Wojtek Więckowski, 33, is personally enigmatic; his work cyclical, nearing kaleidoscopic. Engaging multiple mediums, from blues-infused, folk and ambient guitar compositions paired with photographic slides of his Abstract Expressionist paintings, his oeuvre sits somewhere between Ad Reinhardt’s controlled, restrained and, later monochromatic, paintings, and Jackson Pollock’s ‘action paintings,’ thrown paint whizzing onto canvas. Więckowski unconsciously synthesizes essential elements in the rich history of Abstract Expression, yet his work is not rote.
Meeting Więckowski at his studio: an austere and dilapidated, yet warm space in the basement of an old building in Warsaw’s Sadyba neighborhood, I am shocked when he speaks English with a Texan accent. I ask, puzzled, wait: you are originally from Poland? He laughs, “yep, I am polack!” Growing up on American folk music, among his other favorite genres which include everything from progressive rock to Blues and Jazz, along with a six-month stint in Texas, has given him this distinct accent. Our first interview lasted a little over two hours, and mostly covered the accumulation of mental, emotional and spiritual experiences that have led him to the road of artist. Roads play a major role in his life, and the road he has chosen, the bohemian artist making Abstract Expressionist work at a time when it is considered an anachronism, is most certainly the one less traveled.
Meandering through his memories, I try to structure the interview, yet Więckowski skips from times and places, he is mentally restless. Attempting to put together a linear interview format would be impossible, for like his work, his being rejects categorization. Words slip over him. Yes, he did have a skin condition when he was young, and yes he was obsessed with basketball and drawing. “I stayed to myself, I was able to talk to other kids, but I preferred the company of adults…” he looks up, lighting a cigarette, “and I always had a sketchbook.” Musically “I found myself listening to all these old guys from the US and UK, and everyone is listening to… I don’t know, rap?” I find it funny that his contemporaries musical choices still don’t register with him. Więckowski is an outlier; he is peculiar, and it this peculiarity that seeps through into his work.
Growing up in an “upper-middle class, professional” household near Poznan, Poland, he has never known dramatic material scarcity. “Yes, my parents have always been there to support me, when I went to Texas, I had the family credit card in case of emergencies, and I felt that I needed to work, always, support myself, but they said, ‘No, focus on your art, your music.’ Of course, I did gigs to earn my pocket money for cigarettes, alcohol and that sort of thing.'” He leans back, touches his nose and then says, “Well, I guess it was a … how do you say it? Golden cage? Gilded cage, that’s it. I never really learned financial responsibility.” His parents bought him a guitar in the eighth grade. “A classical guitar … and later, when I was 11, year my dad took me to a Deep Purple concert.” Skipping in time, “When I was 16 and 17, I would hang out in bars, listening to the blues with guys in their 30s, 40s and upwards, I definitely was out of sync with my time.”
Like Reinhardt before him, Więckowski operates on various registers, levels of both realism and abstraction. His latest work has taken on a ‘tentacular’ (macka) aspect, reminding me of Donna Haraway’s lecture on the Cthulhucene, and what it means to make meaning in a world, or worlds, in crisis. The tentacles reach out, grasping, finding, digesting and surviving in a medium of newspaper ink, with fine mono-type lines etched into the vastness of an ever expanding void. As we too, in the age of hyper-digitization, live off our Facebook feeds, wake to our Twitter tweets and photograph every ‘moment’ on Instagram. Also like Reinhardt before him, Więckowski is responding to, in his own particular, perhaps unconscious way, our generational crisis of loss of trust in authority, and complete breakdowns of post-WWII norms: from the 2008 global financial crisis to the 2015 election of the far-right Law and Justice Party in Poland, the artist is not absent from these events, and neither is his art.
Wim Wender’s 1984 film Paris, Texas, comes up several times, notably this Euro-Texan connection, driving the young artist further and further west. “I remember, when I was in Texas, wearing cowboy boots, driving down the highway, in a Cadillac, with a bottle of Jack Daniels next to me … that’s freedom, or that’s what I thought was freedom,” he continues “I was happy to return to Europe, after six months in Texas, the intellectual culture, well, it can be, different.” In 2007, he returned to Poland, put away his cowboy boots and retreated to his room at his family home. “I caught myself not listening to blues or rock anymore, I started to learn Tai-Chi, Chi-Gong, started reading Chan and Zen Buddhism. I locked myself away, in a sense, I felt very tired with my life, depressed, I need a change, this was clearly an obvious turning point for me. I realized: these cowboy boots, the Cadillac, the chicks, all of that… it’s a facade. I turned inward.”
