Polish artist Jarek Puczel explores the empty silences of life in his simple yet evocative works that try to capture the "intimate anonymity" of human beings, as Puczel puts it. Known for his faded, often faceless figures and mastery over his minimal brush strokes, Jarek sees his oil and acrylic canvases as an exploration of man and the spaces we dwell in.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, I reached out to Jarek for an interview, where we ended up talking about love, the art world, soul experiences and the importance of being present:
Can you remember the first piece of art you bought (or were given)?
Artists often exchange their works. This is an unpretentious, cashless form of giving each other what catches the eye or heart. I received my first piece of art from my mentor - friend, an eccentric artist and art dealer, Tadeusz. His small painting, made on cardboard, reminds me of a fragment of a bird's feather. It still hangs on my wall, although it's been years since Tadeusz passed away.
Every time I think of Poland, I instantly think of Chopin. Somewhere, I see Poland in your art, in the coldness and minimalism.
When we look at some country through its art, we can sense what is universal. Feeling Poland through Chopin, we touch the essence of something subtle, elusive or tender. I remember that my parents had a lamp radio in our bedroom, and as a small child, I often fell asleep to Chopin's music. I actually learnt to play the piano for a few years in my hometown, trying to face my emotions through the medium of music. I think that there is a secret underground passage between music and painting. We can hear and see the similarities in aspects like tonality, mood, composition or harmony.
It's hard to escape from the influence of the place where you live but obviously, you are not fated to it. I've felt at some points that the Eastern European 'coldness and sentimentality' have asked to be supplemented with greater lightness and joy. So I've been exploring other musical genres and idioms, like Mozart's or baroque music and also various kinds of electronic music.
What is your relationship with your town of Olsztyn, Poland in the context of the art you create? Does the local art scene nurture you?
Olsztyn, the town where I live in, is a small artistic environment. We have a university with the faculty of arts and several galleries. On the other hand, it is a quiet and intimate place suitable for creative work, from where I ship my paintings to galleries that represent me in Warsaw, Salzburg and San Francisco. Apart from that, I travel quite often to be in a contact with important art events; for example, I'm a regular visitor to the Venice Biennale.
What's a day in the life of Jarek Puczel like? What are some personal rituals or habits that have sustained you for all these decades?
Morning activities are the most permanent elements of daily routine. Later, there is more improvisation. I love to immerse myself in the inner calmness of meditation. For me, this is a kind of prayer, and I use this state to seek alignment with something bigger than me. Then I do physical exercises - nothing strenuous, just to give myself a good energy flow.
I compose my vegetarian breakfasts at home and drink coffee while replying to emails. I usually arrive at my studio around 10-11 am. I try to work regularly, but it's difficult to predict how things will turn out every time. This teaches me to keep a distance to my mental states. Sometimes, with the approval of weaknesses and limitations, you can 'alchemically' restore your desire to create, while learning something important about mental rules. I observe that working together with the mind, especially with my emotions, is as important as the painting process itself.
After working in the studio, till around late afternoon, I move to the Old Town for dinner, and often also go for coffee meetings with my friends. This provides me with the right balance between the state of solitude in the studio and social interactions. And finally, depending on the day of the week, I attend a meditation group, English lessons, gym, musical events, etc.
Do you speak to your paintings like people speak to their plants?
Plants, wow?! I can agree that the state of connectedness with every living being is important to feel greater space in our hearts (by the way, I've recently watched a great movie called The Animal Communicator about Anna Breytenbach's communication with animals).
While all your paintings express universal emotions, it's interesting that you choose to leave the figures faceless. Is this a conscious choice?
To a large extent, I consciously minimise facial features, avoiding man's individual aspects and emphasise their 'intimate anonymity'. The hope is that viewers can reflect on their own emotions and thoughts in my work. The second reason is my tendency to merge different art forms...the synthesis of the composition is easier when the face is treated like a compact stain of colour. Thus, both psychological and painting issues meet here.
There's a lot of love and romance in your work. Can you talk about what goes on in your mind when you're in front of a canvas?
I really can't predict where the thread of my painting will lead me. Lately, I feel like focusing on exploring the spaces of meanings between man and his/her environment in mutual permeation. However, when you look at the work I've done over the past years, you've undoubtedly met a lot of stories about romantic love.
Showing your deeper emotions in painting is inevitable, even if you would rather hide or suppress them somehow. Although you decide what to show and what elements should be reduced, absence is as important as presence. Both are also meaningful. The creative process can be regarded as a talk with your 'self', and an important source of personal, intimate information. Sometimes, an element that you are not aware of in your life, appears on the canvas, and only there can it be perceived.
What's your take on love? Are you nurtured by love and able to share it on the canvas, or is the art coming from a place of yearning? It's not easy to openly admit the lack of fulfilment in love, even if it concerns the past. As a teenager, I fell in love with a girl from our hometown's high school. I was in platonic relationship with her. However, she didn't tell me about her love commitment to another man. Of course, it couldn't end well for me...I've tried to deal with my wounded heart after that for many years. I must say, that creativity has become a great way of expressing yearning and transforming my inner emptiness. On the surface of paper or canvas, the impossible can turn into the possible.
Gradually, love has started showing me its better sides, warmer and richer in shades of meaning. However, a melancholic element has become a recognisable feature of my work to this day. I've accepted and learned to love this bitter-sweet polarity.
Let's talk about inspiration. Who are some artists who have influenced your style and understanding of art?
You can't predict when you'll be taken by the need of fixing 'snapshots of an inner reflection'. I observe that regular work creates an easier access to your own source of cumulated 'soul experiences'. I can sense that the creative impulse doesn't always have to be triggered by something external - and at least, not directly. Anyway, when something meaningful happens to you, for instance seeing or hearing of something touching, it has to be at first translated into your own unique language. This rule was aptly noticed by Gombrowicz, who wrote it his Diary: "Monday - Me. Tuesday - Me. Wednesday - Me. Thursday - Me".
But of course, I've passed through my art fascinations, my personal, intimate meetings with artworks, music, movies. For many years, I've admired poets of cinema - like Tarkovsky, Fellini, Bergman and his cinematographer Sven Nykvist, asian filmmakers - Wong Kar-Wai, Kim Ki-duk - and many others.
As for painting, I was strongly fascinated by work of Polish artist Wilhelm Sasnal. I analysed in detail how he transforms things into painting objects, and how he makes each brush stroke. I especially followed his apparent imprecisions - admiring the liberating, carefree 'poetics of technical failure'.
What's the life philosophy you live by?
I try to be internally focused, strengthen my independence. Be present at the moment.
What's keeping you busy of late? Any new projects or themes you'd like to explore?
After my solo exhibition in Maybaum Gallery in San Francisco in January of this year, I've decided to slow down a bit and immersed myself in an aura of quiet countryside. Writing these words, I'm staying at the art residency in a small town of Alentejo, a rural region of southern Portugal. Starting point of my painting project here has been the idea of 'living presence' as well as 'meaningful absence' of significant people from the past, interpenetrating the landscape - physical and cultural, with its unique flavours and colours of the land and sky. I'm here to explore for my private use the space of 'local imaginarium', deeply rooted in the collective subconscious. I hope to reconcile these local elements with my own sensitivity.
Thank you, Jarek!
Check out Jarek Puczel's work on his website.