During my very first conversation with Przemek Pyszczek, about four years ago at his home in Berlin, he was showing me with great excitement, videos of metallic sports cars with “chameleonic,” hue-changing paint. Pyszczek’s enthusiastic fascination with the properties of this paint opened up a new perspective for me: I could suddenly see beyond the apparent function of the cars as gorgeous status enhancers. Their seductive aerodynamic shape served as the perfect vehicle (pun intended) for the special properties of the prismatic paint, creating a magical, polychromatic effect as they moved.
While Pyszczek’s early work is based on the absence of pigment, inviting the viewer to pay attention to the textures of all-white paintings, he has since embraced colour as a subversive agent that can counteract the functionality of shape. In a talk at Plug In ICA, accompanying his exhibition, Pyszczek mentioned that colour is the most vibrant aspect of his memory. Accordingly, the colours in his works match or supersede the intensity of his real-life sources of inspiration, while the shapes often get transformed, deformed or intentionally left in a kind of unfinished state.
Born in 1985 in Białystok, the largest city of northeastern Poland, Pyszczek emigrated to Winnipeg with his family when he was two years old. Spending his formative years in Canada, he inevitably experienced a certain detachment from his birthplace, laying the ground for his later fascination with Poland and Polish urban culture. It was in the summer of 2012, during a visit with his family to Poland, and specifically to Białystok, after he had relocated from Winnipeg to Berlin, that Pyszczek developed the idea of colour not as an object’s secondary property, but as an independent agent that might completely renegotiate the meaning of a certain shape (especially its functionality).
Much had changed since his early childhood. Pyszczek, who studied architecture at the University of Manitoba, was gripped by the transformation of the grey, concrete, modular-style buildings—buildings that his father, incidentally, used to help build. As it happened, these buildings were now vibrant with colourful patterns. No doubt relying on his father’s stories, Pyszczek explained in his talk that these convenient and easy-to-build apartment buildings did not possess sufficient thermal insulation, so after the fall of the Iron Curtain they needed to be renovated. This created the opportunity to undo the signature look of brutalist communist-era architecture, invested with ever grimmer symbolism, by painting on the new white façades, dressing up Polish city vedutas in the hues of dreamy optimism.
Making Pyszczek think of “clouds hanging in the somber sky,” the simple colourful designs covering the façades of these buildings were apparently not produced by professional designers, but rather by blue-collar workers. During the communist era, these latter had learned how to be resourceful out of necessity, taking up many tasks that were previously unavailable or too costly. The newly dressed buildings attested to the way in which the workers continued to apply these skills, yet now in order to express freedom from the regime. For anyone growing up under the consumerist maxim of “freedom of choice,” such an idea of self-sufficiency might appear a little unusual. Yet it certainly disputes the Western prejudice about the Iron Curtain, behind which creativity supposedly went to die. Continuing this DIY attitude in Canada, while working at a metal workshop, Pyszczek’s father would often make the family’s furniture, which he or Przemek designed.
Strongly thematizing this issue of “anti-outsourcing,” Pyszczek’s work underscores how people dealt with the everyday shortcomings of the communist regime by taking matters into their own hands. They sought recourse to their own skills of imagination, improvisation and craftsmanship in order to produce their own furniture, equipment and goods. Particularly relevant to Pyszczek’s most recent work, metallurgic workers on the local level produced steel play structures, which were scattered all over Poland in unique designs. Just as with the buildings’ façades, these often grim-looking play structures were refreshed in the new era with a new coat of paint—a much needed reconstructive element in the face of the crumbled past regime. During each visit to Poland, Pyszczek would document the colourful facades and play structures, and use them as inspiration.
In “Białystok,” Pyszczek’s first major Canadian solo exhibition, he created an homage to the changes his birthplace endured during his absence by focusing on the reconstructive power of paint. Pyszczek transformed the white-cube look of the gallery by painting the walls with bright colours arranged in simple geometric patterns. The centrepieces of the exhibit, two large tubular metal constructions hand-painted by the artist, directly recall some of the unique Polish play structures, though in a noticeably oversized way. When someone brought up the question of scale during the artist’s talk, Pyszczek didn’t provide a straightforward answer. Instead, he simply noted that while size is often dictated by functional parameters (such as having to fit work into a van or gallery space), with this exhibition he wanted the structure to be big enough for him to walk through.
Perhaps Pyszczek is thus aiming to evoke the unrealized experience of Polish childhood for himself and other art lovers. Nevertheless, the gallery staff advised us against any monkey business with the metal bars, and indeed—perhaps due to the size, or maybe because of the unfinished metal legs awkwardly sticking up in the air—the sculptures conveyed a sense of instability, as if they were revived from a fragmented memory. As was the case with the metal sports cars Pyszczek and I admired a number of years ago, the structures served perfectly as shapes to which the colours beautifully applied.
Imagining an oversaturated trash yard of consumerism, you can only wonder about the creative possibilities that the crumble of capitalism would unleash. Yet in that case, I have a feeling we might all look back with nostalgia at the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the many blank canvases left behind, contemplating a time when the feeling of freedom often required nothing more than a simple can of paint.
“Białystok” was exhibited at Plug In ICA, Winnipeg, from March 31 to June 10, 2018.
Monika Vrečar is a media theorist living in Winnipeg.