For Polish artist Joanna Salska, the individual is an entity at once caught in that inescapable tension between being submerged, crushed, annihilated in the web of history, and a movement of defiance against that very entrapment. In her series on the American Southwest, the artist captured its haunting vastness; here no human figures appear.
Then came her series "The Lions." Begun in 1986, for the first time Salska began to use the human figure: but this figure, female, sensual, yet passive, remains preeminently ambiguous. Painted as half still-life, half embodied, it is as if unknown impulses, dangerous, internal forces, were awakening inside her. We can not tell if the female is sexual or pre-sexual, if she is awake or asleep, as we enter the existential state where the female is revealed through the restraints that will be her world.
She does not wake up perhaps, because she does not feel she has a choice; she does not know how to face her fate. Paradoxically, next to the femalešs flat, prostrate form, the majestic lion, poised in strength, hovers near the horizon, as if assuming guardianship over her inert, untried form. The lionšs power seems to protect the female. As Salska explored the condition in our society of being female, of the taut ropes between repression and agency at the core of the femalešs experience, Salska arrived, in the last one of the "Lion Series," at the painting, entitled, "Marilyn Monroe."
Here Salska shapes that symbol of advertisement of what is a female, by using the alluring and tragic figure of the famous actress, whose premature death haunts the star's, and the female's, image.
In her series, "Intolerance," inspired by the tragedy of Tienanmen Square, the artist carries these unresolvable dualities to the ultimate test: the firing line. The lone figure with his small defenseless body faces the progression of armored tanks; the youth is thrown from his bicycle; both are left crushed on the trampled ground. The students raise a flag of defiance: yet each of them remains an individual who must confront the terrifying vulnerability of the self and the overwhelming forces of history at a moment when that tension is most explosive and most lethal.
Joanna Salska, who came to the United States in 1982 to paint on a Yaddo Foundation grant, filtered the horrifying events of Tienan-men Square through the anguished lens of her own and her peoplešs, the Polish people's, collective history. The themes that underlie her canvases, the challenge to make meaning out of the impersonality of historical forces, the negation of political voice, the abeyance of the individual in history, the individual trapped by the forces of social repression, are at the core of her work. Yet those individuals, for all their tragic woundedness, are never left in a passive form.
The artist's moral statement illuminates the anguished struggle against the mutilating forces of society. In subtly yet boldly crafted tensions where color and movement of paint interact, where foreground and horizon repel and invade each other, where forms dissolve and reemerge in defiance of the forthcoming destruction, the artist intervenes on the canvas of history to express her outrage. And the frail, hurting individuals she presents to our eyes claim their poignant humanity.
Her paintings, "All the Flat Nosed Bears," and "Puppets" are a return to themes painted before she began her studies at the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, Poland. Exploring the ambiguity of inanimate toys and puppets, Salska brings them to life through an intense sense of movement, color and spontaneity. In these canvases, the silly toys and puppets, who share much with bats and whales, seem to fly or swim, or both, free from any restraints.
The unmuted colors express the joy of unlimited spontaneity; as if in a dream, or emersed in the uncontested innocence of childhood, the joy of discovery, of being alive, saturate the canvases.
Joanna Salska lives in Berkeley, California, with her husband and their
five year old daughter.