Sylwia Świsłocka-Karwot, To Capture the Light and Let the Pictures Slip Away, 2018

To Capture the Light and Let the Pictures Slip Away.

Un-still Lifes


Whatever we see could be other than it is. … There is no a priori order of things. … In a manner of speaking, objects are colourless. … A picture is a model of reality. … There are no pictures that are true a priori.

Ludwig Wittgenstein


The few sentences, familiar from Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), Ludwig Wittgenstein’s only book of 75 pages the philosopher published in his lifetime, are taken to serve as a motto to my discussion of works by Justyna Smoleń, an artist born in 1988, in Nowy Sącz, Poland. They are useful in viewing all manners of imaging proper to visual arts, but they appear, for some reason, to particularly aptly situate a starting point to my discussion of the work of the artist with whom I am concerned in this essay.

Justyna Smoleń produces works which conclusively prove that what the human eye sees today is insufficient to the contemporary human. That, in our surrounding world, things are already other, and this ‘other’ is exactly what the artist depicts. Since she hybridises the notion of truth, of objective representation of reality in favour of construing, in a sense, real paintings of virtual landscapes, subjectively created by a superimposition of no less than several actual representations. This is no longer an artificial, but a virtual and a multiplicate reality of picturing the real world. Better? Richer? More beautiful? More pleasing? One thing is certain: seemingly less objectively true.

A conversation I conducted with the artist concludes that the problem providing the groundwork for her painterly explorations of the latest period is her reflection upon the utopian character of the art-makers’ grappling with the category of mimesis /imitation/, prevalent in the arts for centuries.

The category’s variance, perceivable throughout the ages, as well as the process of transformation in its understanding, discernible in terms of art history, precludes an unequivocal reference to the concept which, irrespective of the end results of artists’ struggles, had been valid until mid-18th century. There, historians situate the beginning of break-down of the Classical paradigm of art as well as, in a sense, the break-down of a resulting attachment to its obligation – conceived as a priority – in art, residing in the most faithful manner of reflecting reality perceived by the human eye. Helpful in this respect and historically recorded illusory ways of its representation, familiar, to give one example, from the period of Pompeian Painting /2nd – 1st c. BCE/, brought to perfection in Baroque Illusionism – numerous trompe l’oeil representation in Italian church and palace interiors – still viable and relevant returns of Classicism in art /the so-called ‘Classical revivals’/ secure the position of the category, which has become a starting point for the author’s investigations, as well as the category which Justyna Smoleń wishes to oppose in her works.

The artist, in a sense, produces, in the notional sphere, virtual and, at the same time, in their formal layer, traditional un-still lifes of reality. Multiplicate, but superimposed imperceptibly to the human eye – somewhat similarly to Futurist paintings – frames-representations of reality have been captured in their most ephemeral variant. In her facetious extraction with light, exposition by means of an impasto gloss of forms, textures, structures, unstable shapes, elusive to the sense of sight. This makes her paintings and object artefacts a pretext for reflections on the theme of limits of human sensibility and on a boundlessness of imagination, enabling an exploration of phenomena and areas ostensibly eluding the so-called average human perception.

Justyna Smoleń paints in white and black. However rarely, but she does disrupt the monochromatic tendency in favour of colour: green, flesh-coloured pink, a shade of magenta.

Paintings from the series, Black (2014-2017), White (2017-2018), and objects from the cycle Widnokręgi [Visible Horizons] (2016-2017) are abstract, all-over representations – surfaces built with black or white subjected to a textural modelling. For their making, the artist selected colours which only since J.W. Goethe’s Zur Farbenlehre [Theory of Colours] (1810) have been considered as ‘unbunte Farben’ [‘achromatic colours’][1] – a particular type of colour, previously treated as ‘colourless’. The two achromatic colour values considered by the poet to be, in a physiological regime, colours /which was a novelty; previously white – corresponded to light, and black – to shades/, in an overwhelming majority, form in themselves the subject of Justyna Smoleń’s canvases.

