Taking On “The Gaze,” and Doing Away With it, Too: Warsaw’s Elsner and Rogalski

Whenever I am asked to fill out a form that requires a description of my eye color, I have to get up, find a mirror, and check. Who pays attention to such things?

The whole “eyes are the portals to the soul” routine leaves me empty. I have never understood the metaphor system around eyes as evocative objects, the vast array of poetical pensée that read eyes as mystical orbs or romantic baubles; as lie detectors. When I watch cop shows and the officer says to the murderer, “look me in the eye,” I think, first, “Which eye, pick an eye,” and then, “What would that prove?” If there is an authority figure I have not looked straight in the face and told bald lies to, well, damn my eyes.

So I am obviously not the right market for Sławomir Elsner and Zbigniew Rogalski’s paired studies of the “exhaustion” of not only looking – “the gaze,” as we called it in the 1990s – but of the very material of the optical apparatus, the goo and the tissue.

Let me backtrack: Elsner’s work is comprised of a series of drawings of artist’s studios, as they might be seen by a fly (eye) on the wall, or a camera; Rogalski’s work is a set of enormous paintings that depict the interior of an eye, or parts thereof. The images are linked in this exhibition by their shared interest in the act of viewing and, as made literal in Rogalski’s work, the biological mechanics of viewing. And, of course, from these simple premises cascade a lot of possible chatter about the dynamics of the viewer and the viewed, surveillance culture, power (of sight itself, as one of the life-informing five senses; and the power to decide, and then record, what is worth looking at), the very foundations of the visual in “visual art” and its dependence on a primordial, mostly involuntary action, and any number of reactive pronouncements about, again, the gaze.

But if, like me, you find the exhibition’s core (and, arguably, near-universal) eyes-as-windows metaphor too habitual, even shop-worn (or potentially offensive, as the world is full of clever, loving people who cannot see), then what do you do with Elsner and Rogalski’s resulting meditations? In my case, I decided to pay more attention to the craftsmanship on display (and while “craft” is an equally fragile premise, one must alight somewhere), and was well-rewarded for my time.

Elsner is one of those drawers who does not mark paper so much as suggest, with the airiest touch, an intention to do so. His markings are feathery, thin, intentionally under-wrought, and at times betray a hesitancy to imply that the completed work is in any way a replication of an actual space. This style, this near-absence of the “hand” (here we go again, off into Metonymic Overdrive), causes the viewer to not only scrutinize the works to a more rigorous degree than they are likely used to – a viewer/maker power game similar to that employed by people who speak softly in order to control the conversation – but also to question, naturally, if these studies are actual acts of imagination. Elsner’s style alerts us to the possibility that what is depicted may not be wholly, or at all, a reliable replica of a known space.

The “hang” of these images is positioned in a lovely contrast to Raster Gallery’s rough surroundings. A revived industrial space, Raster is pleasingly unpretentious, and hardly finessed. Elsner’s airy pieces, nominally depictions of artists’ work stations (places notoriously grubby in general), benefit from a halo effect when set in the midst of Raster’s post-industrial shabby chic. The studios captured by the artist resemble churches, with their soft light and revered objects. But Raster is in Poland, and every corner of Warsaw is clotted with saints.

Rogalski’s work, conversely, would benefit from a more intimate space. His enormous paintings might better convey the sense of body-wonder (or horror) they obviously intend to display if placed in environments that the viewer couldn’t easily escape. Rogalski asks us to enter an eyeball, and we, as entrants, need to feel microscopic when confronted by the large images; we need to be made to feel small in order for the paintings to fulfill their blunt purpose. But as they are situated at Raster, one simply breezes by them – a pity, as the gallery has more contained areas, some tight rooms that would better serve the work.

Rogalski and Elsner are very different painters. Where Elsner tip-toes, Rogalski stomps – it’s a nice duet, but one would be forgiven for reading Elsner as the more skilled of the two, as his images carry so much more immediate information. This would be a forgiven presumption, but mistaken. Rogalski’s eyeball interiors are generous and open, and the occasional free-hand dollops and drips are meant to remind us that these are acts of interpretation, not medical-text graphics. Rogalski romanticizes his subject with sweeping gestures and occasional, disturbing, cutting thrusts of paint. His eyes are simultaneously vulnerable and heroic, billboard-pushy, and disturbingly naked.

As a matched pair, Rogalski and Elsner’s remind me of a psychological thriller – one packed with murky, mood-establishing locale shots and alternating, discomfiting close-ups. The flow between the two suites of work is occasionally clumsy, partly because the presentation is a bit too formal (Elsner on one wall/Rogalski on the other); but there are moments of fluidity between the two that provoke a nagging sense of instability – the unstable relationship between the observer, the observed, and the base tools of observation. Further, of course, how much we rely on, and indeed are a construct of, two tiny balloons in our heads made of the thinnest skin and the richest blood.

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