Tuesday, March 2, 2010

My Polish Bracelet

I had a Polish Bracelet. It was a talismanic object, composed of Polish events that had touched upon me from time to time in my wanderings and whose memory had coloured me like dye. Small things and greater things: a love affair, a machine gun accident, a war, a strike, a rebellion, nights of vodka and close conversation, walks in birch woods and pine forests, lonely moons and bitter winds, music and the hot company of bars. Some had happened close at hand with dreadful and earthquake immediacy. Some had slipped by far away and almost unnoticed but with ground-shaking consequences for this new Europa to which I have returned after long years of absence.

In December 2009, after half a century criss-crossing the world as a mendicant minstrel, painter and entertainer I find myself drawn by an irresistible tintinnabulation, the jingling of charms on my Polish bracelet. I travelled to Poznań, the centre of the Wielkopolska region of Poland. The talisman that drew me to this particular place at this particular time was a poem I had written as a schoolboy on 30 June 1956 entitled ‘A Lament for Poznań’. The date will speak for itself and those tanks, never forgotten, are long gone from today’s Poznań. That schoolboy and his world too are long gone, and I had come to meet a new generation of Poles.

During my stay in Poznań I immersed myself in the city, its streets, its buildings, its squares and lanes, its museums, its churches, its department stores, its cafés, its conventional and its unexpected ways of presenting itself to the world and to me, the lurking observer. I drank in its past and its myths and its painters and poets and took great gulps of its language. I mixed these real and immediate experiences with my old memories and prejudices and perhaps even with some of my fantasies. Having mixed this palette in situ I returned home to Ireland with my Polish bracelet clanking heavily and painted the series of pictures that make up this exhibition: Moja polska bransoletka.
(For Polish Version Click http://mikeabsalompolishversion.blogspot.com/ )

© Mike Absalom 30 January 2010.

My Polish Bracelet: A Brief Essay

I have given each of these paintings a title in order to place it in the country and indeed in the city that inspired it: Poland and Poznań. But titles are little more than labels for keeping track of things and differentiating them one from another. It helps in the shipping and makes a catalogue orderly, but really they are never more than packaging. There are of course people who prefer to be told what a painting is about. For some a title, like an airbag in the passenger seat of a car, provides a semblance of security.
There is of course no security. But it is comforting to imagine that there is.
The importance of a painting once it is released into the world resides for me in the uncountable and irreconcilable differences of opinion and interpretation engendered in those who happen to look at it. Each will understand the image in a unique way, according to a unique set of prejudices and likes and dislikes and a unique life-experience. One might say then that a painting once it is out of the hands of the painter becomes a whole gallery of art, for it is a different painting for each person who views it.
That is why the less information the title conveys the better things go. It gives the viewer scope to travel alone on his or her personal journey.

To think you know something about a place: then to be there! What a re-adjustment of the memory’s seating arrangements! Prejudice and preconception go out the window. And such a re-shuffling of train carriages before the next part of the journey can continue!

A month of furious painting begins; an outpouring into form and colour propelled by motives that are at once hidden, silent and yet quite irresistible. The three dimensions my sight inhabits are measured, sucked in, digested and pass rapidly through other reckonings of place and history in what at first seems nothing more than an unguided tumble. Into the two- yet now multi-dimensional picture plane shapes other than those with which my eyes are familiar bubble up like hot magma rising from secret and subterranean depths. To my surprise they leave before me a familiar yet distorted landscape full of a kind of truth I recognise but which is ambiguous to say the least.

Before I went there I did have a history of Poland: I had my own, very personal history of Poland. From my father, the RAF padre, I inherited the Polish Spitfire pilots of the Battle of Britain. From my boarding school days in England I remembered the Polish cooks and maintenance men, beached like dolphins on my shore when the Iron Curtain came down and cut off their retreat. I remember my adolescent horror at the arrival of Russian tanks in Poznań in 1956 which, splashed graphically across the inside pages of the Times, far outweighed for me in drama the current news from Suez.

