John Krzywokulski


Visual Experience and John Krzywokulski's paintings

John Reed - ART and Australia, September 1971

A little while ago a notable personality in the art world was being interviewed on television about an art prize in which he had been one of the judges. The interviewer asked what were the particular qualities of the winning painting which led the judges to choose it. After a moment's silence, and with an air of great profundity, the judge said 'we chose it because of its power, and force, and strength'. The interviewer was obviously impressed, and could only say 'Yes, quite so, I understand'. Perhaps the whole incident is trivial and I quote it only as an example of the likely futility of words in relation to contemporary art, a probability which always makes me reluctant to enter this field.

Of course I accept the fact that talk about art will go on unabated, and I would not have it otherwise because I believe man has the need to verbalize - if only to maintain his confidence in himself as an intellectual being - and artists are to some extent sustained by the words of others. Otherwise it would be difficult to explain their concern with what the critics say, while at the same time expressing their utmost contempt for them. I have had many practical examples of this and only once in my experience as a gallery director has an artist insisted that critics should not be invited to his exhibition.

This may seem rather a contrary preamble to an article on painting, but it has the objective of pointing up the nature of my own position in relation to painting in general and it is, of course, relevant to my response to John Krzywokulski's paintings in particular.

Since I started to write this I have seen a statement by the painter about his work, and it will be easily understood that I am happy to quote his first paragraph, which is as follows: 'A painting is a visual and emotional experience: it contains its own unique life and speaks its own unique language. To interpret and explain a painting successfully in words leaves little or no reason for the painting to exist or be created in the first place. Relevant points about my work can be interpreted in words that assist one in understanding a painting and my aims, but these words only encircle the painting without really touching it, or obscuring the visual experience.'

This reflects my own point of view' : so often an endless (and basically pointless) intellectual probing of a painter's work completely confuses its true pictorial value (or lack of it) as, for instance, in the case of Leonard French's work. Here, where the critical analysis of French's symbolism has been taken to the extreme, one is finally left wondering whether one is not being asked to participate in working out some kind of an acrostic puzzle. As an intellectual exercise this may be very intriguing but I have never been able to understand what it has to do with the evaluation of the paintings as such.

Another bugbear is 'technique'. In the past I have always insisted that technique is merely the mechanical ability of the artist to do what he wants. As an illustration of what I mean, take two very different artists working in the same field (landscape painting), Fred Williams and Gil Jamieson. Probably everyone regards Fred Williams as a brilliant technician because of the wonderful refinement of his work, whereas I doubt if many would concede the same recognition to Jamieson, regarding his powerful 'crudeness' as evidence of lack of technique. I am not arguing the respective merits of these painters (both of whom I admire) but I contend that Jamieson's 'crude' technique is as necessary and relevant to his painting as Williams's 'fine' technique is to his. There is no absolute in technique, each artist evolves his own.

I have said that this has been my attitude in the past. In a broad sense it still is; but there is now a qualification because, particularly with some of the modern 'tape' painters - painters who use masking tape to achieve the desired 'hard-edge' to their line - the technique is almost the art itself. Technique equates with aesthetics. The mechanical perfection of a line becomes not only the touchstone to the validity of the painting, but the painting itself.

In some ways John Krzywokulski's work approaches this area, as precision in execution undoubtedly plays a vital part in what he does, but one must avoid the excesses of enthusiasm which this factor seems liable to generate these days and see his paintings as complete experiences -visual experiences.

These paintings are exciting, not because of their precise execution, nor for that matter because they represent the interpretation of some emotional state of the artist -as they well may - but because, for whatever reason, or by whatever means, the artist has succeeded in presenting us with a total visual image to which our aesthetic sensibility responds.

Quite obviously mine is a subjective approach and allows for an individual freedom of judgement which is not at all generally acceptable. At one extreme this approach implies acceptance of the 'I know what I like' school, and indeed I see no objection to people adopting this attitude so long as they realize that their 'judgement' is merely a matter of personal prejudice and does not seriously relate to aesthetic values.

