Flashback / You never know

Dominika Skutnik about the paintings of Anna Orbaczewska


Anna Orbaczewska's paintings are a story of the art of painting and emotion which has been encapsulated in the series. There two elements whose balance, or lack of balance, determines the message of each painting – none of Orbaczewska's works can manage without a painterly, figurative subject and the presence of a sensed atmosphere of tension, projected onto this "ground". 


One may be tempted to say that a painting – understood as an image – is for Orbaczewska the beginning, a starting point. The situations and silhouettes depicted in her paintings are practically normal, banal (a walk by the sea or across a meadow, children playing) and their composition seems to be constructed casually and coincidentally. The basis for these paintings is most often photographs, but not the ones which would end in the family album as the "good ones". We usually discard such photographs from the memory card during a brisk selection –   they are dim, figures are turned, faces hidden behind hair, too much sky, practically nothing can be seen. Click ! –   and the photograph is no longer there. Not much regret accompanies this action, there are after all hundreds of others, better ones, taken on the same day. 


On scrutinising the relation between the photograph and the painting in Orbaczewska's work, one can consider her painting cycles as the contradiction and reversal of Cartier- Bresson's decisive moment, assuming a priori the existence of some objectively most important moment. The artist personifies an entirely different, open and, practically, pessimistic awareness, that those moments are happening continuously, that they precede in an unbroken stream, each faction of a second is different, although – almost identical (in this way very similar pictures appear repetitively at the exhibition) and, unfortunately, they are/can all potentially be equally important, so that the choice of a single element is like the search for the most perfect drop during a downpour of rain –  even assuming that such a drop exists – you will never find it. 


The choice of such seemingly “indecisive” photographs, and not some other, leads us onto the trail of the artist hiding under a layer of the usual and inconspicuous. Hiding because, after all, a picture, especially its better variation, namely manually painted, should theoretically be attractive and exciting even for the viewer who has just deleted a similar photograph from his own camera because it is bad. 


We can interpret this practice of the artist, working with unobvious compositions, as a symptom of basic disagreement. And this is the very source of Orbaczewska’s work, her evasion from the constraint of being liked, being pretty and attractive. This thread of refusal and, even, the repulsion of attractiveness, permeates all of the layers of the artist’s work, from the above-mentioned selection of compositions, characteristic for the artist, the unceremonious treatment of the painted surface (blurs, unfinished places, drips, conventionality), through the titles of her paintings, to her own words. This escape route, reverting from the constraint and convention that has a hold over all aspects of her work, from the formal to the semantic, is at the same time the proof of the authenticity of her artistic search and, perhaps, a personal one, too. 


Thus, a painting, even an imperfect one, is not the goal in itself. It is rather the symptom and medium of her effort in working on some underlying but strong emotions, done first and foremost for herself. The image serves as a spur to the artist, a stimulus for evoking a flashback in her viewer’s eye – a sudden and abrupt return of feelings or memories, derived from the depths of the unconscious and forgotten. A flashback, being a smaller or bigger psychological shock, can be provoked by something which seems to be a trifle, something mundane, as if not related to the following avalanche of emotions, such as a smell, a colour – here it is a seemingly innocent representation. 


This is the aim and form of Orbaczewska's paintings – the artist's strategy and method is not to speak about emotions, painterly emotions or anything else. Her aim as such is an approach to painting which would enable it to become a stimulus for the suitably prepared viewer, inciting their own emotional thrill or flash of recognition under suitable conditions. Orbaczewska's paintings always have another, superimposed layer of meaning – the layer of emotions raised in the viewer's mind. 


Emotions, which the artist constructs and frames in the form of a painting, are not unequivocal; they are dim but intense at the same time, suspended in a strange, untold space. These emotions touch and interfere with the viewer's intimacy, his private sphere of sensations and distant memories, infringing his peace. Practically, they are unpleasant and disquieting, despite their rather usual, sometimes bucolic setting. Consequently, the emotions generated in the viewer are in sharp opposition to the representative layer of the image, which becomes a trap. Under the calm mirror of the depicted reality, we – do not see – we rather have a gut feeling, we speculate in our minds that there are layers of memories deeply suppressed and existential tensions, fears and harms lurking. The shadow of abjection and fascination flickers across many of her paintings – the question of the threatening and violent aspect of human sexuality recurs, along with motifs of loneliness, sadness and alienation. 


