First things first: Marcin Cienski’s paintings are scary. An elderly man tugs at his right ear, which starts to peel away in raw-red shreds of skin. Another man turns his head to reveal a blackish gouge on his cheek; he looks away mournfully, unable to meet your eye. Events have transpired, these paintings seem to say, and it’s best you don’t know too much about them. Your brain, churning away rationally, attempts to sort them out in a kind of imaginary Intensive Care Unit: slipped on a stair, cut while shaving. And yet the nagging suspicion – drawn on by the works’ unerring stillness and mute composure – is that the explanation is anything but rational.
In Cienski’s paintings, the traumatic subject is always deferred. The viewer, like the TV detective, is always a couple of steps behind; looking is a hapless scramble for sense. Mistily dim nocturnal landscapes, just beyond visual purchase, show fires glowing against the darkness. In one, domestic buildings are engulfed; in another a woman burns at a stake. This sense of mass purging illuminates the theme of Cienski’s exhibition: plague both historical and contemporary, the invisible threat. By omitting historical signifiers, these works collapse the disinterest of statistics – this many thousands dead – to explore human rationalisations of airborne disease as a kind of metaphor for the acceptance of death. The wounds displayed by Cienski’s doleful line-up of modern martyrs (the recurrent title Witness is the etymological grandfather of the term ‘martyr’) posit the body as a kind of passport stamped with the nicks and cuts of religious transportation.
Cienski’s characteristic elision of narrative hints (he has described his paintings as “puzzles”) lends him the air of the horror-film director, delaying the revelation of the gory detail for maximum audience displeasure, or zooming in for a wild, eye-rolling close up. Yet it’s photography these images insistently recall, not merely in their clipped and snipped compositional tropes, but in their unearthing of the relationship between photography and belief. Cienski’s source materials – internet-sourced amateur photographs, stills from straight-to-video shockers – are themselves a kind of relic, flotsam of the traumatic, their foggy haziness acting like the yellowing glass in a reliquary that confounds easy recognition of the saintly knucklebone contained within. To the modern audience – especially the worldly, urbane, 21st century western audience – they’re tokens of the frailty of our rationalisations of death. Naming a contemporary victim of a biological attack St Roch (the legendary 14th century French plague saint, venerated particularly in plague-struck Venice) epitomises Cienski’s telescoping of historical time: see and believe.
Paintings are themselves a kind of sales pitch for the investment of belief; each plays on the viewer’s weak resistance when it comes to the figurative image. While Cienski’s finely-wrought, tone-rich surfaces maintain their identity as surfaces (too dim and scuffed-up by their source material to make definite claims on truth), their commitment to faithful representation gives each work a kind of searching quality, an unwillingness to falter into kitsch. Two paintings of supine nuns – Witness/Sunbath 1 and 2 – crop each body so the face appears suspended in the gloom of a church, candles aglow in the background. Their closed eyes hold the truth just out of reach. Let me see, you want to say. Let me believe.
- Originally published in catalogue of Marcin Cienski's show 'Bad Air' at Geukens and deVil gallery, Antwerp, 2008
- Image courtesy Geukens and deVil