Camila McHugh on Gizela Mickiewicz

For her exhibition “Zaciemnienie wnętrz” (Interior Blackout), Gizela Mickiewicz sought to find material form for charged emotional responses such as dread, fear, anxiety, and stress. In Doświadczenia zrównujące (Equating Experiences; all works 2022), tubular chair legs support a stack of five galvanized steel-mesh forms that look like molds taken of people’s bottoms and upper thighs while seated; each smaller than the one below it, they awkwardly cradle each other, evoking a restless unease. Intencje rąk (Hands’ Intentions), is a pile of armlike appendages in textured fabric entangled in what could be either a claustrophobic hug or a repeatedly interrupted punch with plastic fists lending the towering sculpture a menacing edge. In conveying the physical experience of mental states in sculpture, Mickiewicz takes advantage of the medium’s implicitly nonverbal mode of communication to consider how the body also speaks without words.

This show marked an evolution in the Warsaw-based artist’s work. The mostly gray mixed-media sculptures she had been making in the decade since graduating in 2012 from the University of the Arts in Poznań, Poland, had a vaguely anthropomorphic quality that here was developed into fully formed bodily fragments. The exhibition’s six sculptures, which were hung on the walls and placed on the floor in a vaguely circular arrangement, came to resemble body parts that could converge to assemble a whole (albeit headless) figure. Mickiewicz also recently began to incorporate found items into her work to anchor it in figural representation, as with the sweater on which seven pairs of eyes appear in Kształt, w którym odbija się moja porażka (The shape that reflects my failure) or the seatbelt fastened to the wall securing a hollowed vessel laden with rocks in Najgorsze jeszcze przed tobą (The worst is yet to come). As evident in these titles, the show’s outlook was dark, which, while not directly addressing any particular context, came as little surprise given the bleak state of the world as 2022 drew to an end—the war waged by Russia just across the Polish border was entering another bitter winter. The carefully crafted genericism in Mickiewicz’s work invited such projection. She cultivates this character by way of relatively simple forms, a restrained palette, and the familiar, if somewhat strange, materiality of the textured plastic and polyurethane foam that she frequently employs.

By engaging the blurry boundary between relating to something and projecting upon it, Mickiewicz draws on the fraught lineage of artists who viewed sculpture as a means to express universal values and experience. I found myself thinking of Rodin and how he distilled something modern from ancient Greek sculpture, trading mythic heroism for thinkers and kisses. Like this lofty forebear, Mickiewicz also works from life and, for this show, observed people shifting anxiously in hospital waiting rooms and in other tense everyday scenarios. The only tenable claim to universality, she suggests, is abstracted antimonuments to the embodied experience of these strained interior states.

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