Painter, author of sculptures and objects. Born in 1979 in Gliwice. He lives and works between Poznań and Warsaw. In May 2007, he and Wojciech Bąkowski, Tomasz Mróz, Konrad Smoleński, Piotr Bosacki, Magdalena Starska, and Izabela Tarasewicz founded the Penerstwo art group
Painter, author of sculptures and objects. He lives and works in Poznań. In May 2007, he held found the Penerstwo art group.
Radosław (Radek) Szlaga graduated (with honours) in painting from the Academy of Fine Arts in Poznań in 2005, where his studies were supervised by Prof. Jerzy Kałucki. He worked at the White Cube Gallery in London as Tracey Emin's assistant. He is an illustrator for Tempo.mgz and Pornoffiti magazines. He designed the bulletin board Dzień Sądu / Judgment Day at Poznań's Arsenał Gallery. He currently works at the Poznań Academy of Fine Arts as a junior lecturer in the studio of Wojciech Łazarczyk. In Warsaw he is represented by the Leto Gallery and the Alexander Ochs Gallery in Berlin.
Szlaga has been hailed as one of the most interesting Polish painters of the young generation. His graduation paintings attracted attention with their free style, bold treatment of colours, sophisticated primitivisation of form, and blending of different styles and themes. A recurring motif that would also appear in Szlaga's subsequent paintings was the word malarstwo (painting) in a font copied from a Marlboro cigarette pack. Hung in a row, in the form of a frieze, these same-sized paintings seemed like a single work divided into many elements, a visual patchwork.
Szlaga paints from photos, draws motifs from the iconosphere of culture and pop culture in a broad sense, he is fascinated with mass media, often turns to politics, history, and religion, mixing everything with everything according to a recipe known only to himself, where the main ingredients are sensitivity and artistic intuition.
Mutated messages from different media written up in a primitive way sound like the dialogue script of a comedy with no plot that is split into a series of anecdotes and a kaleidoscope of images. This chronicler's work has its critical aspect concealed beneath a well thought-out aesthetic - the result is a pictographic (the most appropriate), multiple-themed caricature of the global village.
Radek Szlaga - sylwetka from Culture.pl on Vimeo.
What emerges from Szlaga's canvases is a mutated world of visual quotes, organised according to a strange logic - the logic of chaos and emotions. These emotions are manifested through psychedelic tones in expressively painted images, while chaos, or the lack of principles, leads to a fusion of different aesthetics and grammars. Next to botched, yet controlled, fragments and shortcomings (dripping paint, vague motifs, clashing colours, scrawls and scribbles), his paintings include very refined fragments that testify to the artist's claim that actually, I know how to paint nicely.
Szlaga's early works have a journalistic lean. His canvases can be interpreted as ironic, mocking commentaries on our times or on history. Sometimes they have a moral theme, for instance in the Seven Deadly Sins cycle shown at his one-man show Atlantis (2007). Here, human weaknesses are magnified and exaggerated, at times presented in the form of an amusing puzzle. The artist boldly presents the battle between good and evil, placing sins in the familiar environment of media images. The sin of greed is illustrated with his own example: equipped with four arms, the artist will paint twice as many pictures and get rich quicker, then take the capital to the bank, whose logo, composed of Szlaga's signature, is visible above his head. Hellfire and punishment for sins are the dominating theme of the cycle Złe rysunki / Bad Drawings (2007) which the artist drew using his left hand.
Szlaga first gained fame in 2004, when - as a fourth-year student of the Poznań Academy of Fine Arts - he took part in the exhibition www.kałucki.free.art.pl at the Arsenał Gallery in Białystok. His installation was an intentional reference to what had occurred at the exact same venue a year before, when Beata Antypiuk, a town councillor from the League of Polish Families (LPR) party, demanded that a work by Piotr Kurka which had allegedly offended her religious feelings be removed from the exhibition Pies w sztuce polskiej / The Dog in Polish Art. Refering back to the tendencies of censorship characteristic of the LPR and Młodzież Wszechpolska [All-Polish Youth, a nationalist youth organization], Szlaga built a dog cage with the inscription Overseer the sheepdog, censorus all-polus, beast, do not stroke. This angered LPR MP Andrzej Fedorowicz so much that he vandalised the work by scribbling over the inscriptions, thus censoring Szlaga's work about censorship.
Szlaga has said:
My work documents a process, it is a record of a state of consciousness, a reflection of mythology that I create on an ongoing basis and update. It is an endemic and complex world. I speak about a small section of reality. However, I describe it not by looking through the window at the playing field, I speak of reality seen through culture, its scraps and fragments, both highbrow and pop culture, from literary forms, films, music, also art itself in all its manifestations. Cultural patterns flowing from distant places to the peripheries are usually somewhat lacking in style, crinkled, deformed. On the way from the source to my studio, they become crooked, or limp, imperfect, broken, flawed. Here, they are subjected to new processing and transformation. The process of degradation taking place here is also a source of inspiration and the subject of my work.