What grabs our attention in terms of  iconography is a motif, very characteristic of the artist: splashing about in water, which dominates the series "You Never Know" and "Suspicious II". Water, especially "big water" – a lake, the sea – is a universal symbol of the subconscious – the place of emotion and intuition, depth. Almost all of the people depicted are standing, walking, trotting on the bank of this great archetype, they gaze into it, step into it at mid-calf depth, rarely submerging deeper. They are in a sense beside it, as if this strong and symbolic presence of water was not fully tamed and comfortable. One's total submerging in the water is out of the question; there is no possibility of merry, vacation play. The people in these paintings are wary, sunk in thoughts, careful. They take care, take great care of their children. This withdrawal, additionally framed in the classical form of a tondo, emanates with unclear fear and uncertainty. What can also be sensed is the desire to escape this claustrophobic idyll, to be dissolved in the same way as the paint, treated like water-colour which dissolves. The sense of disquiet is compounded by sayings – warnings painted onto the view (every man has his price, you never know, didn't I warn you?) – all of them being on the "no" side. This is the voice of the superego, a parent, a supervisor, instilling in us suspicion and depriving us of any illusions; this is the spectre of convenience and so called "common sense". The harsh and obviously negative sound of the title-warnings contrasting with the softness and delicacy of the genre scenes. 



Orbaczewska's paintings, especially the ones from "You Never Know" or "Suspicious II" are saturated with horror against the fragility, helplessness and delicacy of forming life, which here is incarnate in the small, still immature figures of children. Most often these figures turn their backs on us, their skinny backs with protruding shoulder blades become signs of mystery, the unequivocalness of puberty, going away and finding oneself. The children's submersion within themselves, their backs turned (from the viewer and the parent), seriousness, concentration on their own reflection suggest the vision of "being a child" different from the one generally accepted – a vision which lacks sentimentality and is more daring and truer. 


Elementary although difficult, complicated and sometimes embarrassing questions emerge from Orbaczewska's paintings, too. For example, what it really means to be a mascot, mother, sexual being, an animal's master, a child and – how these aspects can co-exist in one body. This is a very brave, transgressive but also a mostly deeply personal approach, which struggles against both ready-made recipes for life and one's own shame, resistance and anger. 


Additionally, the border line between representation and painterly matter is trespassed; here patches, streaks of dripping paint and blurs not only create the painting but destroy it at the same time. A painting for Orbaczewska is, in a sense, a battle field, the trace of a struggle for what will be shown, what suggested and what hidden, erased. Viewing her paintings is like viewing the process of their destruction (peeping and being suspicious are her frequent motifs). Very often, one can have the impression that the traces which might lead us to "understanding" have been removed from the painting after much consideration. Captions, which we would like to read as indications, will direct us somewhere else. Thus, the formal process of painting itself is tainted with an inner split, where the features of intimacy and conflict rendered in the representative layer are equally strong.


In viewing Orbaczewska's paintings, one can find a certain constant, ever present opposition, reluctance and, sometimes, a violent rebellion even against the roles, norms and canons which have been imposed onto us: social, parental, artistic. A quotation from a text written by the artist: "I am riveted by how much we are able to identify ourselves with the things imposed onto us by a higher authority – culture, religion, and upbringing. Why are we inclined to consider social expectations as our own needs and desires? When and why does the trespassing of these expectations meet with social ostracism?" 


One can risk saying that the core of Orbaczewska's work is both the demand for and the execution of one's right to independent and absolutely conscious struggle, free from any pressure of convention and correctness, against basic, often very personal psychological and emotional phenomena, and just through art. Her intense work on her own emotions and the problems which interest the artist, which is the key to her work, has consistently lead her out of her own yard into the field of great ideas / illusions (delete where appropriate) quiet unexpectedly: the cult of liminal experiences ("Real Emotions"), the motif of maternity, the great tradition of portraiture ("Suspicious", portraits). 


Trans. © M.B. Guzowska