Down the years my interest and curiosity were augmented, but never acted upon. In my early twenties I remember friends in Sweden where I lived at that time making vodka-buying trips across to Poland’s Baltic ports where they would mysteriously ‘lose’ their passports to Polish lovers and be repatriated by their embassies, heroic, teary-eyed dishevelled and happy. I had always roamed the world at will but what appeared to be the inaccessibility of this country kept me at a distance. It was hidden away ‘over there’ behind the barbed-wire of the Eastern Bloc. Its familiar history, its Western European heritage, its Chopins and its Conrads I supposed were still intact and biding their time in cellars. But Poland in my youth was for me a mythical land, as inaccessible as any interior in the Heart of Darkness. Never to be seen. And, unlike the rest of the world I knew, never to be visited.

Until I did visit. And then for a fortnight in Poznań in December 2010 two opposing mindscapes met within me. The city and its actuality opened upon me from every direction and flooded those dusty old archives of my childhood. Carried into my consciousness on internal currents about which of course I know nothing they induced in me an alchemical reaction. These paintings are the results.

I have divided the twenty seven works into four categories. Legends and Myths (Eight Paintings); Townscapes (Seven Paintings); People (Three Paintings) and a final category: Other (Nine Paintings), which in a way draws on the same more tangible and concrete elements of the first three categories but transmutes them into images more in tune with the less accessible corners of my internal world.

© Mike Absalom 18 February 2010

A. Legend and Myth

Legend and Myth seem a more instant and immediate way for me to enter a land which was both known, to the extent I have already pointed out, and yet completely unknown to me at the start of this journey.

For an artist, or shall I say, for an individual who often doubts the possibility of any kind of objective reality in the chaotic and unpredictable world through which he finds himself tumbling, legend and myth seem a path less turbulent and less obstructed by tiresome fact than many of the other ways by which it is possible to enter the severely magical realm of the picture plane. These ancient forms, wherever they may be unearthed, have the advantage of being already unconsciously familiar and so are never completely alien when first encountered in somebody else’s culture. From the fairy stories of our own childhood, imagination has walked hand in hand from the very beginning with evil kings and saintly queens, with spirits and witches and with wise women. This is our common past and I suppose our pre-Christian heritage as well. It is a snug affirmation of our shared pagan ancestry and this familiarity provides some comfort as I step for the first time through my Slavic neighbour’s front door. It is like the succour the presence of Latin words offers to a traveller through an unknown language. As I arrive in Poland, even though the tongue and the customs, the clothing and the details may vary, I am already broadly familiar with King Popiel and Queen Wanda, Jadwiga, the Tatra Witches and the Rósalki. These archetypes are already a part of me. I do not have to start from scratch.

B. Townscape

Time now however for some concrete certainty. Or what at least has the appearance of something solid and undeniable. It must exist, for it can be touched. What after all could be more tangible than piled up wood and iron and sculpted stone with the knitted certainty of steel girders beneath? And so I turn to the Townscapes. The Ratusz towers above me like an Italian wedding cake. Figures move with skaterly care over the frozen glaze of the Market Square. Icy lanes clench and unclench behind orderly Prussian-seeming façades, releasing handfuls of scuttling figures that appear for a moment and then disappear again, leaving tracks in the snow as irrefutable evidence that they were not dreams. There are no apparitions from the collective unconscious in these paintings.

But perhaps we should look again. Here in the Square in the days before Christmas stands an exhibition of sculpted ice statues. They have begun to melt. Saints and angels and Santa Klaus and…look closely now: among these slumped figures melting away outside the Museum of the Wielkopolska Uprising, are these perhaps soldiers, and in Polish uniforms? Fallen, and melting away, melting away, perhaps as quickly as time and history melts away; in the same imperceptible way that the brief years of freedom between two wars melted away in yet another Polish tragedy. And who are these hatchet-faced figures creeping at midnight through Stary Rynek? And why the strained anxiety in the face of the watching woman? The old-fashioned iron trams clank along iron tracks ringing a bell for another age. The sound is eerily reminiscent of the clanking of other less peaceful iron behemoths which filled these streets in that week in June 1956 when I first became acquainted with Poznań. Things are not quite as they seem. Walls have ears. They have memories too. And the winter holds the city in an icy grip. It is not the first icy handshake it has known.