The author produces paintings, constructs objects she covers with white or black paint. She applies it with a paint-knife, achieving an effect of bas-relief texture filling up the entire surface of a canvas. The texture is created by paint thickenings composed into a peculiar ‘sculpture’ of the visual field of the canvas, most often marked by an S-shaped, a gently curved or a wavy line. The artist then applies oil to so-prepared canvases, producing an effect not so much of varnish as of a peculiar French polish. The oil-layer-covered pieces literally ‘capture’ light in the bends of closely stratified lines. However, light glosses observed by the viewers are only facetious in nature. By a minimal tilt of one’s head, they disappear, only to be revealed with a subtle motion in numerous other, dispersed places on the surface of the canvas. The work becomes ‘animated’, a ‘stable image’ eludes the spectator’s eye. Paintings in these series violate the punto stabile regime of image-viewing. They contain something of Paul Cézanne’s logic of thought: the painter, repeatedly painting Mont Sainte-Victoire, in the vicinity of Aix-en-Provence, at a distance of 4 km from his place of residence, with architectural objects formed spatially on a two-dimensional canvas, disrupted the stable, while also a rigid system – spectator-painting – by constructing the illusion of the viewer’s introduction into the illusory space of a really conceived landscape. In Cézanne’s paintings, we can observe four walls of a single building, which in the real world, when viewed from the outside, would not be possible. Thus, Cézanne displayed much more of the world in his paintings than our eye is capable of seeing in a single glance from a particular perspective. To display much more is also an interest of Justyna Smoleń’s.

In her cycle, Woda [Water] (2012-2014), we discover representations of an unreal reality, albeit drawn from an actual process of objective observation of the world. The cycle comprises canvases making use of photography in her creative process. A single painting from the cycle conceals within an outline of waves composed of several superimposed photographs representing a fragmentarily framed surface of the sea. Ultimately, the work is a stratified, as if improved, image of nature. Since nature itself means too little to Justyna Smoleń. It forms a starting point for a majority of the author’s painterly investigations, but it is not, in and of itself, a goal of her artistic struggles. Only its multiplied picture, superimposed frame by frame, seems to fascinate the painter.

Justyna Smoleń is yet another artist who seems to put a natural perspective on the world order to doubt. She privileges an instrument, a tool by means of which we can watch it, which enables us to construct it anew, in a sense – to manipulate it. One which allows to improve it?

The artist is not alone in the activity. A majority of artists makes use today of the media – still referred to as ‘new’ – in their art making. The fact is not surprising. However, a recognition of the specificity of its influence on a world-view gives rise to the question whether artists have by now realised their imperfection or, rather, have come to believe they possess a demiurge-like power of creation – not so much of another world as its other realness. Both the belief in unlimited human creative capacities as well as the undermining of perfection of human perceptive abilities, long-observed in culture, in a long run, has to give rise to a sense of disenchantment, in a sense, of a disappointment with oneself. [2] Have we fallen prey to seduction by a more beautiful but, as a matter of fact, an illusory world? Does the love of beauty have its limits? Are beauty, goodness, truth categories which have become nullified in art today? And if they do exist, are they, contemporaneously, mutually exclusive?

At the turn of the 15th century, in lifetimes of artists considered the greatest – Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael – they did co-exist. The former pursued verum /truth/, seeing the meaning of his activities in the most faithful possible depiction of the truth of things. Michelangelo adopted bonum /goodness/ as his value in art, serving ethical, moral, although not moralising, purposes. The human in his works appears as a highly ethical creature, who is capable, precisely thanks to this characteristic, to attain the world of the ideal. Next to the two categories, the third one appeared: it was pulchrum /beauty/ which had the utmost significance to Raphael. According to the artist, art was not meant to serve neither cognitive, nor moral purposes, but its meaning was located by the art-maker in a subjectively conceived aesthetics. Raphael’s approach appears to be the most akin to Justyna Smoleń’s. Like Raphael, she seeks beauty, residing in the creative potential of art. The artist seems to suggest with her works that art is the site to pursue it, because in the actually experienced reality, beauty appears to be incomplete, dispersed.

