Leon Tarasewicz is one of the most intriguing contemporary painters in Poland. He was born in 1957 in Waliły in the Podlachia region. Tarasewicz is an inventive artist who constantly explores new aspects of the old and seemingly predictable discipline of painting.
Contemporary painter, born in 1957 in Waliły in the Podlachia region.
He studied at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts under Tadeusz Dominik, graduating in 1984. He has run a painting workshop at his alma mater since 1996.
He was noticed immediately after leaving the academy, as his paintings stood out from the 'new expression' style which prevailed among his contemporaries. He was already then convinced that 'a canvas [...] should always defend itself with painting and painting alone' and not any with added meaning or artistically strange code. Ever since his debut, he has been a prominent member of the art scene, even though he identifies the centre of his world as the small village of Waliły near Białystok. He emphasizes his Belarusian provenance and identifies with the Belarusian minority inhabiting eastern Poland. He has acted as a spokesman for that minority on many occasions and has supported initiatives reviving Belarusian culture. In 1999, he did not accept the Art Award of the President of Białystok in a protest against the local authorities’ policies, which, in his opinion, were stoking the conflict between Polish and Belarusian communities.
Waliły is a permanent point of reference for Tarasewicz. He is emotionally attached to his homeland’s dominant characteristic – nature. He observes it with humility and records the rhythm or colour combinations he finds. This is how he describes this experience, which has been key to his practice for many years.
I often notice incredible colour patterns in nature. […] I wish I was able to combine blue and green in a way that would give that almost shining effect. […] Sometimes it is possible to achieve it through breaking, or transforming the naturalism of the observed phenomenon. […] I just don’t know how to do it yet.
Leon Tarasewicz made figurative paintings for a brief period of time. However, he stopped very shortly afterwards and claims to have destroyed these works. He categorically rejects any allusion in an artwork, avoids the use of text (including self-commentary), and doesn’t title his works. The original formula apparent in his paintings has emerged from the aforementioned observation of landscape (free from human influence, and full of inner rhythm) – woods, fields, and birds.
His works from the 1980s were a clear manifestation of that mechanism, but very soon they started resembling abstract, regularly composed decorative carpets (sometimes reaching very large sizes) with repeating motifs (tree trunks, nursery gardens, stitches of ploughed fields, birds circling in the sky), rather than reflections of reality. They were dominated by pure painting qualities: colour, texture, and light. At the same time, this simplicity of expression was – and still is – almost orthodox: Tarasewicz mainly uses primary colours, and occasionally introduces contrasting complementary colours and black.
His early works were typically scarce in colour. Later on, the artist stepped away from this possibly overly ostentatious rigour. He also limited the use of white, which he initially used to soften the colours. Bright colours came back – with an almost unblemished, child-like, and primary joy.
Despite his strong identification with one place, Tarasewicz has been systematically maintaining his idea of painting as a strictly visual form and erasing any traces of his works’ origins. The structure of the painting, influenced by nature, was increasingly becoming a space for an entrancing, sensual game of pure, intense colours, applied in regular strips or small spots. The shine, flicker, and exuberance of colours (occasionally highly contrasting: red with green, green with yellow, yellow with purple) resembles the French Post-Impressionists (especially the extremely emotional works of Vincent van Gogh). On the other hand, however, the painter is fascinated by the works of Jerzy Nowosielski, who paints sacral and secular icons.
For many years, Tarasewicz has been applying his own specific methods in developing his activities that border on conceptual and installation art. When painting directly on the walls of the exhibition rooms, covering them from top to bottom, including the additional elements found in them (a furnace, electric cables), he creates special kinds of paintings which, just like his works on canvas and paper, fall under his interests in space and air. A gallery interior is deprived of its exhibiting function and becomes reduced to the role and significance of a canvas. At the same time, it turns into the artist's studio, who does not bring a ready piece to the gallery but produces it on-site – simultaneously analyzing the character of a given space. These explorations are manifested in monumental realizations, such as the painted pillars of the Vitebsk Museum of Modern Art, 1995; 27 Regularly Arranged Pillars (originally: 27 Filarów Regularnie Ustawionych), Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw, 1997, in which the artist combined a painter’s and an architect’s way of thinking. He holds on to painting in order to constantly search for a new formula of a painting. He says:
I am dreaming of a painting in which I could immerse myself totally and wade in a colour of concrete, moulding it freely, and eventually leaving it to dry out.
