the more orderly images requires different eyes and mind than looking at the chaotic elements. A third kind of perception is required for a rectangle at the upper right enclosing a text in Polish and Kalkowski’s name written in faux Japanese characters. These multiple approaches seem to envelop the world in chaos: Kalkowski’s twisting forms appear to consume everything around them. Classically balanced objects like the chariot or male figure become references to an irretrievable past–to the way time, or our civilization, obliterates all in its wake.