Sadie Coles HQ presents Wilhelm Sasnal’s 2015 exhibition bringing together an extensive series of new paintings. With works diverse in size and subject, the artist’s new selection at once bear witness to everyday life and to far-flung moments from history, mediating between realism and fantasy, figuration and quixotic decorativeness. In contrast with the often stark and self-contained quality of Sasnal’s earliest work, his latest paintings present vignettes apparently lifted from larger colourful narratives.
Certain new works by the artist vividly resemble film stills: the spectre of a cloaked figure silhouetted against a brilliant portal onto a landscape that might be drawn from a Biblical or classical epic. In the new work elements of history and folklore alternately combine and diverge. Allusions to Christopher Columbus and his voyage to America are offset by works that summon the dreamlike, disconnected mood of the tales of Hans Christan Andersen; the artist has described the process as “obscure, psychedelic, obsolete” – more important than specific stories.
The motif of a figure on horseback, occurring in two paintings, alternately suggests an aristocratic hunting scene and a vista of the Wild West. Elsewhere, scope and scale are more confined: where the viewer witnesses conjunctions of shape and surface created by the sight of a grand piano standing on a cow skin rug.
Sasnal continues to use photographic imagery, these images are drawn from films, art reproductions, pop culture or even his own phone, and bcome the starting points for his paintings. The source material undergoes various levels of distortion, simplification or abstraction – as critic Martin Herbert has recently observed, “everything is levelled, everything can slip contextual bonds, everything can speak in troubling depth.”
Sebastiano del Piombo’s famous portrait of Columbus – itself a piece of fanciful posthumous speculation – is recast as a swathe of black pigment beneath a grey ground, broken up by the yellowish flashes of the subject’s face and hands. Columbus appears as a human presence transforming (as if by the effects of time and history) into a mere symbol of himself.
The figure of Columbus, ties in with the artist’s longer term fascination with the Catholic Church, especially its symbolic and emotional stronghold in the artist’s native Poland. In another telling instance of Sasnal’s conflation of recent and older histories, a crouching female figure (redolent of nineteenth century bathroom nudes) is overlaid by a threadlike swastika.
A sedate ritual of Art History finds itself punctured by a sobering emblem from history. On several occasions, however, the emblematic component of Sasnal’s work swells to dominate the juxtaposition; as in a linear scheme of chairs whose decorative, near-abstract aesthetic calls to mind a flattened and stylised Art Deco design.
The artist’s new works present history as a sequence of incomplete narratives, or as snatched fragments of conversation, blurred by time and fused by an intersection of disparate elements “For me”, the artist has explained, “reality is a jigsaw puzzle that’s being put together, but we only see parts – knees, say – and it’s permanently changing. I don’t know where history ends and where the present moment begins. It’s like liquid, or sometimes like mud.”
Wilhelm Sasnal – Sadie Coles (Kingly Street) – 14 Jan to 21 February 2015