C. People

From the cultural blood of legend and myth that flows through the veins of a race, through blood spilled on the stones by history and national self-determination, I arrive at the living, warm flesh-and-blood people in the streets of Poznań today. These are the heritors of the past and the makers of the future, alive, moving with purposeful, optimistic, youthful energy. That is my first impression. They seem so young, these New Europeans, and so modish! But I have not made many paintings in this category. It is hard for me to pluck people out of my own perception of history and see them simply as isolated bodies, humans on the face of the earth with the same innocence and lack of embedded nationality as migrating birds. I would have to paint them as unlabelled faces. But the anonymity of faces without labels could point with equal sincerity to either a school yearbook or to a government dossier documenting the victims of a massacre.

I have tried here and there to separate people from their history. In Women Bathing I imagine Lake Malta in summer and from the faces passing by I have plucked three and shifted them from the winter streets to a beach on a hot summer day. The scene, I suppose, could be anywhere. In Figures Crossing an Icy Street I watch the Christmas shopping frenzy in roads leading up to Stary Browar. On a December morning elegantly dressed young women in woollen hats, their matching scarves pulled over their mouths the only concession to the bitter cold, scramble along a pedestrian artery. Older women in fur coats waddle just as fashionably towards shops crammed with New Europe goods and consumer heaven.

This is certainly the present. But I feel uneasy. Perhaps I have lived too long in Old Europe or overstayed my time in the Malls of North America. I have already tired of the superficiality of consumerism. As in my own homeland Ireland, it has arrived here with force majeur in spite of recession and unemployment and emigration and it seems to have set the old streets slipping and sliding out of control. But it does not impress me. The deeper flow of a nation is what grips my heart. These paintings are of sunny days. But I see they cast a shadow. They are impressions of moments observed immediately without either the burden or delight of history or cultural identity. I ask myself can any people be shorn of all that and presented as naked human beings going about their chores or pleasures when I have separated them from all the impedimenta that define them not only as ordinary people but as ordinary people from a particular place? Ah! The great paradox of Identity! Are you really different from me? Am I you? Are you me?

And perhaps, even in these pictures, it is not possible to effect this separation. Here is Woman Walking with Stick in Snow. This is an older woman, a woman who must have known her Poland under earlier less benevolent regimes. She is balanced precariously as she makes her way across the snow filled sidewalks. At her age the world around her is always a slippery place. And I imagine that that is how it has been for most of her life, one way or another. But perhaps not. Perhaps she was once ensconced safely in the old system. Perhaps when the Wall fell so did she.

D. Other

With this thought I begin to move closer, perhaps even to enter into the Other category. It may be that Other is the only way I can even begin to approach the world my eyes reveal and which the many filters of my prejudice and my carefully constructed survival universe have arranged for me into some semblance of order. Perhaps Other is where the painter and the poet go when on the search for, not truth, for that would be asking too much, but certainly for self-expression or for at least a small reason for being. Perhaps following Alice and the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole is the only way to get a comprehensible perspective in the midst of the kaleidoscopic illusion in which we find ourselves lost when we stop and try to look hard at what is around us?

And so with this in mind, let us look at the nine remaining paintings. I think that in these there is not such a distinct division between myth and legend, the reality of the townscape, the people in it and the unseen currents and tides which in a way are the blood that pumps unseen through it and keeps the whole entity alive.

