THINKING WITH THE SENSES
Boguslaw Deptula talks to Lukasz Huculak
Bogusław Deptuła:Why is a fragment more interesting than the whole?
ŁUKASZ HUCULAK:I'm not sure that "more interesting" is the right wording… however, wholes are usually extensive narratives which offer several options of seeing them, both in terms of the sequence, the direction of the gaze, and the method of interpretation. Fragments affect me by their simplicity and reductiveness, the fact that they are instantly grasped, but even though they are graspable at first sight, they are not easy to capture, to name. For me, details stand for a return to how I imagined painting and picture at the very beginning, when I thought that it should be devoid of narration, that it must not allow the viewer to name and put things together, that it should be a split-second situation rather than being protracted. What's more, fragments embrace simplicity, a kind of ambiguity, they are hardly accessible to language. You have to speculate, you can hardly put your finger on spatial relations. It's not always something, quite often it's a je-ne-sais-quoi.
BD:Are you attempting to prop this up with theory?
ŁH:Painting takes up a lot of time, too much time to systematise everything in a scientific manner. However, there is a branch of philosophy called mereology which is a theory of the relations of part to whole. What interests me is how reality is made up of partial phenomena. I think it is fascinating that things meet, come together, work like a whole, but if you take the whole apart, you may discover that the parts lose the complete structural relation with the whole and break off. What seemed to be a whole turns out to be but a fragment of something else, something bigger. Or vice versa. Ever since the theory of relativity has become popular, we realise how important the reference system is: whether you see something at a distance, as a whole, or from up close, only as a "blown up" fragment. Depending on your vantage point, reality changes and so do things which are ontologically identical. Such entities are wholes but then depending on whether you look at them at a distance or up close they may be parts of another whole or a whole which, watched up close, reveals its further separate fragments, details which are invisible or irrelevant from another vantage point. What puzzles me in the practice of painting is that minute changes make a huge difference to the picture and its effect. Sometimes a single dot, a miniscule change of shade, turns out to be key. You can see it particularly well if you study magnified fragments of other paintings. What seems to be key at first sight or even on closer scrutiny will often turn out to be irrelevant. You then find that in fact the whole impact of the picture hinged upon something else, something peripheral that you failed to see in the beginning.
BD:I would be interested to know more about mereology: is it about science or philosophy?
ŁH:It is a philosophical theory of part and whole, a fairly precise system close to mathematics. It is different from phenomenology – although I believe that it could be reconciled with phenomenology – in that fragments provide insight into reality that phenomenology searches for and in addition explain some mechanisms of perception.
BD:I would think that your practice has a phenomenological foundation instead of what you would like to see in it…
ŁH:This is how it all started. Phenomenology has always fascinated me but I am also interested in a kind of "meta-reflection". Phenomenology tries to avoid theorising and strives to walk the borderline, examine the moment of perception before it is covered up by methodology. I am often tempted in a purely formal sense to mathematise the process in terms of attempting to theorise something in an accurate and consistent manner, even though this is not quite my cup of tea as I am a humanities guy.
BD:A contemporary painter, one you would never expect, created very complex geometric figures to construct his paintings. And you who have the propensity to approach pictures in a systematising philosophical manner, would you not like to use a chart of some kind? Leonardo used to say that painting is a cosa mentale.
ŁH:Yes… it was a Renaissance proclivity to marry painting to science, and yet it is in the first place an activity which addresses the senses. Indeed, I am not eager to mathematise the practice of painting as I shy away from predictability. But on the other hand I am all for awareness of the process of perception; the picture is the ideal object for such analysis. Painting is first and foremost a matter of the senses, even if I do not stand for an attack on the senses in the Expressionistic vein. I believe that painting speaks to emotions but not only "bodily" ones. This is why I have a penchant for phenomenology: I am interested in perceiving by thinking or, to paraphrase the title of a Venice Biennale, thinking with the senses, reflective emotion which is neither cool calculation nor only a feeling. It is certainly not the key to understand how a picture has been made and how it affects me. It is much better to remain perplexed and to leave the sensation unexplained. Fortunately, so many coincidences work hand in hand in a picture that neither analysis nor synthesis provides the complete answer. Besides, I think that science also increasingly fails to explain things away as its answers turn out to be working hypotheses which open up new vistas onto the unknown. Contrary to the Enlightenment belief, intellectual efforts will not dispel all doubts in the end. The more you get into it, the more complicated it gets. Even though questions get answered, you also find out that the explanations border on an expanding space of the unknown and the unexplainable or even the illogical.