This formula matches the features of a site-specific, or installation, art.
Most of his paintings are brought into life only temporarily, for the duration of a particular project (some of them are however still intended for hanging on a wall). Their existence is prolonged by photographic and video documentation. The painter has also created several permanent works in space – mainly in private residential spaces in Italy.
His exceptional achievements in painting have enabled him to take part in such shows as the São Paulo Biennial in 1987 and Aperto '88, a part of the Venice Biennale. His project To Paint (Malować), shown in the main exhibition of the 2001 edition of the Venice Biennale was especially surprising – it was a kind of a carpet-painting, or a painting to walk on, which could also be described as a painting to be experienced directly and physically. This unconventional object consisted of deep furrows of bright coloured acrylic plaster spread across the entire surface of the floor.
He also made another large scale project in a city space – Barcelona’s vast Plaza Real (2002). What turned out to be the culmination of Tarasewicz’s explorations was his 2003 project prepared for the CCA Ujazdowski Castle. He prepared an intricate structure which covered most of the gallery’s exhibition space, consisting of imitations of walls, corridors, bridges, etc. He then covered them, as well as the floor and the work tools (such as cement-mixers or picks) with brightly tinted cement, thus giving the idea of a painting a whole different meaning. At the same time, he preserved the qualities that have always been present in his art: faith in the power of pure, bright colour, and, more importantly, the importance of painting. On this occasion, he wrote in a short text titled The Presence of Colour… (Obecność Koloru…):
painting has been and still is a litmus test of society’s condition. […] if painting was to perish, all of civilization would very quickly fall into decline.
He went on to reconstruct his path from an oil painting to a painting which 'began departing from a gallery into existing spaces and adapting building elevations, pavements, squares, cities' and ended up as an artwork 'painted' with acrylic plaster or even cement.
In Poland, Tarasewicz is associated with Warsaw’s Foksal Gallery, where his very first show took place in 1984, as well as with the Biała Gallery from Lublin. He has presented his works at the CCA Ujazdowski Castle several times (some of them also belong to the Centre’s permanent collection). One of the most interesting projects he took part in there was the show Jerzy Nowosielski - Leon Tarasewicz - Mikołaj Smoczyński (1997), an encounter of three strong artistic personalities, surprisingly linked by the Eastern Orthodox religion. This context inspired Tarasewicz to create a site-specific project at the Lublin’s Holy Trinity Chapel.
The artist created a monumental mural commemorating the non-existent mosaic of Ignacy Bieniek on the outer wall of the shopping and entertainment centre Gemini Park in Bielsko-Biała. Tarasewicz worked on the 450-square-metre work from May till September 2009. Agata Smalcerz explained in a press release from Galeria Bielska BWA:
A spectator walking on the pavement or a moving cyclist will watch the changing colours of long interpenetrating painted strips. The colours start from pure blues, then browns and blacks, various shades of greens and yellows, and end with warm orange with a touch of orange-brown. They evoke the four seasons and bring a fresh breathe of nature to the industrial area of modern architecture.
However, his largest project in public space is a 3-metre-high structure with an area of nearly 200 square meters, containing an unusual maze of paintings and mirrors at the Artists Square in Kielce, in 2011. Entering the maze felt like ‘being inside the image’ (Tarasewicz achieved a similar illusory effect at the Gallery of 20th Century Polish Art at the National Museum in Kraków). The installation consisted of several rows of pylons painted in colourful stripes and reflected in mirrors.
In 2013, Tarasewicz prepared an exhibition of painting... without paintings. The artist covered the floor of the Biała Gallery in Lublin with multicoloured squares, just as he'd previously done with the floor of the local Chapel of St. Trinity.
Painting is not just a brush and paint. It is a colourful element with which we create illusions. So it was in the past, and so it is today.
Art For a Place: Modry is a particular homage to Silesia – its inhabitants and its multiculturalism. The installation was specially created for the opening of the new building of the Silesian Museum in Katowice in June 2015. It is a tower made of wood of several tones which fills the entire hall building and refers to a mine pithead. In an interview with Elżbieta Dzikowska, Tarasewicz asserted:
I believe that art always reflects a place and time. It is inherent in the creative process, although an artist is not always aware of it, not aware of that relationship. There is nothing in my paintings that doesn't reference reality. Frequently, people who act in opposition to actual ideas return to the classics. Artists who create seemingly abstract paintings do not refer to abstract ideas as to their origin.
