Sunday, April 4, 2010

Monika Wiechowska

I saw her through the foggy café window; a charming young blonde with scintillating blue eyes and the most infectious smile. And what is this? She is smiling at me? Well, I mustn’t be rude. Surely I should go in there, and sit by her. And hey, if she just happens to be, like, a photographer or something, perhaps I should interview her.I opened the door to the stuffy, bustling interior of the Atlas Café, and walk over to the table where she has already spread out her MacBook and various books of her work. We shake hands, saying how nice it is that we should finally meet each other. Without as much as a word, I pull out my handy-dandy voice recorder and we get right down to brass tacks. Imagine that! Almost as if this whole encounter were planned! OK, so it was. I came here knowing all the basic facts about her. Monika Wiechowska, Polish photographer. But why would all this be arranged if not to know more? The first five minutes already yield some useful information: In a room stuffed to the gills with the usual array of Nouveau-Williamsburgites, she is one of the only people without a faux-surly look plastered on her face, and by God what a cute sense of fashion she has! And the funny thing is, she looks exactly as I imagined. Fine, I added her on Facebook, and Poland doesn’t exactly have a shortage of blue-eyed blondes anyway. But it’s more than that. As our conversation draws on, I realize Monika is kind of like her photographic work, at least some of it. At first glance, she is an absolute doll, smiling and full of youth. But there is a seriousness about her, too, which makes her all the more intriguing. (Trust me, you’ll see what I mean in just a bit!)
Untitled, Tbilisi 2004

Monika grew up in Poland, and was 15 when Communism ended. Having myself been raised in a Russian Jewish family who lived under a Communist regime, all I’ve heard all my life was how miserable and awful it was. Interestingly, Monika reveals some of the other aspects of that life: “I, and I think a lot of Polish people have nostalgic feelings for those days. Life was hard, but at the same time it was very creative, and people were sharing eachother and living together.

Me and My Mother, New York, 2007
I remember going out with my parents to visit friends, and we had to stay for the night because you could not be out on the streets after 10, so a lot of people would have parties until the early morning hours. My mother was an artist, so I was always in this semi-Bohemian circle. I remember it as being very fun….Growing up, we had to queue for bread and butter, but people were still making and creating. The best books were written, and the best films were made. I think the restrictions in the system actually made people create things that were extraordinary.”Still, one thing differentiated Monika’s experiences in Poland from that of most others. Because her father was the captain of an Amsterdam-based ship, she had the rare opportunity to travel outside the USSR. One visit led her to the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. “I think they were curious to have someone from Eastern Europe attend the school. Nowadays they probably don't care because there are so many people going back and forth.” She was not initially a photographer when she entered. “I wanted to be a graphic designer, because I was always very interested in Polish graphic design from the 70's. We had amazing designers like Henryk Tomaszewski so I thought, ‘Let's revive it’… I started making designs using images, and they started paying more and more attention to my photography which I wasn't really studying, I was only using it as a medium. Slowly by slowly, I would go to photography teachers and finally I graduated from the graphic design school presenting only photographic works.” She then landed a spot at a two year residency program at the Rijksacademie where she honed her skills as a photographer (which friend and fellow upstART artist Hans Broek had previously attended). She would for next 12 years of her life live in Amsterdam, yet Poland was, and continues to be a crucial part of her work.
Mushroom Hunting, 2004
Much of Monika’s work has to do with childhood memories and a longing for the past, viewed in a way that is at once comfortably familiar and freshly conceived. There is an ongoing motif of recognizable parts of a Soviet childhood. “Mushroom Hunting” shows a classic activity for Soviet families to do after the late summer rains. I myself can almost smell the wetness of the forest, and the sweet musk that my mother tells me indicates an edible shroom. Despite her urban lifestyle, Monika is “definitely a nature girl,” in her words, as seen in these gorgeous pictures(This one in particular reminds me of Jurgen Teller's photographs of Japan, which Monika and I share a great fondness for!)
Untitled, Szczecin, 2001
Untitled, Szczecin, 2007
Untitled, Poland, 2004
Another series of images was taken on a deer-hunting trip with her father. They appear to portray death through the fascinated gaze of a child, who still hasn’t grasped its finality.
Deer 1, 2004
They are at once beautiful and morbid, and convey the hidden darkness of Monika's work. Something that was once teeming with life is shown in a state of death and decay, yet photographed in a way that seems to capture the lithe sprightliness of how it once was.
Deer 2, 2004
The desire to not only capture, but reevaluate her childhood would come into fruition during a spur of the moment trip to another former Soviet satellite. “I went to Georgia with a friend from there. We were looking through an old family album, and I came across photographs that could have been taken in Poland…Georgia in the 70's basically looked the same as in Poland— We even had the same cups and utensils because they all came from Russia. That was really striking, and I thought I should go and see what it's like now, because the transition took much longer in Georgia.
Untitled, Kobuleti, 2004
Untitled, Tbilisi, 2004
I thought I would find the past here in the present, still there." Even though the memories are uniquely Monika's, the feeling of nostalgia is very palpable. It is as though the viewer is at once bewitched by the charm and familiarity of the surroundings, while disheartened by how much they have changed. Indeed, she concedes, "I'm not sure if I found what I was looking for, but I found something else."
Untitled, Kobuleti, 2004
When asked if she actively avoids or embraces the label "Polish Artist," she answers "I don't avoid it. I never hide my origin. I'm also not putting a label. Some artists intentionally use Poland to help them get attention and I think a lot of times when Polish art was a hype, it help them a lot. I'm somewhere in between." While there are recognizably "Polish" or "Soviet" elements, they do not overwhelm the photos, or make the mood of remembrance any less apparent to those who did not grow up in those particular circumstances.
Untitled, Kabouleti, 2004
"One of the things that fascinate me about photography is the ability to trick the viewer. If you frame the image a certain way and leave the details out of the picture you can present an object or a landscape or a person in a different light or manner. Some people wouldn't even know what they are looking at."

