When I go to a concert, besides the sound of the instruments, I am fascinated by the musicians themselves. Their dynamic gestures and facial expressions reveal emotions and lend credence to their artistry. Undoubtedly, this influences the reception of the event and enhances the experience.
In contrast, this contact with the creator is difficult to achieve when the artist’s act of creation takes place in the studio. A conversation during the vernissage is a completely different kind of experience. I was lucky, then, to observe Piotr Nowak’s process in 2018 at the Centre for Polish Sculpture in Oronsko, Poland. This was possible thanks to our joint participation in the three-week International Ceramic Open Air LAB ORO. I observed his work with great interest at the table, or more correctly tables, on which he constructed form after form. We also spoke a great deal with each other. Piotr is a graduate of the Faculty of Ceramics and Glass at the Eugeniusz Geppert Academy of Fine Arts in Wroclaw, Poland, where I have been a professor for over thirty years. I met him when he was a first-year student in my Fundamentals of Ceramic Design and Forming course. The format for this year-long course does not lend itself to the establishing of a master-student relationship, therefore I have no reason, let alone the intention, to present myself as the mentor of this established and mature artist.
During this time, his attitude was already bringing attention to himself, and I remember well the creation of the works that would constitute his 2009 M.A. thesis project under the direction of professor Przemysław Lasak. I listened with interest to his observations and reflections on the subsequent period when he continued his education at the Visual Arts Department of the National Academy of Fine Arts in Oslo, Norway. I was even more fascinated by the stories of the uneasy beginnings of his artistic independence, which every young artist must go through, but few succeed in navigating. Only the most persistent have a chance, endowed not only with talent, but also with true passion and a bit of luck.
If our metric for success is the ability to continue working and exhibiting in our chosen field, the mid-career retrospective exhibition ”Esencja Zgrzytu” shows that Piotr has indeed achieved success. That exhibition left me with the distinct impression that, although the work was extremely varied and considerably larger in scale than any of his exhibitions to date, nothing was accidental. This begins with the exhibition locale itself -BWA in Olsztyn, Poland- where Piotr, as a student at the local art high school, first experienced contemporary art. He spoke emotionally about this at his vernissage, and about how his previous knowledge of the exhibition space allowed him to plan the layout of his work to perfection. This is especially impressive, considering the sheer quantity and variety of the work on display.
In analyzing the artistry of Piotr Nowak, we must consider the whole spectrum of his work. His scale extends from monumental pieces in an open, site-specific space, to smaller, more intimate pieces. Most are spatial forms, which may include planar compositions or modular reliefs. Separate from the objects that fit the more classical definition of sculpture, he builds interactive pieces. He creates installations, uses new media, and combines materials in an unconventional way without sacrificing his focus on traditional craftsmanship that results directly from the nature of the material. He consciously uses intense hues and contrasts, but also delivers works based on a subdued sense of harmony.
Is the reason for his aggressive approach to his art the search for his own form of expression, the insatiable drive and need for experimentation, or a mapped-out and adopted strategy? The answer to that probably will reveal itself after decades of creative activity. He references this question in the title of the exhibition „Esencja zgrzytu” (The Grinding Essence), but I am deeply convinced that it results from the conscious choice of an artist embedded in a contemporary context. And this context is extremely complex and dynamic.
In taking on such a wide range of questions and utilizing such a broad means of expression, there is a risk of diluting his message. In this particular case, confidence in the creator is maintained as there is no problem identifying his work without having to look at the description. When taken as an entirety, all his disparate projects combine effortlessly with each other. Each subsequent piece is a results of the previous one. The exhibition allows you to follow further fascinations and discoveries, but also returns to the motives and issues that have driven him from the beginning. To an extent, the exhibition can be related to Borges’ „The Garden of Forking Paths”.
The presented works surprise and intrigue in equal measure, but the dearest to me will always be those whose creation I was a witness to. I look with satisfaction at the brain sculptures made from grogged clay, carefully placed in neat rows and columns. I remember their moment of creation, how efficiently and quickly they were pressed from a negative form. This monotonous technique gave me the impression of an impatient and rote production, while at the same time, thanks to the use of colored glazes, each individual copy gained its own expression. This is a reflection of the uniqueness of the human brain itself.
Contributing to the unique nature of these pieces was the Japanese Raku firing method that was employed. There is a special alchemy to this process, a result of discipline and spontaneity, technology and philosophy in which the process is just as important as the physical result. I have kept one more memory from this experience, which I connect to the „grind” of the exhibition’s title. There was the slightly surreal image of Piotr pushing an ordinary wheelbarrow filled to the brim, not with construction materials, but a mound of glistening brains, transporting them in this way from the kiln yard into the workshop. He did it with ease, even some bravado, far from showing the careful hands of a collector of ceramic heirlooms. A moment later, you could see where his care comes in as he laid the objects out and considered their fascia, looking for the perfect position of each individual piece to create the impact he wanted. He impressed me with combining a sense of nonchalance with true precision. To me, this is a characteristic of a true creator; knowing what they are striving for without counting on luck, balancing spontaneity and the value of accidents with a systematic, experimental approach.
My presence in the creation of some of the works presented at the exhibition added a great value to my experience. The emotions that I feel about our work together surely influence my very special and personal approach to the achievements of Piotr Nowak. This is not meant to suggest that a fully objective assessment would be anything less, in fact the opposite is surely true. I hope that my opinion will be shared by other viewers of his activities, regardless of whether they came into contact with him personally or know him indirectly through communing with his art.
prof. Krzysztof Rozpondek