BD:Yes, it's just like the structure of the atom. We used to think we know how it looks only to observe the emergence of further micro-elements and micro-structures…
ŁH:They emerge and often display contradictory characteristics depending on the frame of reference you take.
BD:We are sitting in your studio where you have amassed a huge quantity of fragments and wholes. There are postcards with paintings as well as your photographs of cut-out fragments, which in turn could become new wholes and often do so in your paintings. A while ago Tadeusz Różewicz referred to this in a very ordinary way: "Always a fragment".
ŁH:I have always been taking photos of fragments in addition to taking photos of whole paintings. Now most paintings are widely available, you can google them, so I practically only take photos of fragments. I don't do it systematically: I tend to forget where a fragment belongs, as this is irrelevant. Some of these paintings are so derivative that I can only identify them when I revisit the museum, for instance Baldung Grien's defragmented "Lot" in Berlin which I though was the "Pieta". The unrecognisability, the spatial inconsistency, the non-obviousness are so attractive. Combine this with faults of the photograph: lack of focus, a shifting image, as some of the photos had to be taken undercover. Take "The Gaze", which I painted from a copy: I was thinking it was part of an arm and then I checked the Bellini catalogue and saw that it was really a buttock. Once you know the whole, you can locate the part in space and interpret it but if you only see a part, the planes get mixed up so the background may look like the foreground, what is small may seem large; I find such phenomenological ambiguity fascinating. In abstract paintings, the fragment is identical to the whole: a Constructivist abstract painting is a composition of divisions at the level of the whole and at the level of detail. A mimetic or realistic painting may be realistic at the level of the whole and abstract at the level of detail. I find it fascinating that something may operate in the order of naming and narration and, a moment later, in another order, which is not subordinated to naming or narration.
BD:I like that you look at paintings, you are an artist who feeds on art. I also like that you are inspired both by high art and lame art, mediocre art, primitive art, the margins of art, like a fragment of an anonymous painting.
ŁH:There are several reasons for my interest in less popular art. Naïveté and primitivism are certainly important as I assign these categories a positive value (here comes phenomenology again) in terms of pre-scientific sensitivity, being astounded, looking at reality in a not quite coherent or systemic manner. To boot, at some point you get fed up with the textbook names and develop an interest in more private discoveries; they may be of inferior quality but they are your own. You want to be an explorer rather than absorbing knowledge which has already been systematised. There is some naïveté to it as I often give in to the charm of things that objectively speaking have no value. What I find interesting here is the singular and primeval aspect of things that are not common or classified, also at the level of specific paintings, as pointed out by Morelli. Mature, well-educated painters working on an important commission were somehow predictable: they followed the rules, copied patterns. Naturally, it was not always the case. There were painters like Caravaggio who built their work on unpredictability, renewal; and yet many artists deployed specific rules in the construction of the whole painting or the refinement of details. What is interesting is that the painters took liberties with those fragments which were considered irrelevant to the commission. We may suppose or hope that they thus allowed themselves more honesty and more insight as painters. Such elements were not relevant to the iconography, so instead of focusing on the canon the painters were being more artistic.
BD:Giovanni Morelli said that painters paint secondary elements in the background mechanically without paying real attention; this way, they were being more genuine and are easier identifiable at those moments. I have recently seen El Greco's "St. Francis" at the Royal Castle in Warsaw. There is a rule to it: a fingernail painted by El Greco is always almond-shaped. It's true of all figures in "The Burial of the Count of Orgaz".
ŁH:Morelli carefully studied the earlobe, the nail, and the folds of textile. I am fascinated by it because such detail often conceals awkwardness. To my mind, originality is not only made of the things we know how to do but mainly the things we don't. These determine more of our differences and diversity. In fact, our skills that we share make us the same while individuality is unmasked by handicap, by what is hard for us, what we avoid, and how we cope with it. Morelli's details, both in architecture and garments, are intriguing with their spatial quality; they have a three-dimensional effect and yet they remain unrecognisable. On the one hand, they have the attributes of being realistic; on the other hand, they are abstract in a sense. At some point, it is no longer a button, a neck, or a wall but the spherical quality, the roughness, the acuity, or the liquidity of transition.
