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Contemporary Polish artist Andrzej Umiastowski's benign, beatific figures radiate joy and satisfaction, his vivid renditions as redolent of the seasons, and life's simple joys, as Brueghel -- if Brueghel did New Yorker covers. In a gently comical style, with vivid color and simplicity of line and landscape, Umiastowski presents a celebration of simple, bourgeois joy that, if provincial, is at the same time humble, strong, and delightful. These twenty-two works in oil, on exhibition at the Society for Arts through September 22, 2003, reward the viewer with a vision of charm, mischief, and the incongruous dignity of humanity.
Skier (2001: oil on canvas: 120x100cm) is characteristic of works in this exhibition -- the gently chromatic rural background, here of snow and rosy twilight sky; the stout, comical figure with his companion, a pointed starfish of a dog reminiscent of cartoonist George Booth's slightly deranged bull-terrier. Umiastowski's subjects are at home in a weighty, unrepentant -- dare one say it? -- Midwestern stoutness. His people seem never to have heard of dieting, and not to care that they haven't. In previous works (and some in this exhibition) the figures approached an absurd, Botero-like rotundity, with hams like hot air balloons, buttocks like Clydesdales. For the most part, here the weightiness is reined in: they are less swelled-to-burst than well-fed, rotund with solidity and respectability. Middle-aged, middle-class, the resolutely egg-shaped Skier is gently comical, with the self-conscious smile of a businessman caught without briefcase and suit, and rather foolishly in knit cap and old-fashioned skis; aware of the subtle absurdity of winter dress and sport, but out enjoying it anyway. The artist pokes gentle fun at human pleasures with a charm that, while humorous, refrains from overt caricature.
Umiastowski captures middle-class humanity with an affable, affectionate satire of its foibles, and often, an engaging, self-satisifed cheeriness that borders on mischief. Trudging through the still winter landscape with his double armful of sticks, the well-bundled-up Man In Forest (2003: oil on canvas: 100x120cm) is at home with himself, gleeful, almost puckishly so, in his task. Likewise the unpretentious countryman in With A Pig (2003: oil on canvas: 73x92cm), whose mirthful smirk has a distinct undertone of impish pleasure. The green drift of meadow-horizon and angled polygon of the tilled field center the man, his bicycle, and his hapless porcine cargo firmly in this rural landscape. It is a cheeriness which cannot help but tease an answering smile from the viewer.
The winter backgrounds of the artist, who hails from Gdansk in northern Poland, could be equally the Midwest, upstate New York, or New England. Umiastowski knows winter well: its barrenness, its off-whiteness, its moody descent into blue and indigo shadow during these, the shortest of days. Winter is not simply white; snow is as responsive as water to subtleties of light and shadow; and the artist wields a feel for both winter's subdued palette, and the necessities of its cold, short days. His figures, amidst the barren season, work or play; and when they work, they seem to labor against time. In both Wood Carting (2003: oil on canvas: 100x81cm) and Wood Carting II (2003: oil on canvas: 100x81cm) the diagonals tip the action strongly toward or away from the viewer, highlighting the sense of necessary urgency, the need to finish the strenuous task before the close of a day already dimming. The frosty snort of the draft horse and blue, twilit dimness in the pine avenue evoke the deepening chill. In Man In Winter the single figure seems overwhelmed by wilderness, trudging up the cold and solitary snow hill with his back to the viewer, his bundle of kindling stretching out behind like a pheasant's tail. The strong diagonals that evoke winter toil are tipped and tilted more playfully in Cavalcade (2001: oil on canvas: 73x54cm) to capture the inebriate feel of the occasion, possibly a Polish kulig -- a festive all-night excursion into the woods during the dead of winter around New Year's, gathering around a bonfire with plenty to drink. Crocked, tired, happy, three men jaunt home at a brisk trot, and even the horse, tossing his head as he exits the picture frame, seems to have had a few too many.
The seasons are strong backgrounds here, with as much character as the figures within them. If Umiastowski's visions of winter are pale and chill, his summer is all bright green and blue, filled with sunlit, vibrant zip, the light, intense, heart-lifting green of young leaves. It is a warmth emotional, expansive, appealing to the senses. The vivid brightness and the framing of a mere one or two subjects, captured in informal poses against a simple background, lends a family-album quality to these images, in which the women especially have the unselfconscious grace of a bygone era, recalling stout aunts or husky farm wives. Delight (2003: oil on canvas: 100x81cm) is just that, the fathomless blue-green expanse of water isolating the rotund figure in her simple pleasure, cooling her feet among the lily pads, head charmingly tilted in her Hollywood sunglasses. "All women have Helen in their hearts," said poet William Carlos Williams, and this is a vision of warm, complete summer satisfaction. Vacation (2003: oil on canvas: 100x120cm) is a playful offering, the trio of massive ladies counterpointed by the lightness of the inflated beach ball, their pastel bathing suits downplaying their improbable girths.