Under the Bed, Paris, 2001
"Under the Bed is a very simple example. The image is cropped, so all you see is this never-ending corridor. A lot of people didn't even know it was under a bed." (Count me in as one of those people!)
Untitled, Bronx Zoo, 2007 Landscape 5, Hoover Dam, 2007
What makes this all the more intriguing is the spontaneity with which Monika takes pictures. The only thing that is planned beforehand is the location. From there, like a curious explorer, she simply sees what she can find. "But the reason was very clear. I just would go there and work in that context. I always have to have a margin for happy accidents."

Monday, December 21, 2009

Davide Cantoni

…And here’s issue number two!

The classic rule dictates that whether you are going on Atkins, quitting smoking, or making a daily habit of practicing your Swahili, the first three days are always the hardest. I like to think that once I have three of these posts out of the way, that this blogging thing will become a regular habit of mine. Here’s to hoping, right? It must be said, though, that with this post, the entire process was smooth as butter!

I was at the opening of Towing the Line, Drawing Space: 40 Contemporary Dutch Artists Defining the Moment in Holland at the WhiteBox Gallery, where our friend Hans Broek was one of the featured artists. I was just about to leave, when Hans swooped in and insisted I meet a friend of his, Davide Cantoni (who is not Dutch). I had been shown his work before, and was extremely fond of it (still am, thanks for asking!). After a chat that lasted all of about 45 seconds or so, I cheerily skipped out into the shitshow that is Little Italy during the Feast of San Gennarro, business card in tow. Or hand. Or whatever. (One lady in the gallery insisted the calzones are to die for. I’ll have to take her word for it.)

Fast forward several weeks, and I am securing my noble steed in front of a schmancy (read: has an elevator!) DUMBO studio building on Jay Street, right next to the East River. Davide, smartly bespectacled elegantly yet casually dressed in the usual manner of a European expat artist (this manner, for whatever reason always seems to involve hiking boots. But I digress.), leads me inside his gigantic studio, which he shares with two other artists. I immediately notice the windows which drench the back of the room in sunlight (pay attention, this is important!).