BD:And yet you have issues with transitioning to abstract painting… I'm not sure whether you don't want to or can't do it but I sense that you resist it. You actually fit into a long tradition of contemporary artists who never crossed that threshold. They stood there but never crossed it… Picasso, Matisse, Czapski, and others. They approached the boundary but could never cross it mentally. For a while now you have been making paintings that could be called abstract but that are not abstract. They are fragments which in theory do not represent anything but in fact accurately present something very real.
ŁH:I like other artists' abstract paintings. Paintings which do not give the illusion of three dimensions. I have made such paintings but they do not satisfy me. This could be yet another kind of primitivism and yet I need to find out every time whether I can reliably represent three dimensions, depth. Besides, I think that if everything has been done, then it has been done in abstract rather than figurative painting, but I could be wrong. The rules which govern the construction of a plane, whether geometrically based on relations or emotionally by deploying gravitation and swooping gestures as in dripping, limit your possibilities. There are more possibilities where the rules of the plane collaborate, interweave with the rules of reality which is the original model for the plane. Although I do believe that reality includes fragments or even wholes that are abstract. All you have to do is take the right perspective, either make an approach or take enough distance to get rid of the context, to make things ungraspable, hard to name. On the other hand, some things which were executed as abstractions, such as Kandinsky's famous "First Abstract Watercolour", were subsequently easily contextualised within reality, such as within the world of microbiology. Quite often things which seem to be abstract remain abstract only until another layer of reality manifests itself to us.
BD:At some point, you flirted with Surrealism which in fact is not the kind of art you feel close to. This was entirely absent, covert, until at some point you made the gesture and it has been a constant constitutive part of your work ever since. What I mean is the series "Foams" and "Experiments". It should be noted that your paintings can be divided by several themes which keep alternating and coming back.
ŁH:Indeed, I have never felt close to Surrealism in philosophical terms. I come from the position that reality is strange enough without being stylised as more bizarre. As a result, I was never swayed by fairy-tale Surrealist narratives. Having said that, I should be taking photographs, and yet I have never been satisfied by copying reality or its fragments directly. There is something to the practice of painting which seems to me to be more convincing and more real than a photograph, a copy. At some point, I found it more real not to paint a model but to try and recreate it according to rules other than direct visual proximity, showcasing the character and the properties of paint and of all the other means of painting.
BD:Without judging what you say, it would seem that the world of imagination does not attract you all that much…
ŁH:No, in fact it doesn't. Not as a fully arbitrary construct that is independent of reality. But I am thrilled by it as a mechanism of mental reproduction of reality, turning physical images into visions and vice versa; constructing a physical image that is consistent with its imaginary image; creating a counterpart to a fragment of reality in a new environment, with paint, on a plane; a combination of these two worlds. This is the naturalness of "foams": nature is not what is shown but what was used in the making.
BD:On the other hand, how does it matter whether you're inspired by reality or imagination? After all, this is all your creation.
ŁH:I am fascinated unknowingly. Yet, this may not be about reality so much as about the moment you notice it, a phenomenological short-circuit. I think that the aversion to direct realism shows in the belief that a picture should work within a split second; however, what works within a split second is not the realism of the picture but its colour and structure. If the structure is too fragmented and the colour palette is too broad, all you can see is chaos and you get involved emotionally rather than reflexively. This is the origin of my narrow colour palette, which is in a way calculated: in the beginning, it was like solving an equation, achieving the colour cohesion by painting layer upon layer where the differences between the layers were minimal. This is also the origin of the systematised composition: while I do not like an obvious dominant, I like a picture to suggest a key to the composition. There is a contradiction in it: on the one hand, I have difficulty engaging in a purely abstract method; on the other hand, I tend to conceive of and systematise reality.
BD:I believe that you are a painter who is always dissatisfied with his work. Let me ask a naïve question: what would be a good painting, one that you would be happy with?
ŁH:True… Satisfaction offered by success is much less lasting than irritation caused by a failed painting. This makes you mad, especially that those states are so subjective… Maybe a perfect painting would be one of the details I paint now but much bigger? I would like to make paintings that would be absolutely absorbing spatially and absolutely unrecognisable but at the same time astounding through their size and completely engrossing physically.