Radek Szlaga

Warsaw

at Leto

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For this exhibition of 19 paintings, all oil on canvas, Radek Szlaga, who lives primarily in Poland, continued his investigation into the ways in which images are circulated and eventually repurposed. Here, he examined Joseph Conrad’s novella The Heart of Darkness (1902). The book has been interpreted in a range of ways—from a trenchant critique of colonialism to a reinscription of racist depictions of Africa—and has been utilized by others often, most notably in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now, in which Vietnam takes the place of Africa.

The exhibition title, “All the Brutes,” refers to the cryptic phrase “Exterminate all the brutes!” written by Conrad’s megalomaniac character Kurtz. Szlaga depicts the ivory trader in Kurtz (1), 2014, as a ghostly figure with a rubbed-out face. Wearing a white suit, he sits on a chair, flanked by guards holding tusks. Szlaga borrowed Kurtz’s imperious pose from a colonial-era photograph. Indeed, Szlaga’s work often involves appropriation, sometimes of other artists’ styles. For instance, on one panel of the diptych All the Brutes (2015), he overlays the titular phrase in large, white, stenciled capital lettering suggestive of Christopher Wool’s work. (In fact, one of Wool’s best-known works is titled Apocalypse Now and includes lines from the film.) 

Many of Szlaga’s paintings seem to employ Wool’s signature typeface, usually for political rather than ironic purposes. In the diptych The Horror, The Horror (2015), the well-known phrase uttered by Kurtz as he dies is set into both panels, as if we are looking at paintings within paintings. In one, two white men are painting the words. In the other a black man stands in front of the words, his gaze directed out of the canvas and into the distance. In an interview published in an accompanying book, Szlaga explains that his memories of seeing Wool’s work cannot be divorced from the museum security guards who were in his field of vision. The juxtaposition of the two panels brings into focus the ongoing racial dynamics of museum staffing. Consider the parallels between the guard in this work—protecting million-dollar paintings—and the tusk-bearing guards protecting Kurtz.

The paintings here resituate images that are not only racially but also sexually charged. Cliché (2014) portrays a well-endowed black male sitting on an unmade bed. Based on a widely circulated image from the Internet, this work could suggest that the racism sometimes applied to Conrad’s conflation of Africa with darkness, savagery and unbridled sexuality has been reconstituted in today’s digital landscape. At the same time, the man confidently meets the viewer’s gaze. Szlaga has painted a little less than half of this horizontal canvas completely in grays, underscoring the blurred meaning. This style of mixing abstraction with representation appears in several other works.

Szlaga mobilizes maps of continents and nations, too. For example, the painterly and provocative diptych Republics (Poland and Congo), 2015, shows the shapes of the two countries. (The Congo is widely considered to be the setting of The Heart of Darkness.) Szlaga’s pairing suggests parallels between the occupation of Poland by the Soviets and the colonization of the Congo by the French and the Belgians. At the same time, it brings into relief one key difference. Poland has itself been an aggressor in the past—in particular, in its subjugation of countries such as Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania. More recently, Poland’s new government staunchly refused to comply with European Union refugee quotas. Because of this, Szlaga’s drips and splatters of red all over the canvas take on an even more ominous quality.