Monday, 5 September 2011

Top 10 Contemporary Political Artists: 10, Wilhelm Sasnal

Is Wilhelm Sasnal a Political artist?  I've always assumes that he is. His recent show at Sadie Coles HQ didn't appear as political as some of his previous works though.  There were statues evoking Socialist Realist sculptures (Untitled, left) but the press release tells us that the work has more to do with motherhood.  Here's how Hauser & Wirth describe his earlier work:
He references political events.  But then again, he references other things.  Is Sasnal political, or is he referencing the world he lives in, the world he has grown up in?  I can't remember when I first became aware of Sasnal's work, but I definitely saw him in the Hayward Gallery's 2007 show The Painting of Modern Life.  This would further suggest that Sasnal can be seen as someone who just paints "Modern Life", his modern life.  In the exhibition catalogue Sasnal talks about painting photographs:
"I tried to make the process of transferring a photographic image onto canvas as emotionless and mechanical as possible...the reworking of a motif provides an arena for interpretation and this is what interests me most....When it comes to choosing the source image, there really are no strict most cases the image finds me...". 

So, there we have it.  Sasnal is not political.  He chooses images randomly from books, while browsing the internet, or from film stills. It just so happens that he grew up in a communist country and therefore many of the images he finds from his childhood are seen in a political light by us in the West.  He surely is from a generation bewildered by the transition from a dearth of imagery during the Communist era to an influx of advertising imagery post Berlin Wall and the proliferation of internet based images.  This did happen quickly and merits some consideration.  But isn't the mere selection of images to paint political?  He may not be telling us his opinion on the political events he chooses to depict but by raising them to our attention is surely to give them importance.  His selection of images in some way memorialises them - sometimes taking a throw away image that might have been forgotten and imortalising it by rendering it as oil on canvas.  But his reasons for selecting the image are just as likely to be compositional as political.  Sasnal's work is about interpretation of images and the reductive process that occurs when painting a photograph.  Now, of course, interpretation is political.  Perhaps we need to find out what Sasnal has left out in order to discern his political stance.  Or perhaps not.  Perhaps this is the real potential for Sasnal's work to address the need outlined in my last post, that of imagining alternative possibilities.  Perhaps by not taking a stance, or not knowing the stance of an interpreted and altered image does "provide an arena for interpretation" as Sasnal purports to do.   His painterly grammar of drips and swirls allows us to enter into the image in a dreamlike fashion and in doing so allows us to imagine an alternate world.  Sasnal's paintings are spaces full of potential.  The source material is disparate and random.  Sasnal tells us that the work is about interpretation and the reductive process of painting photographic images - and we see this in many works where the paint swirls and drips take over the source image.  But there's just one thing bugging me: ultimately they are political though, aren't they?

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