Wilhelm Sasnal's latest exhibition at Sadie Coles features an extensive series of new paintings. In line with his previous work as both a painter and filmmaker, the paintings draw upon a broad range of sources and traverse a multiplicity of subjects, from everyday objects and scenes to reinterpretations of works by Seurat.
Several of the works address themes of motherhood, reworking one of the most enduring leitmotifs of art history – the mother and child. The subject is explored in one sense as an artistic trope: one canvas depicts a stone effigy of a mother and child from which fragments have been surreally eaten away, a swirling background of verdant green encroaching upon the kneeling figure. Another painting shows a statue being similarly effaced, as if by a digital eraser, by the pitch black background. Both works allude to the sacrificial nature of parenthood, and the way in which children absorb and reshape their parents' lives: the mothers appear to have been parasitically invaded. Recalling broken classical sculptures, the works also dramatise the notion of fragmentation and evoke the Socialist Realist sculpture and architecture of the Soviet era, much of which is falling into disrepair in the former Eastern bloc. The paintings may furthermore be read as an ambivalent exploration of Catholic iconography in contemporary Poland, where the image of the Madonna and Child is sacrosanct and ubiquitous.
Elsewhere, the image of the mother and child expresses an everyday reality. One painting, based on a found photograph, shows an anonymous mother and baby close-up. The woman's eyes meet the viewer's while the baby's face is rendered as a blank – aptly unformed and expressive of unknown potential. Drips streak across one side of the painting, with the figure of the mother half-effaced in an echo of the erasure of the statues.
Sasnal's pared-down imagery and idiosyncratic handing of paint (dripped, impasto or even applied with his fingers) establish a vital interplay between subject-matter and form, figurative image and painted surface. Notions of framing are also central to his work: figures and objects are often interrupted and elided, emphasising of the inevitable selectivity of the camera lens. Certain works veer towards abstraction, employing a near-monochrome palette or reducing forms to diagrammatic elements. Other paintings appear studiedly mundane, focusing on seemingly random subjects such as a bottle of Sab Simplex (a digestive remedy for babies) sitting on top of a laptop.
Sasnal's reformulation of photographic sources (whether his own or images from the media) amounts to an exploration of the 'mediated' nature of images in contemporary culture. His paintings reject the spectacular in favour of the ambiguous, the tentative and the faux-naïve, examining history, memory and subjectivity as both personal and collective phenomena.
Wilhelm Sasnal (b. 1972, Tarnow, Poland) has had solo shows throughout Europe and the USA including major surveys at K21, Düsseldorf, Germany, in 2009, and at Centro De Arte Contemporàneo, Málaga, Spain, in 2009; Wilhelm Sasnal - Years of Struggle, Zacheta Narodowa Sztuki, Warsaw, 2008; Matrix, The Berkeley Art Museum, Berkeley, California, 2005; and Kunsthalle Zürich, Switzerland, 2003. His work has been included in group shows including The Painting of Modern Life, Hayward Gallery, London, 2007, and Airs de Paris, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2007. He was included in the XXVI Bienal de Sao Paolo, 2004, and was shortlisted, with four other finalists, for the 2004 Vincent Prize at the Stedelijk Museum, 2004. Sasnal has written and directed two feature-length films, Swineherd (2009) and Fallout (2010). From October 2011 to January 2012 Sasnal has a solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, London.