Thursday, February 7, 2008

Dust you are and unto dust you shall return...

"As he was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!"
"Do you see all these great buildings," replied Jesus. "Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down."
From Mark 13:5

Just as Jesus predicted, "All things must pass."
(*Or was that George Harrison?)
And so, too, have the Gothic churches of Poland, as exquisitely showcased in the creations of artist Joanna M. Wezyk, opening this Friday at Tina Kim Gallery. Wezyk's work takes a heart-wrenching look into these monolithic structures and the system they once supported that seemed forever ingrained in a culture so steeped in faith. But before I get into the inner frameworks of Wezyk's works and the structures themselves, let's take a look at the stage they are set on.

In January of 2007, the Archbishop of Warsaw, Stanislaw W. Wielgus, admitted to previous collaborations with the Polish Sluzba Bezpieczenstwa (s.b., or "secret police"). "Collaborations" is a multi-layered word here in this instance. For in the days of the "s.b.," this could mean anything from a briefing on what the Sunday collection was, to who might have been a supporter of the Solidarity movement. In the case of one outspoken priest's support of Solidarnosc, Jerzy Popieluszko, he was murdered in 1984. One can only imagine the level of influence to which clandestine informants helped in his demise. It's been estimated that nearly 15% of all Catholic priests in Poland during this period had some dealings with the s.b. Shortly after this revelation, Wielgus resigned in a flurry of controversy, shaking parishioners to their core. Here was a man elevated to a prodigious position of power in the nation's most populous city, and now, with the end of the John Paul II era, the church must reevaluate its own leadership and the roles they've played in the former Eastern Bloc.

Along with the ever present role that scandals have played in the breakdown of the Roman Catholic Church-- in the U.S. as well as abroad-- there are certainly other factors at work here, and first and foremost is the European Union's rapid escalation as a dominant economic powerhouse, and the secular overhaul of society at large. The church's influence on society has seen a rapid decline across Europe. Mass attendance is lower than 30% in many formerly predominant Catholic nations. Poland in particular, the very homeland of Karol Jozef Wojtyla himself, has yet to see the level of empty pews that have vanquished parishes with a rapidity not unlike the plague in the rest of Europe, but this is changing. A crisis of faith, lack of funds, and erosion of confidence is at play here as the once magnificent cathedrals sit in disrepair, awaiting a preservation that is more patchwork that total overhaul. In the case of Wielgus, here was an instance-- though long suspected-- that the very institution that helped to foster and form the gel of the Solidarity movement had in its own ranks those who assisted (though possibly inadevertantly) in the crackdown of pro-Democracy forces. And when the leadership which has long been held dear in the hearts of many Poles starts to crack, so too, do the walls of the institutions that house them.

("Earthquake in Assisi," above)

Today is Thursday, February 7th. The ranks of the faithful in Poland are awakening to the morning after their most attended holy day, Ash Wednesday. I almost have to wonder how the halls of these churches must sound with the faithful singing en masse. So many centuries of turmoil, of death, of pain; a culture torn assunder by war, genocide and political upheaval. Each of the above plays an important role in the works on display.

And so, now, the stage is set. Hopefully, readers, you're still with me. On Friday, one of the most beautifully and emotionally painted exhibits to hit the New York art world will open in Chelsea. Joanna Wezyk, a native of Krakow, absorbs all of the above mentioned elements into her paintings and more.

I recently met her at SVA's MFA open studios. But since I had already spotlighted two of her fellow classmates (Nicholas Fraser and Sarah Ferguson), I didn't want to necessarily rush into another review too soon. There's something about becoming the "go-to" blogger that can be a little risky, but I've decided that I love her work and I'd like to tell you so. And when have I ever not taken risks?

There's so much history evoked in each of her pieces. During Poland's darkest days-- and yes, where do we even begin-- the church served as a place of refuge, of safety and of neutrality. But as time goes by, as was the case of the previously mentioned Archbishop, we see not only a move towards the secular, but also a different value system taking hold-- that of the Western World and the new "almighty," currency. Given its chokehold on worshippers across the planet, suddenly these Gothic Cathedrals-- architectural marvels, hallowed halls filled with the spirits of millions of worshippers whose stories in many cases will forever be untold-- have begun their descent into disrepair, disuse, and ultimately demise.

(Detail of "Red Cherry Picker" below)

The stories to tell are numerous-- a caved-in ceiling; peeling plaster; the juxtaposition of an altarpiece next to yellow construction tape; a boom lift sitting prostrate in front of the crucifix. There's so much sadness in each of these works. The high gloss of the oil paint itself gives rise to a feeling of blurred reality. The house of the one without original sin is now being sinned against. I think back to my own feelings of sadness at encountering the wreckage of the First Roumanian-American Synogogue on Rivington Street a few years ago. My eyes immediately focused on the carnage that lay before me-- two shattered stained glass Stars of David lie next to a bulldozer, bricks lay all around-- awaiting their final resting place. Wezyk's role as artist here is so important, because not only is she making a huge contribution to the art world at large, but also serving as a documentarian of history. Because of her own experiences as a Pole, she's bringing herself and her own experiences into the work-- not an easy task in today's shock value laden world of art stars. This takes great courage and great thought.

Seriously, check out her show.

You'll be saddened, amazed, sentimental, and hopeful all at the same time.
Beautiful work from a multi-talented artist.

For more information, please go to:

or check out Wezyk's website at:


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