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This Is Not a Flag

November - December, 2021

MYSIA 3 | 00-496 Warsaw

This exhibition is not about a piece of fabric conventionally combining two chosen colours into the symbol of a nation, be it Poland, Indonesia or Monaco. Where most citizens see a flag, the painter sees crimson, vermillion and scarlet, titanium white, zinc white, transparency or opalescence. For an artist, two horizontal stripes of colour can lead to a surprisingly wide range of painting experiments that are evidently still worth exploring after three decades. Marcin Osiowski created the first sketches in his flag series in mid-1980s. He further explored them on the eve of the fall of Communism in Poland, and the newest works of the series have just recently dried. The seemingly similar works invite various interpretations through the formal solutions used in each piece. A stain, a smudge, a smear, a blur, a shade on each canvas can evoke multiple associations. The works’ formal diversity testifies to Osiowski’s ongoing search not only for new solutions, but also an effect that would satisfy him both in terms of form and content. Although his art is abstract, and often minimalistic – which is why some would call it non-representational it contains a multitude of meanings and latent messages.

Osiowski looks at the flag as a microcosm of meanings and associations. Especially in heraldry, colours are fraught with symbolism. White, of course, symbolizes spiritual values of the highest order: loyalty and nobility. Red means fire, courage, valour, and bravery. In the Polish flag, white’s purity and virginity is contrasted with red’s blood, heat and heroism. Traditional Polish virtues, who would have thought. Precisely because of that, smudging the red and staining the white opens up an entire universe of (re/over)-interpretation. The juxtaposition of colours, the play with their hues, distortions and contaminations are a result of Osiowski’s analysis of the language of political power as well as of the omnipresent mechanisms of manipulation and propaganda.

Looking at Osiowski’s entire series, we may get the impression that while each painting is a separate entity, simultaneously simple and enigmatic, they dovetail into a sequence of forms that follow and result from one another. This is another reference to Wittgenstein: one train of thought, terms are later expanded on and developed. This is the early Wittgensteinian system as seen in the Tractatus. His later works like Philosophical Investigations are more formally similar to a family photo album: a collection of loosely linked components.

Osiowski drew the first sketch for the flag series in 1985. He started painting flags in 19871989, a key period for Polish statehood. At that time, the artist lived in Copenhagen, his next stop after England and Antwerp. While still in London, he had translated Remarks on Colour for his own use in 1977 from English to Polish. Wittgenstein’s theses do not only appear as covert references or notes at the backs of canvases, but also as direct quotations which are an integral part of the composition. 

The 1980s flags on 100-by-70-centimeter cardboard paper are richly textured with glued shreds of paper and leaflets which have been covered with layers of paint. The white and red, sometimes more opaque, other times transparent, applied less precisely, allow the rawness of the paper to peek out. Looking at these patchworks in hindsight and from the perspective of Osiowski’s evolution of style, we can talk about a certain deliberate anti-aestheticism. Clustered strips of paper, glued with varying regularity, are a formal experiment, a game of dynamizing an abstract composition. There is something bloody and violent in strong brush strokes, dirtied colours, streaks of paint. A castaway’s flag. The programmatic poverty of used materials and the impression of shabbiness make a flag  a makeshift, improvised and tattered one. Osiowski’s purposeful untidiness was a comment on the condition of his country, poor and put back together sloppily: “the ashen, drunk tawdriness the shade of a pavement slab”, as the artist wrote at that time

For many years, these cardboard works lay forgotten in Osiowski’s archive. The oldest one was discovered as work on the current exhibition was already in progress. Pulled out of physical piles of papers, but also out of his own memory, it surprised Osiowski. The multiplication of the irregular shapes cut out of newspapers and leaflets constitutes a composition which is not unlike his 2018 paintings. This suggest that Osiowski has been somewhat haunted by the concept which has kept resurfacing over decades.

Osiowski’s fascination with the Polish flag returned in 2018 when the country celebrated a hundred years of national independence. Osiowski began a series entitled 100 Flags, which suggests his apparent need to respond to the atmosphere surrounding the event. The variety of form and colour in the one hundred paintings in a standardized format of 70 by 50 centimetres merits pages of discussion. Among them, meticulously composed and formally restrained abstract works hang side by side with canvasses painted as if in a fit of passion, making it seem like the artist attacked a cliché symbol. While the initial paintings still look clean and conventional, so to speak, the works were becoming dirtier and more unusual as the series progressed. The two familiar national colours are joined by an entire palette of shades of blue, green and grey – and black, lots of black. The admixture of the colour begins to infect the white and red. As a result, the final works of the series are entirely stripped of the symbolic meaning suggested in the title.

