Sasnal is a contemporary Polish artist who has gained international recognition for his depictions of day-to-day life in a society in transition to a market-based economy. He has worked in different media including drawing, film and photography but he is best known as a painter. He is highly prolific, having produced several hundred paintings in a diverse range of styles in the first five years of the twenty-first century. His early work was often directly representational with images sourced from photographs and consumer products. Many of these paintings incorporated text: dates, price tags and other units of measurement. This work has been read as a contemporary updating and as a subversion of a Pop Art sensibility, but from an Eastern European perspective.
Sasnal’s recent work has become more enigmatic and subjective in content; his imagery is frequently ambiguous. His painting has been compared to the work of Gerhard Richter (born 1932; see Self-Portrait, Three Times, 24.1.90, 1990, Tate T06514) in its conflation of different painting styles and its use of photography as source material. Sasnal’s influences are wide-ranging, encompassing literary as well as visual sources. Visually voracious, he draws inspiration from everything around him, suggesting a non-hierarchical visual approach. This is echoed in the installations of his work, where paintings of different styles are hung together. The critic Gregor Jansen has described the complexity of Sasnal’s work:
Sasnal’s paintings ... are, with few exceptions, small, handy, and seemingly intimate, yet characterised by an obvious, paradoxical worldliness, in which existing images are subjected to renegotiation, appropriation, examination and renewed levelling (Gregor Jansen, ‘Petite Sensation’, Parkett, no.70, 2004, p.91).
Untitled (a) is part of a series of works Sasnal made on the subject of America following a trip to Chicago to visit relatives. This painting depicts five figures wearing black hoods which make them appear to be members of a religious sect. It is unclear whether they are participating in a ritual performance or a celebration. The hoods have sinister resonances, suggesting the headwear of members of the Ku Klux Klan or prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Sasnal has a long-standing interest in the history of internment and subjugation in Poland during the Second World War. This painting seems to hint at the historical inevitability of violence and repression.
A companion painting with the same title is also in Tate’s Collection (see Untitled (a), 2004, Tate T11915). Seen together, the two paintings suggest the artist’s ambivalent attitude towards contemporary American culture.
Carina Plath, Beatrix Ruf, Andrzej Przywara and Ulrich Loock, Wilhelm Sasnal: Night Day Night, exhibition catalogue, Kunsthalle Zürich, 2003.
Meghan Dailey, Adam Szymczyk and Gregor Jansen, ‘Collaboration: Wilhelm Sasnal’, Parkett, no.70, 2004, pp.58-95, reproduced pp.58-59 in colour (detail).
Alison M. Gingeras and Patricia Ellis, The Triumph of Painting, exhibition catalogue, Saatchi Gallery, London 2005.
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