Tarasewicz has taken part in numerous presentations of Polish art abroad, often in interesting circumstances: with Andrzej Szewczyk and Krzysztof M. Bednarski (Berlin, 1989), with Karol Broniatowski, Edward Dwurnik, Izabella Gustowska, Jerzy Kalina (Luxembourg, 1992). He has exhibited at Berlin’s Springer & Winckler Galerie (1998, 2001) and in Frankfurt am Main (1992, 1996), Galerie Nordenhake in Stockholm (1989, 1991, 1993, 2001), and Galleria del Cavallino in Venice (1986, 1989, 2001).
In a conversation with Olaf Cirut, he commented on the situation of artists:
Artists have had, have and will have the same position. People who use any medium, either paint, a pen, or a computer – I do not even want to talk about a medium, because the very term ‘new media’ irritates me – will always be at the forefront of culture, because they break down existing schemes, which are adapted later by cultural diversity, enriching its needs. If we were not at the front, people would not know that getting there is even possible.
He received the Polityka Passport Award in 2000, the same year as the Jan Cybis Award and the Nowosielski Foundation Prize. In 2005, he was awarded the Gloria Artis Silver Medal for Merit to Culture. In 2006, he received the Grand Prize of the Foundation of Culture for 'consistently challenging both the traditional meaning of painting, as well as all conventions of understanding art'. In 2011, he became a Knight of the Order of Polonia Restituta. The most complete bibliography of texts (and filmography) devoted to his practice can be found in the catalogue from the 2003 exhibition at the Ujazdowski Castle.
Tarasewicz also has an extra-artistic passion – he is the president of the Rare Poultry Breeders’ Association and an owner of several representatives of rare species of the animals.
In 2016, Leon Tarasewicz's individual exhibition opened in the Ego Gallery in Poznań. The exhibition presented the artist's latest works, which commented on the visual world around us using multi-coloured light boxes made of Plexiglas. The gallery’s website describes the project:
The perception of the painterly luminous objects exhibited in Ego Gallery depends on many factors: the time of day, the position of the spectator in relation to the work of art, individual visual abilities as well as placing oneself inside the dilemma between knowledge and vision, as Huberman brilliantly puts it. The more we look at and think about these works, the more things we notice about them and their plastic surface melts in front of our eyes, revealing subsequent layers and reflections. In what way does what we know influence what we see, and in what way does what we see influence what we know? Tarasewicz’s works are screens emanating luminous space, and, at the same time, mirrors reflecting our thoughts.
Two years later, Foksal Gallery presented Tarasewicz's exhibition entitled Jerozolima (Jerusalem, 2018). The inspiration for the project came from the artist's visit to the eponymous city of Jerusalem. The space of the gallery was filled with a composition created out of intense yellow lights. According to psychologists, yellow attracts our attention, which is why it's used in road signs. It warrants caution and at the same time is associated with the sun, summer and fun in general. Yellow is also present in Jerusalem's landscape; however, it appears rarely in the history of Polish painting. Tarasewicz thus ascribes it a metaphorical significance.
Yellow and its various shades are the colours of light. In Christianity, God is the light, which penetrates the soul. Jerusalem is a holy city for three monotheistic religions. Believers in each of them believe in one God, but is he the same God for all of them, since they have fought and are still fighting amongst themselves on His behalf? Maybe the appearance of the colour yellow in Jerusalem’s landscape did not appear accidentally, but occurred as a result of some universal, mystical determinism?
Tarasewicz's artistic vision for this exhibition was initially different. In an interview with Jakub Banasiak for Szum Magazine, he says:
I wanted to work with cement until the very last moment, fill the space with it up to the ceiling, secured on lines and blocks so that I could be pulled out of it before it hardens. Foksal is most often treated by artists as a cube into which something is stuck. The cube is separate from the work. I wanted to treat it like an interior of Pompeii, flood it completely. So that it would create one colourful structure.
Unfortunately, the artist's health issues prevented him from any tough physical work and thus the vision of the exhibition had to change. The exposition was accompanied by a publication issued during its existence, which summarised Leon Tarasewicz's work.