Critics Back

Signs of Presence, Andrzej Saj, 1990

The great majority of recent works by Natalia LL holds to the convention of the self-portrait of a quite specific type. While the artist uses her external features – face, head, and occasionally the whole body for her photographs, paintings, sculptures, and spatial installations, she complements her image and consequently renders it unreal by a unique artistic-graphic make-up designed to sketch her inner self-portrait. That quest becomes a source of the artist’s cognitive aspirations, which consist in equal measure of intellect and intuition. This relates to the conviction expressed by Natalia LL for the need of a holistic approach to the surrounding reality, which is manifested by numerous references to mythology, religion, philosophy, as well as vivid artistic records of the her individual experiences. Natalia LL searches for “signs” which encode mental and emotional states. She creates the artistic equivalents of cognitive experiences, intuitions, and projections based on visual interpretations of religious motifs, biblical quotations on the one hand, and satanic or esoteric texts dealing with the issue of evil, on the other. In this artistic process, Natalia LL engages in a therapeutic act by giving evil a name, and thus neutralizing it.

By referring to sources from cultural anthropology and the psychology of Jung (the duality of human spirit defined by Persona and Anti-Person – elements of good and evil, divinity and devilishness, etc.) Natalia LL has developed unique “keys” for personal use which lead her to the realm of individual mythology. The aim of these keys is to facilitate a transition from the external features of a portrait to its inner background, and thus simplify a holistic description of the spirit.

These keys are represented by a number of props. For example, many works and installations contain attributes of magic, objects designed for ritual use, such as beech sticks, pieces of fur, nails, as well as a number of meticulously wrought, ritualised interferences into paintings, traces of destruction, damage, and deformities. The artist, it seems, ascribes a special meaning to the “fluffiness” of furs, which is emphasized by scraps of fur incorporated in the pictures — a clash of a defenceless self with an existential fear, or perhaps a symbolic expression of femininity, instinctive behaviours; a search for an antidote to evil.

The content is complemented by structural solutions, i.e. the use of a variety of media and their combinations, including photographs, painting, three-dimensional objects, a repetition of theme (to reinforce the artistic expression), and the repetition of thematic elements in series of works, e.g.: The Mystical Portrait (1987), The Metaphysical Portrait (1987), The Mystical Head (1987), The Panic Head (1988), The Visionary Head (1989), etc. Apart from the enhanced expression, one can also detect a suggestion of the inevitability of human fate.

All these observations are relevant to the exhibition entitled “Paintings — Photographs — Installations” held this April at the BWA Gallery in Wrocław. The exhibition was based on selected works created between 1988 and 1990 (The Panic Heads, The Visionary Heads, The Fluffy Tragedy, The Destructs). It was complemented by the installation entitled Panic Space, consisting of Veronicas (images of Christ’s countenance imprinted on St. Veronica’s veil) hung on chairs on one side, and a series of plaster casts of the artist’s head recalling the death mask motif (with numerous traces of injury, as well as symbolic props).

Although the presentation included works from different periods of the artist’s creative career, based on different techniques, it maintained a uniform thematic structure. Natalia LL achieved that by linking a number of issues pertaining to the “panic space” and focusing them on a single premise in which the feeling of tragedy and irrevocability of human fate is manifested. I believe that the artist makes references to Lew Szestow’s Philosophy of Tragedy and his concept of “tragic mind” searching for the truth in darkness, mystery, twist of fate, despair, and the acceptance of an adverse sense of existence in order to achieve absolute freedom, which, incidentally, can also be achieved through art.

The artist relays this message by a variety of “cross-sections” shown in the exhibition. In the installation part, she highlighted the issue of physical transience, decay, death. She also offered a certain ritual of “taming” death by the use of masks and magic rites. This motif is emphasised in The Destructs — a series of large photographs devoted to Alina Szapocznikow.

The boundaries of the “panic space” were also demarcated by a series of photograph paintings and self-portraits. First, Natalia LL photographed her face under a muslin mask which deformed her features, and then the pictures were subjected to a “beautifying” process complementing the backdrop, or overlaying the image with a tangled web of lines, razor-sharp slashes, and vigorous brush strokes which gave the pictures a certain “depth”. The face was now hardly recognizable and rendered unreal. It became a simplification of a face; any face, collective face; a portrayal of the “depth” of a person, rather than external features. Nevertheless, this abandonment of individual features does not deprive the picture of the presence of a specific individual, as the artistic interferences are intended to refer to this very individual. One feels behind each picture of an impersonal and unrealized mask the presence of an individual face and its “inner features”. That, one can say, is the primary goal of Natalia LL’s stage art – to extract the inner from the superficial, to accentuate her own mental-spiritual portrait, and secondly, to showcase the means of expression which allow the exposure of individual intuitions, fears, phobias, etc. to be transformed into a general experience and moved to an objective, general platform which neutralizes individual fears in the collective existential fear, i.e. the awareness of the tragedy of human life.

Yet, Natalia LL tries to neutralise this pessimistic message with a light of hope showing through the backdrop, emanating from the overtones of a picture, her works show the path of faith, the road to freedom which leads through faith and art, for, as the artist says: “only in the reality of art do we become truly independent, free…”

Andrzej Saj, 1990

Translated by Jarosław Fejdych