Several times over the past few months I have stopped into the studio of Jerry Michalski to both visit with my friend and, importantly, see the steady process of his painting. Important, because I would be opening the exhibition of this new work and I wanted to familarize myself as best I could with the paintings and Jerry’s painting of them before writing my introductory remarks.
The opening happened last Friday evening at the Colville Gallery in Hobart to a small, yet appreciative crowd of between 50 to 60 people. Afterwards, at a local restaurant with friends, we celebrated the fact that on opening night red dots were placed beneath five paintings (for any artist, always a welcome sight).
For the most part, the speech I had prepared was spoken, more or less, as written:
Jerzy Michalski A few words about a decent man.
Let me preface this opening address with a qualifier; a quote from the German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke:
“Works of art belong immeasurably to themselves, and are accessible least of all to criticism. Always trust your own feeling, rather than others’ discussions, interpretations, and arguments.”
In other words, know that whatever I say is totally subjective.
How many people here, when you hear the latest spin coming out of the mouths of politicians, or their multitude of advisors, just want to puke? Or when you read the latest press release on the biggest, most ever important event to be happening in the world; i.e. the birth of twins or a royal marriage, you just want to crawl into a hole and surround yourself with a few good books and a few good paintings in order to give yourself some tangible sense of depth or meaning?
Let me read something I came across recently that acknowledges that even in the art world, art speak these days tends to be a wank of dumbed down speech.
“There seems to be a reconfiguring of values here as to what we want to know about the arts. It’s not their critical value and redemptive power, it’s simply when, where and how much? A connection might be made here between this and broader cultural shifts that have seen the arts become a popular and trendy inner-city leisure activity.
The arts are now less of an intellectual pastime and more of an aspirational weekend pursuit that you can shop for like everything else.”
I say all this because if their is anything about the paintings in this exhibition, it is that they demand to be viewed with both an intellectual curiosity and a responsive, feeling heart. Jerry Michalski’s paintings are the antithesis of this smarmy, dumbing down of the arts.
So, when you crawl into your hole to avoid the banality of our world, take a Jerry Michalski painting with you.
In the many years I’ve known Jerry, I have watched how his paintings have, not gotten better — as they have always been masterly works — but gotten deeper. Like a miner who slowly through the years with his pick chips away, searching in the darkness for veins of silver, Jerry, with his paintbrush has searched the mysterious dark of creation for veins of light, of inspiration, of a means to express what the pounding is in his heart.
Simon Schama: ‘The Power of Art’:
“If art can make you happy, can it also make you good? If it can move you to ecstasy or tears, should it also move you to be a stand-up citizen? Can modern secular painting have the conversionary power of Christian masterpieces: the power to save souls, not from sin, but from selfishness. Ought the power of art lend itself to the art of power?”
These questions posed by Simon Schama are, indeed, answered in the affirmative by Jerry. Behind his masterly, technical competence, oozes a hidden redemptive search. His paintings are a powerful statement on the power of position and wealth in our society. They are, however, depending on the viewer, ambiguous in translation as to whether what lies within these elegant ordered structures is good or bad, useful or destructive.
To help us decipher these paintings, Jerry has written on the back of several of them selected poems from the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert.
One wouldn’t know it when walking into Jerry’s studio — where the visual impact of finished paintings, half finished paintings, tubes of paint and numbers of brushes make a hugh visual impact — that Jerry is a heavy reader of poetry.
When I asked him whether a particular painting was the result of an inspired image from a poem, or, whether the poem was chosen to fit the painting after the fact, Jerry couldn’t separate the two out. He constantly reads his beloved poets, and he constantly paints. These two worlds are fused. And it doesn’t matter if the chicken came before the egg, the addition of poetry allows for a further articulation of each painting.
I offer a few excerpts:
On the back of the painting ‘White Interior’ the enigmatic lines from the poem ‘Study of the object’ reads, in part:
“The most beautiful is the object which does not exist…”
“it is the pre-world
a white paradise
of all possibilities
you may enter there
strikes the naked horizon”
For the painting ‘Dorm’ these lines:
“those who paint interiors…
the severe brush of the hunched master
so they penetrate the interiors of tenement houses
and peer into the heart as into a bag of silver
and see only a blind man who is counting pearls
a dishonoured girl beaten deceived people
dark weeping below…
the clear water of fresh floods
is requested by the brush”
In the painting ‘The Edge’, Jerry has copied a miniature version of David’s ‘The Oath of the Horatii’. What is this about?, you might ask. The answer is partly provided with his selection of the poem ‘Why the Classics”. Again, selected lines:
“generals of the most recent wars..
