New Situations. The Tri-City art of the 1980s

Place: Gdańsk City Gallery 2, Powroźnicza street 13/15
Openning: 21st of April, 7:30 P.M.
Exhibion: 21st of April - 11th of June 2017
Artists: Janusz Akermann, Andrzej Awsiej, Joanna Kabala, Kuba Bryzgalski, Józef Czerniawski, Borys Czernichowski, Roman Painter of Women Grabowiecki, Katarzyna Józefowicz, Piotr Józefowicz, Grzegorz Klaman, Kazimierz Kowalczyk, Kacper Ołowski, Jacek Piotrowski, Marek Rogulski, Jerzy Rymar, Jacek Staniszewski, Eugeniusz Szczudło and Sławomir Witkowski.
Curatorial concept: Robert Jarosz

In the last decade of the People’s Poland – a period that spans the birth of the Solidarity movement (1980) and the transformation of the country’s political regime (1989–1990) – artists from the State Higher School of Visual Arts (PWSSP) in Gdańsk and the surrounding area formed an autonomous 'third circulation' of art, which was equally independent from the official structures of the Communist state as well as from the political opposition and the Catholic church. The Tri-City artists became active between the two poles of the Polish realm, yet they were not escapees far-removed from the political reality: the dominant position of the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR), censorship, state media, civic militia units, but they existed beside them, consciously annexing official institutions and venues to their practice.

At the beginning of the 1980s, a new generation emerged from the PWSSP (today’s Academy of Fine Arts) in Gdańsk that manifested an unrestrained and provocative approach to the heritage of the past; they were no strangers to irony and tapped into sharp and explicit political narratives.

Conceptual Art was supplanted by painting characterised by an expressionist gesture, which in Poland was termed 'new expression' or art of the 'new wild'. The first discipline at the PWSSP to react was graphic art, reached by the echoes of the New York street art scene. Janusz Akermann and Sławomir Witkowski did away with the black and white dogma. Having opened lithography to colour, they met with opposition from the conservative part of academy professors. A revolution in sculpture was sparked by iconic human figures, brutally carved with an axe by Eugeniusz Szczudło and Grzegorz Klaman. Klaman and Kazimierz Kowalczyk soon went on to create dramatically topical works on the premises of the academy and beyond, whereas Szczudło authored a unique series of video works.

Given the onrush of new expression, a group of painters from the PWSSP, such as Piotr Józefowicz, Kuba Bryzgalski and Jerzy Rymar, became ostentatiously pre-occupied with the technical perfection of the work. Their pieces betrayed a strong social edge, often targeted against the oppressive Communist regime and its propaganda, based on lies and contempt for the people. The artists’ reaction to the widespread conservatism that dominated the PWSSP – as Piotr Józefowicz said: “they’re shooting at us, but we’re painting model and still lives” – came in the form of revolt and acting out the sick reality of martial law. It is one of the reasons why their work from the 1980s, exhibited mainly in the academic environment – remained off the radar of Polish art critics and audiences.

In Gdańsk, since 1983 Grzegorz Klaman consistently pursued his search for new ways for art to exist. He made his idea of author’s gallery materialise by opening a sequence of venues: Underground, Rotacyjna Gallery, Baraki and – in 1987 – Wyspa Gallery. Acting in close collaboration with Kazimierz Kowalczyk, Eugeniusz Szczudło and Jarosław Fliciński, Klaman turned Wyspa into an autonomous and progressive centre of the Tri-City alternative art scene. Operating on the tip of Granary Island, the gallery co-created the artistic “third circulation.” Exhibiting artists included: Jacek Staniszewski, Andrzej Kuich, Marek Rogulski, Kacper Ołowski and Robert Rumas. Far from a local ghetto, Wyspa became a hotspot of artistic exchange on a national scale.
A distinct space for art was developed by Katarzyna Józefowicz and Marek Rogulski, who – besides artistic gestures of political nature – proposed particular models of autonomous anthropological art. An artist working beyond the academic system was Roman Painter of Women Grabowiecki, who turned the act of destroying his works into the leitmotif of his art.
Besides painting, Joanna Kabala and Andrzej Awsiej created – alongside Maciej Ruciński – the extraordinary group Yo Als Jetzt, who pursued a unique kind of icono-linguistic street poetry. They formed part of the most radical artistic group of the 1980s: TOTART Transitory Formation, for whom they painted stage designs and produced dioramas made of hand-prepared slides.

In 1986, Sopot witnessed the groundbreaking exhibition Expression of the 1980s, curated by Ryszard Ziarkiewicz, which reshaped the image and formatted the division of powers on the Polish contemporary art map, with Tri-City artists represented by Grzegorz Klaman. The idiom of 'new expression' embraced Jacek Staniszewski, whose exhibition Dread Object (1987) led to the closure of Gallery D., run by Ziarkiewicz. Artists from the coast, who functioned outside the black and white division of art into the official and oppositional circulations, were not eagerly invited to exhibit their work. A manifestation of the milieu came with the Warsaw exhibition Arsenał ’88, boycotted by the oppositional artistic circles, which was the first and the last such comprehensive presentation of Polish art, featuring more than a dozen participants from the Tri-City.

The Tri-City art of the 1980s generated non-hierarchical self-organisation structures and non-institutional grassroots phenomena. The artists engaged in experimentation, addressed new topics and developed their own tools of generational expression. Depression, rage and revolt against the system, induced by martial law, became manifest through new expression and realism. The artists transformed neutral and socially disengaged fields of music and art into territories of social communication and pursued an analysis of reality and the atomised society. Artists from the Tri-City created an autonomous world of 1980s art, yet in majority they escaped the attention of mainstream artistic reflection, retaining their positions on the margins.