What do I mean by Other?
Other for me is when the paintings in which the layers of the onion , myth and legend, location in the present and individual people, having been conveniently separated one from the other to be examined as discrete subsections, are put back together and arrive as an integrated whole and expressed. They are no longer mere ingredients. If I were a cook rather than a painter I would say the cake is baked.
And at this late stage I now see that all the paintings really belong to this category for I have started by dissecting them unnecessarily in a rather cruel and selfish way, like a child curiously pulling living organisms apart in order to understand how they work. This for my own understanding, I should add. For after all they arrive on my canvas not from me but from somewhere else. From Other if you like. And in order to make them more comprehensible to my own mind I have taken them to pieces and have attempted to point out some of the disparate elements in the mix. But in spite of this, the categorisations only represent different perspectives in what is in the end a homogenous picture. As I walk the streets of Poznań the angles constantly change, but I am always looking at the same panorama.

I could give concrete examples, always bearing in mind that my interpretation will not be the same as yours. Among the paintings in the Other category are two paintings: The Ruins of the City and Woman with Hands Raised (in Rubble). One might call them Townscapes, and lump them together with Ratusz, a Study in History. But they are clearly not present day Poznań. One might consider them Legend and Myth but in the making, for that is what history can be, as it lays itself down like turf or coal over time, ready to burn afresh in the memories of future generations. Those future generations are already the fresh young faces I see walking the Christmas streets. And Ratusz itself already overlaps the two categories of legend and townscape, with its head-butting goats and its pike-bearing and helmeted figures and its own architectural and political flavour. All three paintings sit well together with Reclining Nude with Soldiers, the message of which is plain but whose historical truth or even positioning in time enigmatic. The Handshake, showing a figure approaching two others with extended hands in a desolate background which might be a physical or psychological dreamscape defies any explanation beyond the viewer’s own interpretation. Is it then or now? Does it tell the story of an actual handshake? Was it observed last night in the bar at Brovaria? Is it allegorical? The inscrutability of art allows it to be all or none of these. It depends on the scrutineer! Sweeper and Coffee Drinker, Stary Browar and Serenade with One String Fiddle might have been included in the People category, for they were both inspired by real encounters in the city, albeit well affected by sympathetic resonance from both my own history and that of Poland. They are expressionistic in a sense, and full of emotion. And as is the case with history that ages into legend and finally returns to myth, they could be grouped with any of the categories, Myth and Legend, People or Townscape. All these layers are there. Three Muses and Woman in Mittens might well have been included among the legends and myths, together with Witches and Rósalki but it was actually inspired by Wisława Szymborska’s ironic verse about Polish poets in mittens. Not so ironic for me, who had come dressed for the Irish Bog, and found myself walking through the sub-zero Poznań morning with my nose frozen off my face! But the inspiration, although it was the starting gun, could not follow where the race ran after that and the poet and her three muses could just as well have been wise women; and who knows what magic they might have been up to, and when?

And where do Robin and Winter Still and the Ancestor (a visit to the National Museum) fit into all this? Well, we could turn endlessly to Wine Women and Song and the Pursuit of God and other themes that have informed my work over the years, for I did not arrive in Poznań without my own interpretative baggage. But I shall say only that the robin is as brutal a tyrant in family matters as ever King Popiel was. And that after my live experiences on the town, the National Museum, along with all the other fascinating archives I visited during my stay provided a centrally heated oasis and at the same time a visual consensus for some of the ideas that had been circulating in my thought as I tramped the city streets and prepared to paint my experience in their in terms and in my terms and in terms of Other.

© Mike Absalom 18 February 2010

Mike Absalom Artist's Statement, CV and Recent Exhibitions

Mike Absalom Artist's Statement. February 2010
In front of the canvas I stand. I move my arms. I flex my fingers. I stare.
Time, that terrible and incomprehensible enigma, fades to irrelevance and
leaks away slowly, vanishing under the studio door. Paint flows and moves, the clouds of charcoal rise, fall, coalesce. The void is before me. Darkness covers the
face of the earth. Out of that darkness figures emerge, blinking, arranging themselves
randomly here and there on the picture plane at first without intent or passion, composing themselves like anonymous crowds moving through the Metro. They appear in the paint from elsewhere and jostle for meaning. If there were a Me I would say they come from beyond Me. I have not invited them. They introduce themselves, borrowing my name with an abrupt lack of etiquette, and having taken up their stations on the canvas they invite me to recognise them. They invite you too, viewer.
© Mike Absalom 1 February 2010.