I unload my supplies, and we decide to initiate this highly anticipated event by breaking out the peace pipe ie. ciggies. But we hit a snag: the lighter is nowhere to be found! Undaunted, Davide whips out his ginormous magnifying glass, and dashes over to the window. With a strong sun and a trained, steady hand, the cigarette is lit in seconds. This was done in a manner so deft and suave that I’m semi-convinced he planned this beforehand to impress Ms. Interviewer. Yours truly was impressed (patience! This IS going somewhere!). Having all the necessary accouterments, we sat down and began…

The first time I looked at Davide’s work on his website, I seriously thought for a moment that my monitor had conked out—the paintings were so pale and difficult to see. Closer inspection, however, shows that they are hardly monochromatic, nor do they appear whitewashed. Using milky, reflective mica-based paints, he recreates photographs, mostly from the New York Times, onto canvases that upon entering the room appear blank. Remarkably, with a change in the viewer’s position they reveal themselves.
Meeting, Afghanistan - 2007

Davide initially began working with these materials while attending the Royal College in London, where he first did “massage” and “tongue” paintings which were kissed and licked, leaving an impression of the gestures in the paint. As time went on the paintings developed into works with a more definitive subject matter and serious tone. From the most discernible angle, they read like photographs with the brightness Photoshopped to the max, yet one can only fully chart the painting’s topography with constant movement, looking at it from above and below and both sides, with perhaps a bit of squinting and head-tilting.
Prison, Malawi - 2006

This is precisely the effect Davide was looking for, something which "…demanded to be seen and experienced, to counteract the fact that nearly everything we see is digital, or a reproduction. Everyone knows what the Mona Lisa looks like, but a very small percentage has actually seen it. I wanted seeing this painting to include the element of time. It may seem like a dumb thing to say, but you cannot just have a glimpse. They need to be studied, kind of discovered."
Road Block, Kenya - 2007

It was this kind of reasoning that also led Davide to use photographs from the New York Times depicting people in areas of conflict and poverty: “The idea that millions of people have seen these images, and these are real people, it's not as though I invented them. They're miserable. There is a child with a machine gun, there's people in prison, a child who has gone blind, this guy has set his truck on fire, there's a man in a corner with his hands tied. I mean, it's real. It would be nice if my work could cause people to stop and think ‘Wow, these people exist. I saw it in the newspaper and yet I never thought about it.’” About his previous stint with massage paintings, Davide observes that “kissing is a loving, involved act. In the early 90’s “painting” was dead (again), but I was kissing it back to life.” The same is happening here—photos of events forgotten the same day they were seen are now fully resurrected, with a presence much more imposing than in their past lives.

Davide has also translated these photographs into drawings using a technique that is uniquely his own. After tracing the photo onto paper, he uses a magnifying glass and little ray o’ sunshine to burn the lines of the drawing (did I not admonish patience?), giving them a fascinating raw effect as well as new dimensions of meaning.
Blind Afghan Child - 2008

Mother Child, Darfur - 2007

He notes that his burnt drawings "mimic the photographic process. The paintings need light to be seen, they produce a negative and positive image. The drawings are paper exposed to light. This reintroduces the old debate: ‘Is painting dead now that we have photography?’”
The process of burning also mirrors the violence and unpredictability of what is happening in the photographs themselves. “You're never quite sure what is going to catch fire and what isn't. It is kind of an act of random violence.” This process is also appropriate to Davide’s political message, that viewers should be aware, and never forget these pictures, the literal “burning of an image into your mind.”
Tyres - 2002

Child Soldiers, Sierra Leone - 2004

Rescue, New Orleans - 2005

(Also, I cannot help but recall how Monet used only to paint certain views and landscapes during certain times of the day, always with the same weather conditions. It’s interesting and unusual to see how a contemporary artist literally needs sun in order to complete his work!)
Goma Refugees - 2007