At the other extreme this subjective approach implies the free exercise of an aesthetic sensibility which has been allowed to mature and develop by continued and uninhibited (as far as possible) exposure to the creative processes over as wide a field as possible.

A fundamental element of this approach is not that it ignores the role of the intellect but rather that it treats the intellect as a subsidiary, though not unimportant, factor in aesthetic appreciation: its contribution to be absorbed into the general body of awareness, but not to dominate it.

If I had only myself to consider I would probably be fairly well satisfied to rest on the happy feeling that in John Krzywokulski's work I was once again experiencing the vital sensation of being confronted with a new expression of the creative spirit, and I suppose I doubt whether any amount of probing into its 'meaning' will deepen, though it may broaden, this elemental pleasure. I realize, however, that this attitude is unorthodox and that one must attempt to explain verbally what is visually already made beautifully clear.

Loneliness, aloneness, isolation, alienation, rejection, and a sense of insignificance are states of human consciousness which profoundly affect us all, and it seems that this has become particularly the case in the last fifty years or so.

At best, man is a minute, if vital, speck in an inconceivably vast cosmos and, though he has at times deceived himself into believing that he is the core of this cosmos, his self-deceit has never convinced him for long. Today everything tends to point up his insignificance, even the possible impermanence of the whole human species.

This feeling - this complex of feelings - is perhaps most commonly experienced in the context of seemingly empty space, and one of the achievements of the Surrealists was the brilliant and creative use of this human reality. They showed us through their exploration of space in relation to man that we are strangely haunted by our loneliness, and that we both fear it and are drawn to it by some ambivalent basic process, which strongly influences us even if we do not understand it or even consciously realize it.

This 'device', this particular presentation of the significance of space, has accordingly now become part of the common aesthetic heritage, available to all artists to use for their own individual purposes; and John Krzywokulski is one who has found it well suited to his needs.

Having said this I may have implied too much, as it could easily lead to a tendency to overstress an element in his work which should not be exaggerated or considered otherwise than as a subtle and beautifully integrated part of the aesthetic whole. In fact his paintings, though broadly consistent in their components, appear to me to move freely in their emotional implications from a feeling of haunting loneliness to one which expresses a confident and even gay affirmation of life.

In the most simple terms, this effect is achieved by the use of images which counter the 'empty space' element in the paintings. But of course it is not as simple as that. If it were, the paintings would be classified as design or decoration and, no doubt, there will be those who see only their 'mechanics' and fail to penetrate to the layers which lie beneath the alluring surfaces.

This is a danger inherent in all paintings which employ techniques involving sharp elemental contrasts: it is easy both for the painter and the viewer to get caught up in superficial appearances and to lose sight of the painting itself. However, in Krzywokulski's paintings, one is almost always aware (I nearly said uneasily aware) that the brilliant surface, the seductive large areas of colour applied with such affection and patience, and the bold, and often gay images which act as vigorous counterpoint, carry a deeper implication.

From what I have said earlier in this article it will be clear that while I accept the reality of the interest of those who are largely concerned with 'meaning', I am not much involved - at any rate not primarily so - with any attempt to define it exactly. I also believe that these 'meanings' are not necessarily absolutes - that it is quite possible and legitimate for a painting to mean one thing to one person and something different to another. In fact I would go further and say that, though I am always interested to know what were the artist's sources for a painting, I do not think this information need be crucial in estimating its aesthetic value. The artist's creation is the painting itself, which, as John Krzywokulski says 'speaks its own unique language', and its meaning is finally no more his province than that of anyone else.

In this context I seem to remember that a critic was once talking to Picasso about Guernica and was commenting on the symbolic significance of certain parts of it. Picasso replied that, now the critic had pointed this out, he agreed that the symbolism was there, but that he had not previously been aware of it.

So it is with John Kryzwokulski's paintings. We may be conscious of certain implications, or we may subconsciously sense them, but finally it is the visual experience that counts.

'Visual Experience'. The eye is not regarded merely as the equivalent of the camera lens, playing only a mechanical role. As well as adding to experience, the eye is informed by experience.

the folio is in chronological order...
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