The visible lack of a linear narrative structure in Szlaga's works, the many dead ends, tangled themes, fragmentary messages, leave the audience a lot of freedom of interpretation, allowing everyone to read them according to their own associations and intuition, which don't always have to correspond to the direction chosen by the artist. Szlaga's paintings are dominated by the aesthetics of comic strips (inscriptions, balloons, concise narrative) combined with elements of street art (graffiti, stencils) and hip-hop culture. One can also sense a strong spirit of Basquiat. Among the inscriptions/captions often appearing on his canvases are short forms typical of rapper language, leaving out the vowels in words - this also resulted in the artist's signature RDK or PAN RDK (e.g. Chciwość / Greed, Czarny Koń / The Black Horse, Panzer Kardinal). The signature's placement in the centre of the painting suggests it is something more than a sign identifying the artist - it becomes an important motif of the work itself.
In 2007, Szlaga was one of the founders of the art group Penerstwo, formed by graduates of the Poznań Academy of Fine Arts. The term penerstwo originates from Poznań slang and was invented to describe a special kind of moral crappiness which emerged naturally and took root in the urban tissue of Poznań (Piotr Bosacki). Even though it applies mainly to the dregs of society, from it these Poznań artists have extracted a climate of forbidden regions, imagination and expression taken straight from school locker rooms, decrepit staircases, or exercise-book margins. The group's initial members were Radosław Szlaga, Wojciech Bąkowski, Tomasz Mróz, Konrad Smoleński, and Piotr Bosacki, who were later joined by Magdalena Starska and Izabela Tarasewicz. Though the artists making up Penerstwo use different media, different means of artistic expression, and it would be hard to find common themes in their output, they do share a similar vision of art, a similar kind of expression, and a penerstwo-like sensitivity to the world. In Szlaga's case, messy scrawls, paint dripping from paintings, and intentional chaos become an expression of free discourse with the idea of painting.
This discourse was very visible at the Fake Fauna exhibition (2010) which the artist treated as a medium for presenting a kind of treatise about painting. The focal subjects of the exhibition were mainly animals, the fake fauna of the title, but the exhibition itself became an opportunity to present a reflection - in art form - on the difference between an original work and a copy, the ambiguity of a painter's portrayal, distortion of images and questions as to their essence. The artist led his audience into the jewel-box structure of his art by painting pictures within pictures, bringing figures from his canvases into the real space of the gallery, repeating motifs and confronting them with one another. A slide show presenting his paintings or paintings painted directly onto slides posed the question of a work's status, the relations between original and reproduction, while projections onto the wall from multiple projectors created a dynamic painted fresco. The whole exhibition was built to be yet another painting in a space offering various intensity of colour and form. Szlaga mixed his own works with other people's pictures bought at flea markets, he showed a canvas made from a T-shirt with pictures of little foxes, stretched on a frame, to which he added the rest of the picture and juxtaposed this with a copy of the same work. An added attraction of this exhibition was a central object that looked like a makeshift shed or gazebo, which the artist called the house of thoughts. Szlaga placed objects from his studio inside: furniture, photos, press cuttings, old books, various bits and bobs characteristic of the socialist era.
Szlaga has been included in the roster of artists exhibited at the Waterside Contemporary Gallery. The show brings together six artists whose practices reflect on the role of ideology in a post-ideological landscape. The artists, aware of these mechanisms, reject the obvious, doubting the potential of ideologised thought and production. Yet here, the focus is rather on the here and now of the artist, his or her own vision and narrative - bringing the viewer straight into the experience of each work without the barriers of context or category, such as Radek Szlaga's grotesque universe of trolls, pigs and troglodytes - a world without boundaries. See more on the exhibition: They don't know why but they keep doing it - Post Ideological Perspectives in Art.
Penerstwo art group
The universe of themes which appeared in Szlaga’s earlier paintings was combined into a single structure in 2011 – Freedom Club. This title echoes the name of an infamous terrorist organisation whose only representative was an American terrorist of Polish descent – Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber. In Szlaga’s Freedom Club, this character is an important link between post-capitalistic Detroit and the post-communist Polish provinces. These two opposite ends of the geographical map become a space which contains the experiences of the artist himself and his family, who emigrated to the city of the Ford factory. In this piece, Detroit functions as a symbol of the collapse of the American dream and the landscape of the Polish countryside becomes the symbol of the idyllic Polish dream.
