Chance Encounters of the Natural Kind: The Painting of Grzegorz Pleszynski


For those of us raised to revere the general tenets of humanist thought and all its associated offshoots – rationalism, the autonomous individual, the concept of free will, the rule of law, to name just a few – the ubiquity of postmodern sensibilities must be cause for alarm. A good deal of the postmodern world view must be seen as a countermovement against the 500-year dominance of humanist thought. We are talking about the strident critique of humanism which might claim, for example, in the words of the firebrand Michel Foucault that “humanity exists just as tenuously as life, language and work.” Such claims might give rise to the concern that the result is literally and quite simply inhumane, dehumanizing. It might come as a surprise, but in this context the painting of Grzegorz Pleszynski might serve to alleviate our fears, revealing the dismantling of humanist thought as “no reason for more than transitory twinges of grief, and certainly no reason for deep melancholy” In fact, through the prism of Pleszynski’s work, we may conclude that the demise of humanism as we know it is not only no cause for alarm, but rather perhaps even a reason for hope.

Born in 1955, on a personal level Grzegorz Pleszynski displays a plain modesty. When talking about his own art, however, he erupts with ideas that are anything but modest: thoughts about our place in the universe, epistemology, questioning the very existence of knowledge or physical experience. The a-ha incident explaining much of Pleszynski’s apparent self-contradictions is the lasting effect of an extended sojourn in 2002 with aboriginal peoples in the vast desert regions of Australia.

This is all heavy baggage for colorful, simply enchanting paintings.

Pleszynski’s method is simple: the artist hangs modestly(!) sized canvasses on a wall and liberally applies spray paint or acrylic to them. Then he turns the canvases repeatedly so that gravity takes over and causes the paint to drip in streams in one direction or the other. The painter claims to play a relatively minor role in the process, letting natural forces do the work instead.

With these observations, comparison of these canvases to ostensibly similar work dissolves. Despite any superficial resemblance at first glance, Pleszynski’s work has little if anything to do with drip painting in the mode of the abstract expressionist master who is better left unnamed, even if his name must be on the tip of every reader’s tongue here. Besides the simple fact that Pleszynski’s work is created vertically instead of horizontally, it is also neither abstract nor expressionist in the common understanding of these terms. In particular, the brazen artist’s ego associated with drip painting is nowhere to be seen. In its place stand chance encounters with natural forces.

Throughout this painting process, the artist admits to often listening to his own, mostly rather experimental music. Comparison to that music may help in understanding the painting. In a typical piece of music by Pleszynski, mundane objects are placed together to form crude musical instruments. A flexible tube for an aquarium or plumbing might be attached to the narrow end of a metal funnel, for instance, forming a somewhat primitive example of a horned instrument. As the artist blows into the tube, he sways the entire device. The sounds emitted thus are modified by virtually random physical forces rather than manipulating keys according to rigid musical notation. The Doppler effect and the circumstances of the concert environment determine the sounds heard. The music the artist listens to while painting may be seen as the complement of his visual work. Whether it is the Doppler effect or gravity, natural forces are in command.

“Process” is the important word here and the process involved in creating this art is even more important than the images resulting. The artist claims that his works “are objects, not pictures … a process of nature.” And the artistic process does not end there, he explains. Rather it involves not only the power of gravity, but also the neurophysical events which take place when light reflected from the canvases interacts with the viewer’s optic nerves. The image, the picture, is not on the canvas but in our minds. The artist therefore sees himself in a lively conversation with nature and his viewing audience. This also explains why the works have no or merely cryptographic titles or names, or their titles change from exhibit to exhibit. Pleszynski strives to avoid the assumption of fixed meaning in his work, meaning which he sees as an arrogant claim to an authority which puts an end to dialogue.

Along with “process” the other most significant concept here is “chance,” random circumstance. The flukes of nature play a role not only in the way gravity steers the drips of Pleszynski’s paintings. By avoiding any sense of referential meaning, the artist also heightens the importance of the chance encounters of the viewing experience. There is no fixed top or bottom to these works. With these paintings the circumstances of viewing play a more important role in what the artist calls the process of creating an “images of the brain.” Not only vagaries like lighting change the resulting image. There is also no “proper” or predetermined place for the viewer to stand so that each position of viewing must lead to another image. The artist encourages these chance encounters not only by varying the titles of the works but also by varying the way multi-canvas works like X…..1 are hung together.  It is no coincidence that chance plays such an important role in Pleszynski’s work (pun/irony intended). Pleszynski himself circulates among artists associated with the likes of Emmett William’s one of the participants in the art world’s legendary dialogue An Anecdoted Topography of Chance. In this vein, William’s also edited the seminal Anthology of Concrete Poetry, tracing poetry whose “aim was to eliminate the subjective point of view of the author …”

All this reliance on chance marks a seismic shift in aesthetics whose magnitude corresponds to what we would expect with the demise of 500 years of humanism. With chance in the driver’s seat, the advancement of art is now grounded in a Darwinian dialectic instead of any former claims of Hegelian progress. A long era has come to an end.

With this background we can return to the anti-humanism that began this essay and maybe also land upon a few additional surprises.

