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Wanda Czelkowska. Retrospection. Opens at the Xawery Dunikowski Museum of Sculpture, Warsaw

Wanda Czełkowska. Retrospection
November 6, 2016 – February 12, 2017
Xawery Dunikowski Museum of Sculpture – Division of the National Museum in Warsaw
Puławska 113a
02-707 Warsaw, Poland
Opening: November 6th, 6 p.m

Curated by Ewa Opalka

Having been artistically active for well over fifty years, Czełkowska takes a reflective look at her oeuvre which has always stayed in touch with all the most significant currents of 20th c. avant-garde art: neo-primitivism, expressionism, conceptualism.  The contemporary installation she has designed especially for the Królikarnia exhibition, incorporates the artist’s historical works. Sculpture has always been the chief means of Wanda Czełkowska’s expression, though she has more than once crossed the traditional understanding of the discipline. Beginning 6 November, the exposition at Królikarnia will offer a rare opportunity to see Czełkowska’s never before displayed artworks from her studio in Mokotów, courtesy of the artist, as well as pieces that had years ago been included in various museum collections.

Born in 1930, Wanda Czełkowska is an artist of utmost originality and independence. Though highly recognized by specialists, her work still awaits an exhaustive analysis in art history. Neither has the potential of her art been fully explored in exhibition spaces. Nonetheless, the few and fragmentary presentations of her work have always intrigued and stirred curiosity.  It took only one sculpture and two drawings by Czełkowska, presented in May of this year at a collective exhibition at New York’s 1602 Broadway Gallery, for the Artspace critic, Andrew M. Goldstein, to claim the show to be one of the best ten presented at the Frieze New York 2016 – a key event In the calendar of the global art world.

The concept for Wanda Czełkowska’s solo presentation at Królikarnia, with an accompanying publication and an academic conference to be held at the Sculpture Museum in February 2016, was forged during the many hours of conversation the artist spent with Ewa Opałka, the curator of the exhibition and the long-time researcher of her oeuvre. In 2010, Czełkowska made her studio in a post-industrial location in Warsaw’s district of Mokotów, virtually a hop, skip and jump from Królikarnia. This incredible space, filled with natural light pouring in through the huge windows, houses the artistic effects of Czełkowska’s long and creative life. There are the monumental plaster portraits – like the statues  from Rapa Nui  – standing among the geometrical constructions made of wooden planks and steel flat bars. The tables and turntables are covered with tools: grinders, hammers, brushes, chisels. Though it may all seem like great chaos, the situation is one of a well thought-out order, where each object has its place and its artistic sense  – just as in the exhibition at Królikarnia. Here too, even the tiniest element has a precisely intended location, and every detail does mean something.

“Retrospection” is a term borrowed from literature and film. It means a reconstruction of events from the vantage point of a single person. At the exhibition of Wanda Czełkowska, all events and works from the past have become a part of a contemporary installation, made up of pieces brought here from the nearby studio, new objects which have been created especially for Królikarnia, or works which years ago were procured by The National Museum in Warsaw, The Silesian Museum, or The  National Museum in Krakow. And it was Krakow with which the artist had the longest relation. She graduated from the local Academy of Fine Arts in 1954. In the years 1969 – 1981, she belonged to the Second Krakow Group, though she never strayed from her own individual path and thus never saw her membership in the group as of utmost importance. When still at the Academy, Czełkowska developed her original style despite the then binding doctrine of socialist realism. The heavy, expressive, neo-primitive portraits from that period have been incorporated in the new installation titled “Elipses” created in the space of Królikarnia. The sculptural head is the leitmotif of Czełkowska’s art, processed and reprocessed to almost abstract forms (“The Head”, 1967), multiplied as in the monumental installation “The Table” from the years 1968 – 1972, or ostentatiously dematerialised  as in “The Absolute Elimination of the Sculpture as a Notion of Shape” (1972–1994).

The dematerialization of the object seems to be the key gesture in Czełkowska’s artistic path and, at the same time, very much in line with the minimalist and conceptual tendencies in 20th c. art. An interesting point of reference proposed by the exhibition’s curator is Lucy R. Lippard and her famous publication from 1973, “Six Years: The dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972”. The American artist writes, “Conceptual art, for me, means work in which the idea is paramount and the material form is secondary, lightweight, ephemeral, cheap, unpretentious and/or ‘dematerialized’.” Indeed, the motif of dematerialisation was the common element in both Lippard’s and Czełkowska’s art – e.g. “The Absolute Elimination of the Sculpture” by the latter. However, whilst the elimination of the artwork as postulated by western conceptualists of the 1960s and 1970s can be interpreted as defence against its commoditisation, this particular aspect for those who created behind the Iron Curtain could not be binding considering the virtual lack of an art market there. As was the case with many Polish avant-garde artists at the time, dematerialisation was for Czełkowska more an attempt to escape the regime which imposed a set political and ideological paradigm, to flee from the shape of a sculpture materialising itself in social realist figures and the officially commissioned monuments, the designing of which was the obligatory stage in any artistic career.

There is only one, though very expressive self-portrait of the artist presented at the exhibition. We see Czełkowska’s hands grabbing her neck in a gesture of either an attempt to asphyxiate herself or “remove” her veil-covered head. The photo may point to one other aspect of dematerialization. The artistic activities of women sculptors were often depreciated, women were denied their artistic status as their works were seen as mindless reproduction of images of their own bodies. This may be one of the references to the artist’s half self-aggressive, half-mocking gesture of “severing” the head from the body, and then multiplying it to finally arrive at its complete dematerialisation.

Works presented in the exhibition come from the artist’s private archive and the collection of the National Museum in Warsaw, Silesian Museum in Katowice, National Museum in Kraków and Centre of Polish Sculpture in Orońsko.

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