Flood, Indonesia - 2006

Fighter, Afghanistan - 2007

Having spent the first thirteen years of his life in Milan, Italy, Davide had immense exposure to important historical art from a very young age, which now plays an important role in his work. He is particularly drawn to photographs that draw on art-historical references. “Some are purely visual. There was a photo of these women in Kosovo, about six or seven years ago, surrounding the body of the son of one of these women. They were wearing veils, and the light was coming through… it was a Vermeer painting, this photograph. It was incredible! It went beyond purely documentary photography.” He describes another photo, one of a woman with her toddler in an Iraqi refugee camp as “the Madonna and Child of 2008”.
Mother Child, Iraq - 2008

Davide’s work is not all doom and gloom, however. To occasionally escape the subject matter, Davide makes paintings and drawings of things like the moon and the sun, models, as well as more placid scenes from the Times.
Luna - 2007

New Delhi - 2007

Since we were on the topic of art historical references, I must say that the reclined pose and the direct look of "Katie" reminds me of Manet’s famous odalisque.

He also does abstract paintings with the reflective paints, which have a marvelous effect when they are seen in person.
Code 24 - 2006

Code 23 - 2006

Having also worked in film and special effects, it is no surprise that Davide has ventured into making video pieces. Recently completed "SOL" features transferred photos taken of the Sun by the Hubble telescope, which are burnt by the glass and arranged into a video. He is currently working on a video piece called “109 Years of War” in which he will draw a map of the world for every year between 1900 and 2009. For each year, every county that is engaged in war will be colored in. Each drawing will then be burned, and sequenced into a video. Also in the works is a piece called “Burning Flag,” where each frame will undergo a similar process He is also beginning to make a foray into sculpture. “With 2-D drawings, there is a much greater chance for abstraction. So how do you decide which objects will occupy a 3-D space,” he says. Only time will tell which ones he deems worthy.

Davide lives and works in Brooklyn. For more information about his work, check out his website at

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Hans Broek, Parte Un

Hello, hello!

I am oh so very happy to introduce the first-ever entry on upstART Brooklyn! This has been the result of the much-needed encouragement of friends, and the endless support (and insufferable pushiness!) of my dad, Zev. Thank you so much for the advice and that nifty new voice recorder. Much appreciated.

That, and a girl can only watch The Real Housewives of New Jersey and create new interpretations of a grilled cheese sandwich for so long before she feels the need to do something a little more fruitful.

I would also like to take a moment to thank the many managers and owners of various eateries and restaurants throughout the city and Brooklyn, who in firing my sorry scatter-brained ass from their establishment drove home the message that I have better things to do with my time than dropping food on people and tripping over their ill-behaved spawn who play hide-and-seek under the tables... and also gave me enough free time to get this thing up and running.

And so this morning I packed up my supplies, hopped on my bike and rode over to Greenpoint Ave, where across from an auto shop and a wholesale beer distributor is the studio of one Hans Broek. As I plod up the stairs, he calls “Hallo!” from several flights up. Though no one would mistake him for a recent graduate, his jeans, Pumas, and loose-in-a-flattering-way striped polo showcase a slender form and youthful energy. He greets me warmly, and leads through the serpentine hallway to his workspace. I delight in the smell of paint, the splattered floors, the surprisingly orderly mess, and note the Stella and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale peeking out from under his desk; leftovers from the visit of another artist friend (Whose taste, might I say, is not half bad. Unfortunately, this studio did not come equipped with refrigeration).

He sits me down in a splintering wicker armchair which, I’m afraid to say did not survive the duration of our interview. I blame the aforementioned grilled cheese.