In short, by placing humanity, or what used to be called “man,” and particularly some uniform notion of humanity at the center of the universe, humanism lays the groundwork for much of the liberation, the creative potential and the nurturing vitality representing the positive side of Western thought. The idea of universal human rights, when taken seriously and not exploited for political purposes, is the most obvious example of this. But Pleszynski’s life with aborigines taught him to question the relevance of such Western notions. Taken to its logical extremes, of course, such thought, and particularly humanism as a philosophical force for good has its downside. We do not need Al Gore to remind us that placing humanity at the center of the universe has a tendency to result in the neglect or downright abuse of nature and the environment we find ourselves in, not to mention cultures which some (usually speaking on behalf of Western traditions) may try to label as less than civilized, e.g. less than human. Sticking with this first abuse of humanist thought, it merits mention that other cohabitating species, which might otherwise be considered our siblings, are nowhere to be found in the very term “humanism.” The ultimate, devastating irony of this situation lies in the fast that we as humanity are also what Max Ehrmann calls “a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars.” In short, the self-contradiction (in a rather Marxist sense) of humanism lies in its tendency to neglect the non-human universe that humanity itself belongs to and requires to thrive or even survive. Humanism might therefore ravage the very inviolable beings it was intended to protect.

So what is one to do in the specter of such monolithic oppression? Pleszynski’s answer is to subvert the power relations in one of humanism’s potentially most “meaningful” activities: the creative arts. By removing the artist from the heretofore privileged center of artistic activity, he makes room for more diverse experience, devoid of any single claim to a truth, which might stifle dialogue and fulfillment. Contrary to any misgivings presented at the beginning of this essay, this shift in the position of the artist is what may be seen as the positive side of the postmodern agenda (if there is such a thing).

However, a closer look at the paintings here reveals more than simple knee-jerk postmodernism. Comparing works is telling. The explosive painting X…..2 gives a much different impression than the harmonious weave of #.....6, for instance. In the latter, we are aware of the fact that the artist is not simply a passive bystander succumbing to physical forces around him. Here we see the artist more consciously steering and directing those forces, not wielding them like tools or weapons, but rather working in harmony with them. As viewers we are reminded that an artistic process is at work, not a hurricane, and the aesthetic element of this process is key to the liberating effects of its experience. If Pleszynski were to turn his back on the physical forces around us and simply let nature do his painting for him, he would be applying an attitude which is very much like the arrogant side of Western thought which he attempts to counter. Looking at the transition from the various series of paintings presented here, we are aware of the artist in conversation with nature. In the volatile paintings of the X-Series, we see him testing the forces he encounters and for the most part giving them free rein. By the time we arrive at the #-Series we notice how the artist has grown familiar with those forces, allowing a greater level of give-and-take. And we are aware of the fact that the conversation with nature and each other is by no means over yet.

In his painting and music, Grzegorz Pleszynski reminds us of the instructive potential of art. He suggests a new openness to experience, which might serve as an example to question and realign our relationships to others and our environment. We have come full circle. We see that a healthy dose of (postmodern) anti-humanism may be empowering rather than dehumanizing. Instead of conceiving of humanity as the master of nature, or as a mere cog in the dispassionate clockwork of the universe, we might become potent agents participating in a universal force more powerful than ourselves. In art, Pleszynski strives to guide us to the last line of the 2002 poem he wrote after his sojourn in Australia: “Cristoforo Colombo Has the Floor.” The artist, like Columbus, endeavors to reach the point where

            …everything becomes one

and it is a new beginning

Pleszynski: Colours boost emotions and thoughts.... A sound possesses properties that are quite alike... Taints and sounds awake strings of emotions...love.. happiness...sadness...friendship...fear... And we shall learn to pluck the strings of life and death.. colours help to find our true self... sentient.... conscious.

Grzegorz Pleszyński:



Culture consolidates  human communities. Because of that, it functions as a preserving element... This is its strenght.

The World is dynamic. Culture seems not to follow the World, changing in a split second....This is its weakness .


In the rushing World, only a picture seems to have a power of a pause.

A picture can stop the time, animal and human movement, thoughts and impressions... This kind of strenght is its weakness.

Artists, being aware of this weakness, try to decrease painting's stillness, trying to dynamise it, sometimes up to a lever of travesity, they use colors to imitate vibration.
Such actions seem to be vain. They have never managed to break the distance between a static picture and the dynamic world.

This is why I decided to subject the meaning and elusive ideas of a picture to the wild force of reality's dynamics.

The sighns on their own, are just static images, however their meaning is the force and the reflection of  the changing World.

- dependence of a meaning in relation to a place:
The sighn CAUTION GOD placed on a street and the one in a cloakroom evoke completely differnt associations and reactions.

- dependence of a meaning on the context.
The sighn CAUTION JEWS placed just next to the sighn CAUTION MUSLIMS evokes completely different reactions, than when placed next to CAUTION POLES or CAUTION GERMANS.


- dependence on the personal experience, cultural and nation's affiliation.
Polish, German or Russian are likely to react differntly  to the sighn  CAUTION POLES.