An analysis of such an approach gives rise to the following question. Is, today, the artist, despite the fact that, for centuries, we have seen that s/he always appeared to be a better, more knowing and more feeling, expert on ‘present reality’, increasing becoming the maker of a future one? To what extent does this baggage of multiplications of reality become an actual ecosystem of the human, and to what extent does it remain a human-deceiving illusion, a chase for beauty, the extant form of which, today, we seem to find dissatisfactory? Where lies the limit of human calling – the calling of the artist to create a new reality, and where does the vanity of belief in infinite creative capacities of the human begin? The belief in human creation of a nature which is better than the one we have been offered.

Art today seems to have become disconnected from disinterested knowledge. Harnessed into a series of processes from beyond the domain of art – the process of technological development, virtualisation, theories of augmented reality, transhumanisation, pro-social actions, productive ways of artists’ being – it assumes features proper to values subject to the notion of progress. On the other hand, artists – including Justyna Smoleń – seem to want to protect their status quo, understood as a value not included in a catalogue of ‘the philosophy of efficiency’; they wish to retain the paradigm of an ideal being for art.

In spite of a number of fears – even though we do not know where the world and art is heading to – precisely and especially art still seems to remain the indisputable testimony of the time of its making, while also staying ahead of its era. For reasons of its progressive direction, it is protected by an immunity of the impossibility of axiological over-interpretations. Since it is impossible to reduce art to generally accepted rules and to commonly available means of its period, one should assume that art, as an immanent component of human life, will never become outdated. Hence, a review of pre-modern art as well as an honest scrutiny of contemporary art phenomena, art created by young artists, still remains an immense help in an attempt to understand the ‘here and now’ of every human. Looking closely at Justyna Smoleń’s works can assist the consideration.

Her fascination with an undulating line, her inspiration with unstable systems – with air, oscillation of sea waves observed on a water surface – her vanishing horizon – are keys to interpreting the artist’s formally and colouristically ‘trivially sophisticated’, abstract works.

White, black, pink, green, the rectangle, the oval, the line, the Unist conception of planarity and uniformity of the canvas, the texture, light glosses turning one painting into a multiple imaging – here is a short description of works by Justyna Smoleń. In the artist’s formally restricted language, deprived of hierarchical gradients, yet highly notionally conceptualised, there is no space for redundancies. Her paintings, succinct in form and content, almost attain the status of colour-texture-minimalist morphemes of reality imagined by the artist.

Justyna Smoleń’s art seems to confirm the claim about the exhaustion of the Classically-minded and conventionalised understanding of the category of mimesis. The approach enables the artist to pursue novel formal-theoretical instruments in order to follow transformations in visual arts. Thereby, the artist’s creative potential as well as the painting-object aspect of her pieces make her work an analogue of the power of creating reality and of the transformation of the identity of art. Those are capable of changing the world and the human.

Art is worth knowing just as it is worth knowing oneself.


Sylwia Świsłocka-Karwot



Trans. Piotr Sylwester Mierzwa

[1]    Cf. M. Rzepińska, Historia koloru w dziejach malarstwa europejskiego [History of Colour in the Annals of European Painting], vol. 2, Warszawa 1989, p. 469. W.J. Jones, German Colour Terms. A Study in Their Historical Evolution from Earliest Times to the Present, Amsterdam-Philadelphia 2013, pp. 242-252.

[2] See: the claim propounded by the Australian performance artist, Stelarc, fascinated with the latest high technologies, about the ‘body obsolete’, or the outdated body and attempts at its improvement in his performances consisting in up-constructing a third arm, or a surgical implant of a third eye into his arm /experiments on one’s own body undertaken since the latter half of the 1970s/; experiments on the living organism, including genetic experiments from the area of bio-art; transhumanist tendencies in culture.

Cf., for example, M. Smith, J. J. Clarke, Stelarc: The Monograph. Electronic Culture: History, Theory, and Practice, Cambridge,  Massachusetts, London 2005.