Critics Back

The Art of Self – Creation or Natalia LL in the 1980s…, Ryszard Ratajczak, 1990

It is striking how well I remember Natalia LLs photo-images. I keep them tight under my eyelids and do not have to reach for her photographs and catalogues.

Between January and March 1989, Natalia LL presented her works in the Regional Museum in Wałbrzych. Her images, executed over last three years, are arranged in series: Panic fear, Products of Destruction (devoted to the memory of Alina Szapocznikow), and Fluffy Tragedy.

All these series are part of a whole titled Loose Spaces, launched in 1986. Besides the images mentioned above, the ambitious undertaking includes films, video recordings and installations. Natalia has set no time limit to her “spectacle of art”, to her exploration of synaesthesia and attempts at co-cordinating contemporary media accessible to her. I think that she aspires on the one hand after a solution to the problem of time perceived from the view-point of the human (?), cosmic (?) individual that she observes on the clock or, as Andrzej Lachowicz puts it, the map of her own face; on the other hand, she defends the right of freedom from all kinds of dependence. She insists that subjective space exists in art, and a search for it is one of her chief goals.

People concerned with intellectual endeavours aiming to discover new areas of human activity in “spirit and body” (rather than with rows of pictures in exhibition saloons, forgive my rudeness) saw Natalia as a priestess, a medium of sorts, a supersensitive person with something mystic about herself and her influence on other experience of artistic phenomena. The period between the late 1960s and early 1980s is relatively well-known and described in publications at home and abroad. My aim here is to highlight the most recent period, the late 1980s, with special stress on the exhibition in the Wałbrzych Museum, an institution which does credit to every artist.

It is remarkable how often Natalia uses the word ” s u b j e c t i v j t y”, both in the presentation of her views of art in periodicals, in para-poetic texts, and in the way she describes her own work. She seems to be saying: “I am subjective”, unique, exceptional. This is the message of her Metaphysical Portraits, large square canvases in which the countenance, shown en face, covers the entire surface. The black-and-white faces, occasionally lacy, transposed on the canvas by means of photographic technique, have a superhuman trait because of their format. The uniqueness of the whole undertaking is the result first and foremost of the thicket of pointed, black strokes into which the faces have been inscribed thus losing something of their sacred quality. The procedure makes one think, quite unexpectedly, of a loaf of bread covered with red and white paint…
The face emerging from behind the hatching is indifferent or provocative, insensitive to the suffering inflicted or twisted in a grotesque grimace.

In these images, the problem of subjectivity is linked with that of free choice, the freedom of art and freedom as a goal in itself.

There is a shade of exhibitionism in it — still the images are Natalia’s huge self-portraits. However, she seems paradoxically hid-den behind the veil of lines. I found to my surprise that some of the guests to the opening of the exhibition did not realise that they were looking at the artist’s self-portraits even though she was there, standing by their side, talking to them, commenting on her work. This series of black-and-white canvases, really very impressive, harks back, deliberately or not, to medieval black magic in addition to being an act of self-destruction, a sacrifice, a “per analogiam” procedure. A humanist should be allowed some interpretative freedom because of the immanent ambiguity of art.

Besides the “interference” of black-and-white strokes, the background of Natalia’s images is filled with flat layers of colour, for instance, red, blue and azure. In the series of Mystic Heads, the black faces are different, more mysterious. The eyes and the mouth, with smears of paint on them, seem to be snow-covered.

At times, the entire image is covered with delicate touches of yellow, blue or red paint laid with a fine brush. The dots, contrasted against the black or white background, the smears and the occasional energetic strokes of the brush veil and in a sense deform the images. The final effect is reminiscent of reality seen through a window with drops or rain on it. Fragmentary reality, that is.

Finally, there is the series Products or Destruction, to me the visual rendering of the concept of expression. Expression (Lat. expressio): act or mode, or power, of representing or giving utterance; representation or revelation by language, art, the features, etc.; the manner in which anything is expressed.. (Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary). The Polish Fine Arts Dictionary also speaks of a tendency to enhance expression in a work or art, to reach the utmost tension; and of choosing semantic elements, often by means of deformation.

I am quoting all this not only in order to underline the expressive quality of Natalia’s works, but also to bring out the element of f e e l i n g and m e n t a l e x p e r i e n c e. The series is the image of expression also in the dictionary meaning of the word. White faces, reminiscent of baked pottery, emerge from the black background. Oval, they are reminiscent of Mycenaean masks, full of cracks and chipped off bits. The deformation employed makes the analogy with white-greyish ceramic sherds even stronger. Like death masks taken from the same “model”, they emanate a sense of destruction and transience of things. As part of the artists research apparatus, they act as an existential illustration of the relative quality of everything including human effort and desire.

But there is an inconsistency, a crack in the explorative, existential line of her work. In the accompanying texts, she writes about freedom and choice, and there is some optimism in it because she puts her theory into practice. She ascribes mystic qualities to art, and she carries into effect the “first principle” of her view of the world. In fact, however, Natalia LLs work in the late 1980s is thoroughly pessimistic and — forgive the high-flown expression — full of the terror of existence. Fluids of decay, transcience, destruction and mutilation pass between the pictures placed on the opposite walls. I said “mutilation”: a handless woman dummy, dressed in tights, static and literally cut down to the size, is the protagonist of her later series titled Panic Fear — Paradise Lost. It features faces, smiling or twisted in a smile, ambiguous, with coloured balloons emerging from their mouths. The figures are this time shown in full. Some of them are discreetly erotic, provocative, carefully posed, decorated with colourful chimeras, surrounded with glittering serpents strongly contrasted with the black opalescent tights. The artist’s road to knowledge leads from the meticulous vivisection of her personality followed by thorough analyses of her face in various takes. She believes that knowledge is the goal of human activity, but one should first inspect one’s own self. This is the lens through which the external world, the macrocosm, is perceived.

Natalia evades identification. Her art may be interpreted in two or even more ways. She is an anxious, persevering explorer. Her prismatic mysteriousness has a restless, flickering quality. What is her creative image, embodied in her self-portraits, going to be like in’ the 1990?

Ryszard Ratajczak

Translated by Henryk Holzhausen