whine on their knees before posterity
praise their heroism and innocence
they accuse their subordinates
As in the painting ‘The Edge’ there are others that include classic masterpieces.There is the inclusion of Francisco Goya’s ‘The Colossus’; Ferdinand Keller’s ‘Bocklin’s Tomb’; and, Caravaggio’s ‘Beheading of St. John the Baptist’. All have significance, but the meaning, as mentioned before, is subjective to the viewer. Is it about a valiant heroism? or, a suicidal oath of blind stupidity to patriarchy?
In the Rilke quote I used earlier, he further writes that “only love can grasp [the poem or the painting] and hold them and respond to them fairly.” Therefore, if love is the arbiter of any discussion of art, I think Jerry’s paintings are asking each of us “How shall we love when we have lost everything.”
Your superannuation gets decimated in the Global Financial Crisis or some Ponzi scheme. Your lover runs off with your best friend? Maybe your body is slowly deteriorating and most mornings are a mixture of pills and coffee to get you going. You see your house ravaged by floods or bush fires, the seas depleted of fish and coral reefs.
Most of the paintings here speak, if not loudly, than insistently about loss. Especially, loss caused by living in an increasingly lonely, detached, isolated and barren world even though we are surrounded by the “markings of success”: expensive clothes, home, children in private schools, second home at
Like great theatrical stage sets, where western consumerism is laid bare and all the world struts around stripped of meaning, these paintings are exquisitely presented yet stuffed with suffering. They are an elegant, sophisticated, rich tapestry of contemporary life.
How “shall” we live in a broken world?
Look carefully. Look deeply. Look compassionately. The answer lies somewhere between the oiled and layered image on the canvas and the thin wall of denial around each of our hearts.
Jerry would ask that you the viewer, look at your addictive consumerist behavioral patterns and see how trapped we all are. Myself included. We need to see that this world is, and always has been and will be, a world of complex intricacies where darkness and light, the profane and the spiritual, mingle and dance a galactic spiral of yen and yang. We need to see that what ultimately is most important is community and a sense of belonging to place.
These are not depressing paintings. Yes, they present a depressing aspect of living in today’s world, but with observation comes awareness. And a tool, a key, a path, a means of gathering within our psyches the strength and ability to walk our laments with praise, to find joy in the charred remains of a crumbling world.
Jerry is not asking you to be a viewer in the normal sense of remaining outside the frame of reference. Rather, you are asked to engage and join in with the emotional reality of what is being presented. Jerry wants us to see ourselves in these paintings. The viewer needs to merge with both the beauty and the sorrow depicted. We, of the western consumerist world, are placed firmly within his paintings. Embedded within our cultural values, along with the incredible wealth of goodies brought to us by our “high” standard of living, is a long shadow of disconnect with the natural world, our animality.
Within the vastness of these human edifices that Jerry has painted, you are compelled to walk the streets or inhabit the offices and apartments and museums that are deliberately devoid of a single leaf or other indication of a human connection to a greener, natural world, animal world.
LIndsay Tuffin writing about the opening of MONA said:
“this Museum celebrates our animality ..
… if you deny your animality and your fundamentals of Darwinian struggle, you are already dead …”
The implication is that we have to bring the primal monkey and the tree it inhabits back into our everyday world. Jerry does this, but not by portraying just the debauched, nihilistic animal world, that beheads or goes off to war and gets drunk at openings and behaves outrageously. But, equally, by emphasizing, the sacred, feminine Gaian aspects of this world where the soulful virtues of heart, feeling, sensitivity and compassion are embraced; where the right side of our animal brain gains the ascendency over the left.
These paintings are not puerile, nor sensationalist. The underlying thread invisibly woven throughout all of them is the call to live a forgiving love. It is our great task to find a way to love this broken world of ours while we are losing everything and not succumb to apathy, ennui or a wasting hedonistic life style of adult Disneyland proportions.
Rilke would sum up this exhibition with:
“Whatever image you take within you deeply,
even for a moment in a lifetime of pain,
see how it reveals the whole — the great tapestry.”
Jerry Michalski would warn:
“if art for its subject
will have a broken jar
a small broken soul
with a great self-pity
what will remain after us
will be like lovers’ weeping
in a small dirty hotel
when wallpaper dawns”