By creating his own Freedom Club, Szlaga reached out to the roots of the Szlaga family – a village named Ochotnica at the foothills of Szlagówka Mountain. By picturing this place, he presents an anarcho-primitivistic image of the countryside idyll defined by three keywords: freedom, nutrition, and health. Anarcho-primitivism, of which Kaczynski was a follower, stands against all the products of civilisation such as countries, political ideologies, patriarchy, and globalisation, is the key to understanding the themes which are very visible in Szlaga’s art. Freedom Club, created on the axis of Poland and America, good and evil, becomes a space which combines the singular experience with the universal problems of the diasporic, it clashes the province with global civilisation. Thus, Freedom Club thus takes on the shape of a ‘hooligan’ football club – FC for short – a home for people often written into the space of a sports club’s pennants. Again, the artist appeals to feelings of adherence and identity.
Frieze – Transatlantic and Limited Dictionary
In spring 2012, Szlaga, together with Honza Zamojski, travelled by sea on a cargo ship from Antwerp to New York’s Frieze Art Fair. By embarking on this journey, they wanted to fulfil their own American dream – that of international artistic success. During the cruise, they worked on projects which they later showcased at Frieze.
Their project evoked the famous Transatlantic by Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz. However, in Szlaga’s case, it also had wider connotations characteristic to his artistic practice. The transatlantic expedition in itself was connected to the aforementioned experiences of his family. Szlaga travelled on a cargo ship – in the same manner as immigrants travelled from Europe to the States in search of work several decades and also several centuries ago, as shown in Charlie Chaplin’s famous 1917 film The Immigrant. On the other hand, in a universal and historical perspective, the cruise evokes the history of the Middle Passage, when ships with black slaves arrived in the States, where they were supposed to create the New World. Szlaga took the same road as the old Polish and African diaspora present in his works.
The idea of the Atlantic as a space which combines four continents – Europe, Africa, North and South America – was analysed in the recent decades by the British cultural anthropologist Paul Gilroy. For Gilroy, the Atlantic was a metaphor of a trans-national exchange and circulation of ideas which shaped the modern world thanks to a hybrid-like mixture of races, cultures and beliefs. Szlaga’s Limited Dictionary 2013 exhibition held in Trinosophes in Detroit can also be interpreted in this manner. It showcased an array of themes taken from the Internet and displayed its inter-cultural references. Through painting, sketches and a strategy of deconstructing language, Szlaga attempted to define the hybridised concepts of Polishness, creolisation, diaspority, globalisation, nature and culture.
All the Brutes
The 2015 project titled All the Brutes was an extension of the themes used by Szlaga in his art. In his characteristic manner, he drifts on the geographical map, connecting Congo, Poland, Belgium, and America, based on references from Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now which transposed Conrad’s story into the reality of the Vietnam War.
Conrad himself was a British citizen of Polish descent – he embodies the theme of diaspority characteristic of Szlaga’s art. His novel became a part of the textbook canon of colonial notions and European fantasies concerning Africa on the threshold of the colonial expansion at the turn of the 19th century. Quotes from Coppola’s film which appear in Szlaga’s painting were included in the militaristic style of the American artist Christopher Wool. They display the issues of white people’s colonial view of Congo and Africa. A few decades earlier, these issues were raised, among others, by Sven Lindqvist in his 1998 book Exterminate All the Brutes. The Swedish journalist showed images of the annihilation of black people in Africa by Europeans. Szlaga’s project borrows the book’s title and also explores colonial themes from the perspective of Polish history. The artist constructs a new world map and fits Poland’s contours into Libya’s – that of an African country which resembles the Central European country in shape. By ironically emphasising the colonial aspirations of a provincial country, he confronts them with his own perceptions of the ‘heart of darkness. This ‘heart’, as it turns out, is the ubiquitous space of the Internet visual collections which visibly shaped the artist’s pictorial composition in the project.
Places I Had No Intention of Seeing
In Szlaga’s most recent project, one can clearly see a consistently chosen artistic path. The geographical map constructed by the artist undergoes new transformations due to new themes and issues. The Places I Had No Intention of Seeing project basically became a two-sided atlas, a truly cartographic space of personal experiences. A reference to a mountain painted by Cezanne became the point at which the titular ‘places I had no intention of seeing’ are combined. Szlaga paints his own archetypical mountain which is based on a painting found on the Internet. In fact, this project is a personal atlas made from pixels, a space of anecdotes from the artist’s life. Or, more precisely – it is a bilateral selfie made from older works which were stitched together.
Szlaga paints his own archetypical mountain based on images from the Internet. In fact, this projects is a personal atlas made out of pixels, a space for anecdotes from the artist’s own life, or, more precisely: a ‘two-sided selfie’ constructed from older works which were sewn together. It is his most personal project. The geopolitical perspectives of his more and less successful prior works were integrated into his current experiences. Now, Szlaga travels in the space of the Transatlantic which spans between Warsaw, Brussels, New York, and Nairobi. The map of ‘places he had no intention of seeing’ not only shows constant movement around the map of the world but also a desire to confront with his own art. By sewing older works together, he combines past with the present and, in questions about his future projects, creates a space for the coming of that which is new.
Author: Ewa Gorządek, July 2010. Translated by Joanna Dutkiewicz, October 2010. Updated July 2011.