Art FocusIn the Studio with Michal Janowski

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For the first in a new Arts & Collections series, we visit Polish artist Michał Janowski at his home studio in east London. Janowski discusses his beliefs and the Catholic Church, and describes his processes—including painting with coffee—over an IPA in his Hackney living room. 

Featured in Saatchi Art’s ‘One to Watch’ series, Michał Janowski is an Eastern European artist who has made a name for himself in the U.K. Having graduated in 2009 from the University of East Anglia with a degree in fine art, he now divides his time between caring for his young son and working from his home studio.

As is traditional in his country of origin, Janowski is very hospitable, offering food and drink on arrival. We begin discussing his U.K. education. ‘In England, I could finish my studies being completely lost and still receive my degree, but that would be my problem,’ he jokes. ‘This lack of guidance works for me. After all, you need to do the work yourself while education should only help to establish your goals.’

He continues: ‘I think it is a good idea to study in more than one country. It broadens your perspective. Poland could be quite strict and demanding so if you aren’t careful, you might limit yourself unnecessarily. England is more about comfort, which is very attractive, but it can also create a lot of harm. I guess you need to know what you are up for and use the opportunities as wisely as possible. I must admit that I had a lot more honest feedback and support from my tutors in England. There was no pressure and it was up to me to decide which direction I want to take.’

Arts & Collections asks Janowski if he ever misses home. ‘At the beginning, of course, I was homesick,’ he confesses. ‘And then, year by year we all got used to it. In a way I feel more from here but on the other hand I don’t want to neglect my upbringing. I quite like that balance in me.’

A quick glance around Janowski’s apartment reveals a bookcase brimming with art texts; the walls display examples of his own work, along with that of Lucian Freud. And nestled away in the corner of the room sits an icon depicting the Virgin Mary. ‘Poland developed slowly and there are certain reasons for that,’ explains the artist. ‘The Church has still quite an influence in Poland. I’m talking about greed and the abuse of power.’ However, despite Christianity’s overarching sway on Polish culture, a thread of rather something more simple runs through Janowski’s oeuvre.

‘Again, if you are not careful you might let others to trick you. Christianity seems like a pretty good trick to me. But we can only blame ourselves for letting it happen. I definitely keep my Slavic roots,’ Janowski claims. ‘I think that’s why the subject of nature often enters my work.’

So how do the juxtaposing notions of religion and other beliefs play out in Janowski’s work? ‘It is kind of rebelling against, I wouldn’t say the Church, but dogma—the synthetic, crazy ideas that enslave people. But, on the other hand, I find my work quite spiritual and icon-like as well,’ he tells Arts & Collections.

After a tour around his home studio, we sit down again to talk about Janowski’s influences, methods, and inspiration.

A&C: How long does it take you to produce a large work?

MJ: It’s very difficult to predict. But now, when I’m only painting and not in the office, it would take me about a week.

A&C: What influences the subject matter you depict?

MJ: It’s a long process—building the language. Sometimes it starts in me and other time it develops on surface where one shape suggests another. Like in a jazz composition. You just need to keep collecting those fragments you are interested in—explore them. Often, we create at first and then we search for meaning. For example, the lack of the mouth, masks, subject of death, white painted skin, it’s all linked very much with my feelings. I paint my feelings. Then I found that it relates to Butoh, Native American folklore, Greek mythology, African traditions and so on. There must be a reason for it and all I can do is to proceed and learn. I know that my work appears quite primal, as those feelings are alive in me. I think primal fear is very much alive in all of us. Therefore, we seek so much comfort in life. Nowadays we understand that trauma and experience could be carried in our DNA. So, who knows what kind of luggage I have? Maybe I carry it round with me. I can’t guarantee it, but it interests me. There must be a reason for it.

A&C: Do the images you paint come to you in dreams?

MJ: Some of the elements, yes. I’m not skilled enough to use them consciously. I think this is far more subconscious now and that’s why I’m interested in the process of Liminality. [Upon which the ‘Trickster’ series is based.] Trickster is a shaman of the Liminal. He is aware of the threshold and he can bring experience from the moment he left but not quite arrived. It reminds me of what Nick Cave said quite recently: ‘What happens when an event occurs that is so catastrophic that you just change? You change from the known person to an unknown person. So that when you look at yourself in the mirror, you recognize the person that you were, but the person inside the skin is a different person.’ I think there many events in our life that can shape us. They could be also positive as well. My son was born 10 months ago, I’m biologically transformed into a father, yet the mental understanding of this process requires everyday work. There are societies that still cultivate rituals—I think it is very interesting and could help some of us.

A&C: So it’s like a rite of passage?

MJ: Yes, very much. It is also about the creative process. If you are painting and you didn’t plan your work, you might feel lost. If you are not going to react to this natural feeling with fear, you might realise that there is no need for such a plan. So, if the rational mind is not going to take over and supply you with one, the next step will come to you. That means it was there already. After completing the work, you might realise that you worked through some dark moment from your life or you just expressed a certain desire, which you weren’t entirely aware of. By staying creative you can connect with yourself but this moment of becoming is important, it’s honest.

A&C: And what do you hope people take away from your work?

MJ: It’s a good question. It is important for the artist to consider it at some point. I would hope [my work] challenges people a little bit. Maybe I would like to share my experience. Since we have moved away from being natural, it won’t harm to consider a little bit of catching up with yourself.

A&C: So it’s almost a question of getting back to basics?

MJ: In a way, yes. ‘Back to basics’ actually works really well. Of course, art is still stylised to some degree; it’s very difficult to be free—but it’s worth a try. Going back to basics can help you to understand the beginning, the moment before it got complicated. I feel helpless when I need to travel to the same destination five days a week and spend 40 hours somewhere where I’m forced to be with certain group of people. Of course, it works for some people, if they do what they are interested in. I prefer to work alone therefore this helpless feeling should be taken care of. You can work it out and accept it or try to change it, but you need to go to its basics and find out why and what you need to do. Things are simple after we understand them.

A&C: What can you tell us about your changing preferences in mediums?

MJ: Surface wise, it started with paper. Paper is cheap. Then I moved to canvas. Somehow, I was always a bit intimidated by canvas.

A&C: And what about your move to paint on wooden boards?

MJ: I’m happy that it came. Wood is very nice to work with. I like the control over size, panel building and framing. Apart from the manufacture of the wood, everything is made by myself. And it works well. It takes time, but the effect is rewarding. I’m also getting better at it. If I don’t like the direction it goes, I can just use a jigsaw to cut some part off, move those panels, it’s quite free. You can also sand the whole thing down and start again or discover that destruction can also build.

A&C: And do you want to stay with acrylics?

MJ: I would rather stay with acrylics for now and focus on developing my language.

A&C: Do you think you will go to oils one day?

MJ: Perhaps. I will need time and space.

A&C: And, finally, you use coffee in your work. Tell us about that.

MJ: I’m going back to using coffee, yes. Ideas from 2012/2013 are coming back to me now. I’m happy about it. It feels that I’m doing something right. When I was at art school I was very much interested in Anthony Gormley’s drawings. Coffee came from him. I don’t know, there is a certain quality in it. I think it also shifts my work back a bit as it relates to my previous experience of using this medium. I take it as a very good sign.

Full image caption – top left: Michal Janowski, Trickster; Man With the Red Horn, mixed media on canvas, 102x76x4cm © Saatchi Art, top right: Michal Janowski, Philosophy of Nature Painting, acrylic on canvas, 60x60cm  © Saatchi Art, bottom right: Michal Janowski, Shape Shfting as Favourite Method of Decepetion, paint on canvas, 102x76x4cm, © Saatchi Art

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