Commentary Andrzej Jackowski home
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Depth Charges
At the Lining - 2005 - Click to enlarge
  At the Lining
Oil on canvas
49 x 53 cm
At the Lining - 2005 - Click to enlarge

John McEwen

Andrzej Jackowski is a Charlie Watts look-a-like, with a ready smile and an amused eye, who lives with his second wife, Eve, a child psychotherapist, on a hill in Brighton with views across the city. This sunny impression belies the sombre lack of external light in his pictures.

Recently he received a fan letter from America: 'It is Christmas Eve, and my letter to you goes out across the ocean, across time. On this night, the writing makes me feel less alone, as do your haunting images. They speak to me of a shared grief. What drew me to your art was the feeling I had seen it before, in a dream I could vaguely remember.'

Jackowski's many fans, of which none has been more supportive than Rebecca Hicks, will surely recognise something of their own response to his painting in the words of the writer Carol Dine.

It is the way he taps the subconscious, conveying the 'vaguely' remembered, the rarely confronted, in paintings and drawings of intentionally 'visceral' appeal, that makes his art so rich as well as restrained, so broad and focussed, so tangible and yet so tantalisingly hard to define.

The tables have gone, the beds still linger but the most insistent image in these new paintings is what he calls a 'hive': 'Some people have seen them as tombs and people who have been to Warsaw recognise them as blocks of flats that you see on the outskirts as you go in. That's fine, they probably have all those connotations. They started off as wardrobes. I use domestic objects like wardrobes and tables and beds, as receptacles of memory, imprints of our bodies and lives and experiences. Rafts, in a sense, we drift on in our life. They give us ballast. That's how I seem them anyway. I'm not interested in particular scenes from life or childhood or whatever. It's an evocation through reverie, a mood of awareness.'

The imagery in a Jackowski inhabits what would otherwise be an 'abstract', quite geometric, painting. Memories do float in and out of our minds. Those moments of reverie which encourage them offer an escape, a freedom, from the rigid demands of existence. Reverie is a solitary solace. 'Instead of single beds I decided to do put double ones, but they still feel as lonely as before,' he laughs.

In the new work, made since the draining and disruptive experience of his first retrospective exhibition, the mood remains but the organisation of planes and dominant block take precedence. The effect is to consolidate the more constructed simplicities which emerged in his last painting show at Purdy Hicks three years ago.

Nevertheless he still likes the quotation from the essay 'A Home is not a Home' by John Berger: 'The mortar which holds the improvised home together - even for the child - is memory. Within it, tangible, visible mementoes are arranged - photos, trophies, souvenirs - but the roof and four walls which safeguard the life within, these are invisible, intangible and biographical.'

Jackowski prefers to have several canvases on the go and is a slow worker, his deliberations and revisions meaning that each one takes several months to complete. 'Things get moved around at the beginning quite a bit. I usually have an image in mind and gradually I gather a mood as the colour appears.'

The objects are of great personal significance to the artist. In his inaugural lecture as Professor of Painting at Brighton University in 2003 he explained that, in choosing them, he had 'stumbled onto images that resonated with the refugee huts of my childhood made out of wood, tar and blankets - but as well a space that echoed with the trauma, loss and the resilience of the time my parents had been through in the war and since; of losing their homes and families as well as their sense of place in this world '.

It merely embellishes the eloquent interpretations and explanations of Gabriel Josipovici and Timothy Hyman in previous catalogues, to repeat that Jackowski and his parents lived after the war in a refugee camp for 'alien' Poles in Cheshire. And to add that his father, formerly a Lieutenant Colonel in the Polish army, with a heroic war record over three decades which included winning the Polish equivalent of the VC, was a camp administrator.

Their family's living quarters, wooden huts, were cold, the interiors sometimes demarcated only by suspended blankets. Jackowski was born in December 1947, the coldest British winter of the century, and until the age of seven spoke only Polish and had hardly any contact with the outside world. After that he attended English schools. His family were among the last to leave the camp - when he was 11 - and his father subsequently had a nervous breakdown and his parents separated.

Even knowing these things it is hard to imagine the symbolic weight for him of the huts, iron beds and albums - his father's most precious lifeline to the past were some stamp albums - which he paints, poetically to embody and psychologically to recreate the refuge of the refugee.

Moreover, now that Poland is free again it is important to remember how hopeless its future appeared at the height of Cold War. No one who heard a Polish mass in England in those years will forget the forlorn beauty of the hymns or the stricken passion with which they were sung. Jackowski is still moved by the memory of the singing and the solemn ritual of the pre-Vatican Latin mass, which he knew well as an altar boy. He has been back to his homeland and has had an exhibition at the National Gallery of Contemporary Art, but to live in Poland remains a fantasy more than an ambition. He feels as much an exile there as anywhere else.

In the earliest of the new paintings - the series entitled Book of Beds - there is an amalgamation of two of these principal emblems; as if the beds were illustrations, pictures within the picture. The Album and Fate, where the block has, for all its cellular patterning, a book-like suggestion, leads one to suppose that it is an album which contains the past but also makes a 'closed book' of it.

Whatever he calls the block, it does not contradict its role as a container, whether of past or present concerns. It merely emphasises that its poetic/psychological significance is as essential as its formal predominance.

In this context The Patient Hive seems an intriguing bridge between past and present. As if the bed's life-support system is the book. The past supports the present but the present sustains the past, the two indivisible. Jackowski recalls that the 'drip' started life as a bucket, an image inspired by a poem of Seamus Heaney.