Perhaps if it had not been for the events on the eve of Independence Day 2019, Osiowski would have completed his cycle, or continued creating flags the colour of greyish brownshirts, indicative of his perspective on the decline of democracy in Poland. But in 2019 unknown perpetrators trespassed on the property where his exhibition Art on Art was held in collaboration with HOS Gallery. They vandalized eighteen canvasses from the series by spray-painting the statement “JUDE RAUS” onto them and drawing a picture of a gallows. Osiowski reported the act to the police and the Polish Centre for Monitoring Racist and Xenophobic Behaviours. After several months, the prosecutor’s office discontinued the investigation. The artist kept the canvasses in the same condition as the vandals left them. He devoted his project Polaks Cultuur Agenda to the incident, which included the work 11 November that is shown in the current exhibition. It also left a trace on his newer works in the form of masked figures suggestive of infamous nationalist marches that take place in Warsaw annually on 11 November.

Next year, in August, Osiowski returned to the finished (and undestroyed) paintings from the series. He mapped a regular grid of squares onto the existing canvasses, creating a series of seemingly abstract paintings. The grid of colourful squares with which Osiowski covered some of the 100 Flags imitated a reality blown up on a computer or phone screen. Colourful, flatly painted squares contrast with the rich textures and expressive technique of the original images. The visible brush strokes and smudges, which suggest violent intensity and improvisation, have been contrasted with a geometric order. Each time, Osiowski decided to differentiate the squares’ saturation and the painting technique – from more transparent to opaquer. The brownish, dirty – one could say: contaminated – squares do not cover the original compositions entirely, as though suggesting that not everything can be retouched, diluted or swept under the rug. These works place an even stronger emphasis on the nature of colour. The decision makes art a discrete, egalitarian language, separated from media messages and politicians’ newspeak. The question that art historians and critics asked about Jasper Johns’s paintings: is it a painting or a flag? does not apply to Osiowski’s works. As the gaze moves over the images, we become increasingly certain that they are paintings.

The title of the exhibition is a paraphrase of the famous painting by René Magritte, an artist who also discussed problems of the relationship between the representational art and the represented object. Asked to comment on his work, Magritte said that if someone thought they had painted a pipe, they should try to stuff it and smoke it. What can one do with a flag? Hoist it on a pole, attach it to a staff and bring it to a demonstration? Desecrate it? Worship it? Osiowski’s representations cannot be defined through the use of their object, especially in a country with such a polarized society, where the flag can mean everything to some, and to others – nothing at all. It would seem that storing and perhaps exhibiting the ruined paintings in the future may be a good conclusion to the series. Can one argue with fanaticism or total ignorance? How to continue creating the same series in the face of such a lack of understanding, such stupidity and aggression?

Well, one can turn to figuration with its ability to reach a wider circle of viewers with a plainer message. Some of Osiowski’s newest 2021 works host a procession of frightening figures in balaclavas, neither people, nor skeletons. Repulsive and terrifying, they are real participants of Independence Marches. Another recurring component is the historical far-right falanga symbol, flaunted by modern-day Polish nationalists. Osiowski’s radical departure from non-representational art is a response to the vandals’ radical gestures. Next to the figures in balaclavas, the slogan „Gott mit uns” (God with us) appears repeatedly. Originating from the heraldry and national symbolism of Prussia, it sounded among Wehrmacht soldiers, and today can be seen on the hooded sweatshirts of those who call themselves real patriots. 

Concurrently, Osiowski also created paintings which are far from literal depictions: a continuation of his 1980s sketches using paper strips. His newest works only imitate the technique of the collage. They are more orderly and deliberate, which points to the passage of time and an evolution in technique. These works include compositions which play on geometric abstraction. Osiowski layers square-like forms of varying colour saturation and transparency. It is as if we were looking through and old, dusty kaleidoscope; instead of orderly patterns, we can see cracked pieces of glass, shifted in relation to the original arrangement. Osiowski’s squares, especially the black ones, are a reference to Kazimir Malevich’s work.

The flags tell a story both of the artist’s life and the evolution of his painting style, and about the changing fates of contemporary Polish history and the moral values followed by Polish society. These colours, which are also national symbols, result from a social consensus – as do “the national virtues.” They are not part of any logical order, but belong in the field of language games, as proposed by Wittgenstein. Osiowski’s flags, which were painted right before the fall of Communism and in the context of today’s authoritarian turn in Poland, stress the seemingly imperceptible fluidity and flexibility of signifiers, which can be kneaded and moulded depending on one’s subjective worldview, preferred models of power and so on. An exhibition about colour gains a deeper meaning in a country where the unofficial head of state Jarosław Kaczyński said publicly that “no screams or cries will persuade us that white is white and black is black”. Was it just a lapsus of speech or rather a symptom of a certain “blindness” which characterizes contemporary political life? Kaczyński’s words, which were meant to convey his protest against distorting such terms as good an evil, unwittingly outlined the authorities’ path of deception, fraud and mendacity. In his flag cycle, Osiowski asks the question whether new moral principles can be dictated by people who suffer not just from Daltonism, but from full achromatopsia.

photo by Adam Gut

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