Mike Absalom CV 2010
Mike Absalom is an Irish painter and printmaker. He was born in England and educated and brought up both there and in Canada and Sweden. His family roots are in Wales and County Clare. He has lived and worked in many parts of the world including Greece, France, Spain, Germany, Iran and Paraguay. He now lives in County Mayo where he has his studio and print workshop.
During the past six years his paintings, linocuts and dry point etchings have been exhibited widely in Wales, England, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and China. Mike is an accomplished and disturbing figurative painter, but is best known for his haunting Mayo landscapes and his challenging architectural studies of streets and villages in Yorkshire, South Wales and the West of Ireland. His work has been purchased by public bodies as varied as Westport Town Council and Ireland's Office of Public Works.
In his partly abstracted acrylic landscapes and his off balance treatment of perspective in townscape and architecture movement and change are central themes as they have been in his own eclectic life. His human subjects, mythic or stereotypical, are constantly in motion. If they appear still then their environment often moves around them. In these paintings buildings can come alive while people are often little more than blocks and stones and senseless things. He calls it Mayo Expressionism.

Mike Absalom: Selected Recent Exhibitions
Steps that Lead Nowhere (in the Company of Cows).
Strabane, Northern Ireland, The Alley Arts Centre, May 2009
The Peninsula – A Very Other View.
Belmullet, Mayo, Ireland, Áras Inis Gluaire, June 2009
Coffee Spooning.
Duncannon Fort, Wexford, Ireland, The Cockleshell Arts Centre July 2009
Wine, Women, Song and the Pursuit of God (A Bunratty Fable).
Waterford, Ireland, Garter Lane Theatre Gallery, October 2009,
Steps that Lead Nowhere (in the Company of Cows).
Dean Crowe Theatre Athlone, Ireland, March 2008.
A Hard Place to Be (The Spaces between the Stones).
Newtownards, Northern Ireland, UK, Ards Arts Centre, March 2008.
The Peninsula (Black Sod and the Mullet Peninsula).
View Two Gallery Liverpool, UK May/June 2008.
A View of the Peninsula.
Belmullet, Ireland, Féile Iorras, June/July 2008.
Liverpool Irish Identity: A Painted View.
Liverpool, Everyman Theatre, UK October/December 2008.
Me Dream’s Out: a Liverpool Irish Mirage.
Liverpool, View Two Gallery, UK November 2008
(Both shows in conjunction with Liverpool, European Capital of Culture 2008, and sponsored by the Liverpool Irish Festival and the Liverpool Independents Biennial)
Cead in China : Shanghai. Touring print exhibition sponsored by the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs. (All year)
Cutting the Surface: Woodbine and Black Plastic.
Wrexham, Wales, UK, Arts Centre, January 2007.
Stones That Remember Me.
Antrim, NI, Clotworthy Arts Centre March 2007.
Stones That Remember Me.
Lisburn, Northern Ireland, UK, Island Arts Centre June 2007.
A Passport to Vagrancy.
Dublin, Dame Street Gallery, Ireland, April 2007.
Recent Irish Paintings.
Dean Crowe Theatre, Athlone.
My Irish Eyes on Liverpool Again.
Liverpool, View Two Gallery, UK., October 2007
A Hard Place to Be (The Spaces between the Stones).
Ballina, County Mayo, Ireland, Arts Centre, October 2007
Country Life Charlestown, County Mayo, Ireland, Arts Centre, November 2007

Abbot Exhibition to St Catherine's College, Oxford. Canada Council Scholarships (2) to pursue studies in Asunción, Paraguay. Government of British Columbia (Canada) Artist in Residence Grants (13). CCTE Grant to lecture in Calgary (Alberta). Artist in Residence at Heinrich Böll Cottage, Achill Island, County Mayo, Ireland.

Dimensions and Titles of the 25 Paintings in this Portfolio
(English and Polish)

Załącznik 1

Wykaz obrazów Mike'a Absalom'a przygotowanych na wystawę w Poznaniu na 2010 rok.