He enlarged upon the point in his professorial lecture: 'Seamus Heaney talks about poems and individual words as 'depth charges' and the skill of making a poem, as being able to drop a bucket down the well of ourselves, in his phrase 'a way to open the skin of the pool of ourselves'. I wanted in my work to drop that bucket further down the well.'

A sense of bridging also distinguishes The Lesson. A rare connection is made between one being and another, as a dog sits obediently before its master while in a corner bed a woman sleeps. 'I like the tension between the two. I saw it as quite funny'; but he admits the figure in the bed could also be a corpse, the obedient hound an intermediary - between dead and living, past and present. As if to emphasise the point the seated figure is clothed; whereas Jackowski's figures are usually nude, to make them more ethereal and timeless. A related drawing of an interior with a seated figure, by contrast boldly delineates the geometry of the structure.

Fate links indoors and out. The red block is far too large to be a book and yet it looks more like a book than a structure. But does one need to make a narrative of such luscious and oily licks of molasses brown, the thin and meagre patch of grey, the bold stroke of white and intricate crimson?

Jackowski's obvious pleasure in and attention to the performance of paint and line, to weave and grain, denies the apparent melancholy of the imagery. 'I love the evocative power of texture,' he says - as much in his modulation of paint, thick or thin, rendered glowingly translucent by a half-chalk white ground; as in his preferred use for drawing of fibrous hand-made Indian paper. 'It's not just imagery which makes things work. It is the meeting of shape and colour and the rhythm and pattern they make.'

The appeal of his art is as much to do with sensuality as mood, whether elegiac or reassuring. There is ghostly pallor and leaden grey even, in Toxic Cells, a poisonous purple; but predominantly he uses earth colours of consoling warmth - ochre, burnt Sienna, 'Baltic reds'.

A sense of secure contentment speaks of an inner chamber, the innermost cell of the hive of his earliest memory described by Jackowski in the introduction - an apercu of his father's gardening entitled 'Stored' - for his 1999 show at Purdy Hicks. The third and last paragraph especially evokes what he describes as that 'inner buzzing in a box' that lies at the core of his art.

'In the late summer, the potatoes were stored for the winter in a straw lined chamber underground. To get to the chamber one had to enter a small wooden hut and then go down some steep steps, deep into the earth, where the potatoes lay in the straw like eggs in a nest (with a secret dark smell of dreams) - waiting for my mother, one day, to come and gently lift them into the sack.'

Perhaps all of us have such a chamber, a secret comfort zone, which anchors memory, protects our singularity and remains our last resort. For Jackowski it has been enforced by a formative political experience, but all of us are outcasts; all of our lives are 'rounded with a sleep'.

That we also have an urge to resist and break free is no less universal. Jackowski has ventured forth before, most famously with The Beekeeper's Son, which won him the John Moores prize 14 years ago. And he does again here, more assertively, in At the Lining, with its glimpse of cerulean blue sky, and Station, for which he went to Brighton's Preston Park station and took photographs. . 'I'm always trying to come outside but find it difficult to achieve,' he says. Perhaps the effect of sunny Brighton is percolating through.

There are also a couple of portraits - The Dreamer, of a friend, and, tinged with affectionate humour, Vigilant, of Roxy his golden retriever. 'I don't want it to be all seriousness, in the same key.'

But above all art comes from art. Towards the end of my visit we discuss some of those who have been mentioned over the years in relation to his work. In his top-floor studio he has a pinned reproduction of Carra's House of Love. He saw it first as a student. 'I keep looking at Carra - he's not one of your great painters in the sense of changing anything - but La Casa dell'Amore is my emblematic painting in a way.'

He agrees there is something endemically mid-European about those Baltic reds in his own work, that dark introspection. Nonetheless he speaks appreciatively of his debt to British painters. Euan Uglow, his teacher at Camberwell, whose slavish devotion to the object he rejected but still admires.

Uglow, de Francia and Roger Hilton, with whom he became friends after leaving Falmouth School of Art, were among artists of an older generation who taught him the rigour and self-belief required of professionalism. Peter Redgrove, also at Falmouth, the person who most encouraged him 'to look at the inside', to give free rein to the imagination - not an easy option in traditionally pragmatic England. 'What things look like is of the first importance,' he says; and, as a teacher, he knows. 'Some people feel the inner world is dangerous and you shouldn't really go there - there's even something a bit disreputable and dirty about it, which it is!'

Redgrove's lead was a freedom endorsed by Marion Milner's book On Not Being Able to Paint - an account of how she weaned herself of aesthetic theory and psychology in order to let the 'hand and eye do exactly what pleased them without any conscious working to a preconceived intention'. In this context we discussed Basil Beattie's recent paintings; and the way Victor Willing arrived in his 1970s work at a similar sub-conscious sense of place to Jackowski's, through painting reverie induced hallucinations.

The powerful imagery of Tarkovsky's films and Pina Bausch's choreographic evocations of childhood he also much admires; but Polish painting has played no conscious part in his thinking. It is the Polish theatre of Tadeusz Kantor, suggesting that 'like a snail you can carry your home on your back' to which he responds.

It is also noteworthy how Jackowski has consistently found inspiration in poetry. The word 'poetic' is not favoured much in art criticism these days; but is there a better to describe this sense of the inner life, this concentrate of feeling tinged with melancholy and described with infinite precision, which is the haunting and, in his exiled case, the well-nigh unavoidable subject of his art?

John McEwen
March 2005

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Other articles
A Space in the Dark
In conversation with Andrzej Jackowski
Cooking the world and putting it into images
Selected bibliography
Dreamer - click to enlarge
Station - click to enlarge
The Patient Hive - click to enlarge