Originally from Amsterdam, Hans’ formative years were spent in a very different place. “L.A. was the total opposite of where I came from… Amsterdam is a little village, and the art world I was a part of was as big as a bar, and the moment you left that bar, the art world almost didn’t exist anymore. So, it’s very small, and L.A. is of course a very expansive city with many different cultures. It was all new, there was no Dutch-ness at all. The art world was a little smaller than in New York, and more focused on building up its own kind of culture and identity.” Hans explored the relationship between nature and civilization in his geometric landscapes and depictions of modern architecture in a beautiful, though inhospitable environment. “Without air conditioning and the Colorado River to tap the water from, you would die in two days. For humans to live in L.A. is one step away from settlement of Mars…It’s a balance between nature and civilization that didn’t really fit. You have all of these brush fires in LA, and yet people want to build a house in the middle of it, but it doesn’t really belong there. It’s not a place where humans naturally belong” Despite the view that building a vast Metropolis in the middle of desert may not exactly what Mother Nature intended, the industrial-looking apartment building in the center of Universal City (170 x 170, oil on linen) seems to enhance rather than disturb the spread of wild brush. The scene is quiet, even harmonious.
Universal City - 1997

Untitled - 1996

There are many different landscapes in the artist’s portfolio, ranging from sprawling, panoramic views to scenes with just a few buildings, allowing him to adjust to a new environment so different from his home. “It was my way of trying to understand the city, to digest its expanse”
Colorado Boulevard, 2002

Sketch for Nightpainting - 1999

San Fernando Valley, Mulholland Drive, 1997

Urban Drift - 2003

While the LA period was rather successful, ten years of isolation, both from the other denizens of Los Angeles, and in his landscapes, would inevitably push him to newer pastures. “I had done everything I wanted to do with landscapes for the moment, and the work was getting more and more reduced. The life was disappearing out of the work. It was becoming very formal and distanced, and detached from human experience. I just wanted to zoom into human activity and dynamics.”
And so Hans left LA for New York. It is hard to say which is more dramatic: his change of environment, or the change in his style. Hans’ work began to feature both formal and more intimate portraits, scenes from Lynch and Kubrick movies, as well as from classical masterpieces reinvigorated with new life with all of their roughness and gritty emotion.
Kill that Bastard Actaeon - 2007

Sketch for Reality - 2006

Party - 2007

Though there is a great diversity of image and subject matter in his New York paintings, Hans has a very specific process in how he turns inspiration into a work of art. “I love film and photographic media, but I’m also inspired by sculpture and Old Master paintings. You start with a photographic image that is being reduced, usually because the nuances of color in the photograph don’t really have to be painted out. So there is a reduction of color, a little reduction in shape, but also of line, and of simplified forms. So the image becomes a little bit flatter, how I like paintings to be, so that you can see just a flat surface that’s not too illusionistic.”
Sketch for Family - 2006

Sketch for Family - 2006

Aesthetic differences aside, Hans tells how this style of work is much more satisfying on a very visceral level. “With the landscapes, everything is much more controlled, all of the details, and the colors. It was successful, but I like the opposite of control, the irrationality, the ugliness of painting. I think it’s richer and more complete. Perhaps it is less pleasant to look at, but I can think that can be a good thing.” He does not seem to have a strict guide as to who or what he paints: "I have memories, where this image struck me for some reason. They tell me about something I am interested. Why I am interested is not really rational all the time, it’s kind of an irrational drive. Later on you can figure out why that drive was so strong." It is clear, however, that he finds appeal in that which jars or disturbs the eye on some level.

I did note that there is something remarkable about Hans’ modern portraits, in the sense that whether he is painting a man or a woman, the expression or mood of the subject is never gender specific. There are no flirtatious, doe-eyed females or macho men. “Of course you always have women or men, but I want that the mood can be carried by either gender. I am more interested in these sorts of states.” The subject is thus always rendered as an enigma, no matter who it is. The artist’s own inner self acts as the common thread between all these different people. “In the portraits there is always some kind of psychological, human, emotional presence that relates to what I am experiencing at that moment, or something that I am.”
Velasquez - 2006

Isabella Rosselini - 2007

For more information on Hans and his work, please visit