1. The Handshake
Uścisk dłoni
Akryl na płótnie 76 x 61 cm
Mike Absalom 2010

2. Witches
Akryl na płótnie 110 x 90 cm
Mike Absalom 2010

3. Woman with Stick Walking in Snow, Poznań
Kobieta spacerującą w śniegu, Poznań
Akryl na płótnie 76 x 61 cm
Mike Absalom 2010

4. Ice Sculpture Melting, Stary Rynek, Poznań
Topniejące rzeźby lodowe, Stary Rynek, Poznań
Akryl na płótnie 90 x 90 cm
Mike Absalom 2010

5. Tram 108, Poznań
Tramwaj Nr 108, Poznań
Akryl na płótnie 76 x 61 cm
Mike Absalom 2010

6. Ratusz, Poznań - a Study in History
Ratusz, Poznań - studium historyczne
Akryl na płótnie 110 x 90 cm
Mike Absalom 2010

7. The Legend of King Popiel Told
Legenda o Królu Popielu
Akryl na płótnie 80 x 80
Mike Absalom 2010

8. The Ancestor (A Visit to the National Museum, Poznań)
Przodek (Wizyta w Muzeum Narodowym w Poznaniu)
Akryl na płótnie 80 x80 cm
Mike Absalom 2010

9. Figures in the Snow, Poznań
Postaci w śniegu, Poznań
Akryl na płótnie 61 x 76 cm
Mike Absalom 2010

10. The Ruins of the City
Ruiny Miasta
Akryl na płótnie 90 x 90 cm
Mike Absalom 2010

11. Figures in a Square (Stary Rynek at Midnight)
Postaci na placu (Stary Rynek o północy)
Akryl na płótnie 90 x 90 cm
Mike Absalom 2010

12. Women Bathing
Kobiety w kąpieli
Akryl na płótnie 110 x 90 cm
Mike Absalom 2010

13. The Taugenichts tells the Popiel Story
Taugenichts opowiada historię Popiela
Akryl na płótnie 90 x 110 cm
Mike Absalom 2010

14. Figures Crossing an Icy Street, Poznan
Postaci przechodzące przez pokrytą lodem ulicę, Poznań
Akryl na płótnie 90 x 90 cm
Mike Absalom 2010

15. Sweeper and Coffee Drinker, Stary Browar
Sprzątaczka i kawiarz, Stary Browar
Akryl na płótnie 80 x 80 cm
Mike Absalom 2010

16. Woman with Hands Raised (in Rubble)
Kobieta z rękami do góry (w gruzach)
Akryl na płótnie 76 x 61 cm
Mike Absalom 2010

17. Stary Rynek in Winter
Stary Rynek zimą
Akryl na płótnie 80 x 80 cm
Mike Absalom 2010

18. Robin and Winter Still
Rudzik i zimowa gorzelnia
Akryl na płótnie 80 x 80 cm
Mike Absalom 2010

19. Serenade with One String Fiddle
Serenada na jednostrunowych skrzypcach
Akryl na płótnie 110 x 90 cm
Mike Absalom 2010

20. Two Figures in a Lane behind Stary Rynek
Dwie postaci w zaułku na tyłach Starego Rynku
Akryl na płótnie 76 x 61 cm
Mike Absalom 2010

21. Three Muses and Woman in Mittens
Trzy muzy i kobieta w mitenkach
Akryl na płótnie 100 x 100 cm
Mike Absalom 2010

22. The Rat Catcher
Akryl na płótnie 76 x 61 cm
Mike Absalom 2010

23. Reclining Nude with Soldiers
Akt i żołnierze
Akryl na płótnie 90 x 70 cm
Mike Absalom 2010

24. Queen Wanda (Three)
Królowa Wanda (trzy)
Akryl na płótnie 90 x 110 cm
Mike Absalom 2010

25. Jadwiga and her Apron of Roses
Jadwiga i jej różany fartuszek
Akryl na płótnie 110 x 90 cm
Mike Absalom 2010