Więckowski lights another cigarette, “Yes, I learned it, it came to me: I am totally fucked up! What now? I was sleeping till 4pm, I would be up until 8am; there was this sense of escapism and avoidance.” He got work. Working as an entertainment manager, then an events organizer and finally selling insurance, he realized something was missing. “Yes, I made money, yes it was good money, but I wasn’t fulfilled by it, and when you are working full-time, it’s impossible to commit yourself fully to anything involving art.” A major turning point came in 2011, Więckowski was invited to play ambient, electronic music at the Festival d’Avignon, in the south of France, and this started the idea of mixing live music with video projections of his paintings behind him. “Of course, I had this experience of showing my work, as I had gone to an Art High School in Poznan, but nothing at this level, and although my gig was last minute and didn’t show up in the catalogue, I found an audience, and within a few months after the festival I had 15 canvases, so I asked a friend of mine who is an art dealer, ‘Is this art?’ and she said ‘Keep doing it.’ So I did. And by the end of 2012, I had a solo exhibition.”
Więckowski’s confidence grew, and “after all these years of gaining experience, I felt finally ready. I could put all my work, my canvas, my guitar, my equipment, into my trunk and go.” At our second interview, I meet him, this time, paint splattered and in panic. “I received called, you see, the place where I live … well it’s complicated and normally, I have a day or two in the form of a notice when someone is coming, and I can get the place together, but I just got called and told someone might stay tonight … And the place is, you know, a total mess, there are bottles and ashtrays all around.” A few minutes later a text message comes in, the man isn’t staying overnight. Więckowski begins to relax, although he can’t sit still, he walks while he talks. Back and forth, I follow him with my eyes as one does watching a tennis match. He slides out large canvases, one after the other, showing me a transition in his work. “You see I started to change around July of this year, I moved from the more Abstract Expressionist, thrown paint, although it is still controlled, people don’t understand there is control in that throwing or dabbing, but I moved to this… What would you call it?” I say it reminds me of tentacles, and therefore it is a kind of “tentacular” painting. Undulating lines represent almost a linear view of a tubular shape or space. Sitting atop both Reinhardt’s studied singularity and Pollock’s messy nightmares, these tubes take new roots in the work.
Throughout his time painting, which began at the early part of this decade, his friends and associates have compared his work to Pollock. “Pollock walks with me, he is an inspiration sure, but more of a reminder. I have never gone into hardcore heavyweight alcoholism. Though the bottle was always present. As a companion in isolation. And I did find myself driving drunk through the forest in Poland once, and of course…” He trails off, for this is how Pollock died.
Disagreeing with Briony Fer’s assessment that Abstract Expressionism is ‘hermetic’ or somehow an isolation from social meaning, Więckowski says “I feel an intimate dialogue, that’s social, with the work. I resolve a lot of problems when I am working, I see these parts of the canvas as forces battling, or working together, the brain is taught to look for the familiar, the known, I want to go beyond that, I want to reach this point, as they teach in Zen meditation, where you have no judgement, no emotion, no body, you just go into the void.” I disagree, his work is hermetic, but as Fer states, it is not completely sealed off, although there will always be an impenetrable fusion between artist and artwork. It represents Więckowski going into a void, and what he brings back are perhaps remnants of those travels. What he finds are perhaps gifts, visual and auditory gifts, that we can use in our journey, down our own road, whether walking, taking a bus, or driving a Cadillac.
He finishes by sending me a summary of his philosophy on art, and introducing perhaps a new genre to the field of painting:
“Now for some time I don’t drink when I work. Not that I was in an alcohol-fueled stupor with my earlier works, but I’ve learned patience. That is why probably I got more tights in my painting. I always wanted everything to happen instant, right away. Improvised music, abstract painting. Rush. Stress. Chain-smoke. Anxiety. I found painting a cure. And it all started to make sense. Both career-wise and aesthetically I’ve found my own language. Now I don’t need to move from place to place. Though I feel like somehow being on the road all the time (metaphorically). I’ve built myself a home and like a turtle I carry it on my back. Where I have all my experience, tools, dreams, passion and utter love to what I do.
Making art gives me all the high, entertainment, excitement that I need. I also learn a lot form it; about myself and the so called abstract world that I create, the world that became so real and familiar to me
That is why somehow when I think about a name for it, I think of Abstract Realism.
And it makes all the sense in the world to me as it is based on contradictions what perfectly refers to bipolarity, Yin-Yang, etc. Some of the forms I try to show in a realistic way (not hyper-realistic though). Even it all looks very expressive, I use a lot very small brushes, where strokes are more like a pencil or pen work, I do glaze and some other techniques that are more often used in figurative art.
Making art allows me to be: as a dreamer, idealist, an alien. Without trying to fit in in any convention. In a reality that I create myself. You may call it abstract. To me it is reality. That I feel comfortable in it, and not lost whatsoever. Where the signs are clear but the path is unpredictable. Where madness and experiment are totally allowed and safe.”
At 33, Więckowski’s art is selling, and it is selling well. Will he be the next Pollock, or to use his own self-deprecating words the ‘polack’ Pollock? Or will he transcend even this simultaneously celebrated and denigrated figure, moving into corporeal spaces yet unknown? Only time can tell, although I suspect this road he is on may include an alien abduction to another level of artistic mastery, and I am looking forward to watching it from my own nebulous vantage point.