In Procession (2003: oil on canvas: 120x100cm) the bright yellows of the ceremonial copes are buoyingly cheerful, backed by a windswept blue sky with the tilting shiplike shape of the sacred icon and its banners heaving into view. Procession draws the viewer into a melding of sacred and secular: the mysterious sway of the banners and icons, with their bearers kicking up a very earthly dust, the forward movement created by the wedge-shaped composition highlighting a sense of action advancing to the viewer's very feet. The yellow copes and white garments unite the mens as a group, but within this uniformity, Umiastowski illustrates a series of delightfully distinct individuals. With a broad smile the leftmost front figure scatters particolored confetti from outstretched hands, obliviously, beatifically happy. Others are a variety of town types, including one or two blinking owl-like through thick-lensed glasses, while in the center of the crowd is clearly the organizer: cherubic with civic goodwill, beaming all over his face, a glint in his alert eye as enterprising as any alderman.
In formal composition these works are filled with subtle pleasures. In Bikers the story implied in the turned head of the pedaling man, watching the hefty woman who has just passed on her own bicycle, is complemented in its mystery by the receding vista of the path, which leads the eye to the edge of its unknown destination. The fields to left and right, and the horizon of the hedgerow with its colonnade poplars, form a series of shapes, the point at which they interlock forming the nexus of the story, the two cyclists. We see neither of their faces, thus heightening the mystery of this everyday encounter. The Skaters (2003: oil on canvas: 100x120cm) sway like awkward starfish, trying their balance on the winter-hard surface of the local pond. The characteristic wedge-shape of their outstretched limbs is mirrored in the shaping of the shorelines, while the artist captures with a superb sense of movement the dual momentum of the individual skaters swaying to keep their forward-driving balance, and the clockwise, circular flow of the group of them, round and round the pond. And in Fishing (2003: oil on canvas: 81x100cm) the weight of the plump fisherman and his weathered green-and-red dory is balanced so perfectly by the tiny bobber at the end of the supple curved pole and implied thread of fishing line. Further background detail would disturb the almost calligraphic equilibrium, and Umiastowski balances his oil sketch of fisherman, boat and pole with only a hint of setting, a diffuse wash of dawnlight, melting horizonless into the blue-green of the lake's surface: the early morning of fishing, where in the mist the lake and sky blend into one.
This is the reality of small things, often both fond and foolish. Umiastowski evokes it expertly. And at times his fond foolishness wafts aloft in flights of amusing fantasy. The two Thurber-esque beings in Angels (2001: oil on canvas: 120x110cm) wear business suits, pass one another cigarettes, strap on their wings with the dutiful shrug of salesman hefting their sample cases: an office boy's imagination of what angels might be. Three Graces takes the artist's predilection for feminine fleshiness to an extreme. Smoothed into rounded curves, with a bloom of subtle, rosy color, they have the succulence of peaches and an almost Disney appeal; as charmingly weighty as the ballerina hippo in Fantasia's "Dance of the Hours." Need a goddess be honed to Amazonian leanness? These too are goddesses, peering through the flowers and reeds at the charmed spring. It is an image of feminine amplitude as age-old as the Venus of Willendorf, delivered with a kittenish lightness, and, yes, grace.
Bright colors, human focus and gentle amusement, rendered with an urbane wit and simplicity. These twenty-two works in oil will be at the Society for Arts's 1112 Gallery through September 22, 2003. Humanity, poised against the seasons, serenely immersed in life's simple pleasures; excursions into Walter Mitty fantasy, or into a provincial, yet satisfied reality. Well worth a special trip, Umiastowski's new works are observant and sweet, slightly mischevious, in short... a delight.
Born in Gdansk, Poland in 1959, Andrzej Umiastowski has exhibited widely in Poland, Germany and France. His 1999 and 2002 exhibitions in the United States were hosted by the Society for Arts in Chicago. Catalogues of the artist's work are available at the gallery for a small fee.
--Katherine Rook Lieber
Editorial Note: Andrzej Umiastowski was previously reviewed by ArtScope.net as part of The Polish Connection: Contemporary Polish Artists in Chicago, July 2000, Part II (http://www.artscope.net/VAREVIEWS/athenaeum0700-2.shtml). William Carlos Williams is quoted from his poem "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower."
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