Jolanta Wagner »
MALARSTWO / RYSUNEK
In his essay The Infinity of Lists Umberto Eco wrote that the
abundance of technical means the modern man has at his
disposal, and the excess of wealth he produces actually
weaken and degrade him1. The constantly growing number
of things make us continually gather and describe them.
Thus, modern civilization is characterized, among other
things, by the overwhelming excess and the sense of
chaos. The response of the lost and irritated man is either
the willingness to abandon the topographical and cultural
space that surrounds him or the pursuit of order. The
latter attitude is also a kind of opposition to the currently
dominating model of the world.
It is obvious that restoring order can only concern
a fraction of reality; nothing more can be reached due to
the pace of the ongoing changes and the degree of the
increasing specialization and concretization.
Jolanta Wagner organizes the world for her private use. Every
time she creates her works, he tries to control a fragment of
a particular universe. The awareness of mastering a piece of
paper, a small territory whose sovereign she becomes, gives
rise to the sense of regaining the lost peace.
Thousands of years ago, in the early days of art, trying
to overcome the sense of the horror of existence and
misunderstanding of the world, the man drew images on
sand referring to the surrounding reality. It was an attempt
to understand and control the nature and a way to find
a reassuring order.
Jolanta Wagner’s collection of works is like the world in
a miniature, a representation of the Unity. Works are not
obviously examples of ordinary inventories of things. Even
if they imply that they are governed by the imperative of
practicality, they are primarily poetic, metaphorical.
When we look at her works, sometimes we get an impression
that the artist pursues the strategy of conceptual art. An
important feature of this art, however, was the rejection
of aestheticism. The visualization of the work was only a
means that helped read out its essence. Additional texts,
sketches or plans had only an explanatory function, helping
to visualize, materialize thoughts. The apparent logic and
rationality of the works were a kind of mystification; they
were merely a method to mask the proper work of the artist,
which was realized as a thought process. The artists’ search
led to the impersonalisation of the language of art2.
In Jolanta Wagner’s view the aesthetic aspect is
nevertheless essential. The form is significant not only
as a vehicle for the documentary content. The shape
of the poetic message derives from the development
Signs are somewhat ‘magical’ in their
nature. Activities and texts, working like charms, as in the
alchemist’s studio, support the creative process.
It is more than coincidence that the artist uses worn sheets
of tracing paper originating from some architectural studios
as a background for her drawings. They have a special
value. The technical drawings included there represent
many qualities important to the artist. They represent and
document. They are precise, quasi calligraphic – they are
beautiful in a way. They are also a special testimony of the
past (though the artist herself heads for the future, trying
to think ‘forward’). They are traces of someone’s actions,
struggles, emotions. Drawing on the worn worksheets,
the artist broadens the world, and the pre-drawn pictures
are its fragments. She adds to these pictures a fragment of
today’s reality, enriches them with new motifs, personal
experiences and feelings. Perhaps it is easier when it
happens on the old, already used tracing paper because
it seems to be a ‘rough version’, and one is more likely to
overcome the ‘fear of a blank sheet of paper’.
Both records come together in a special symbiosis. The
artist performs various, once minor, once more complete
interventions in previous drawings. As a result, they blend
more completely with each other, the context becomes
wider, the visual aspect is more complex. The most
extreme example of such activities is the use of the original
drawings created earlier by the artist as a background for
the successive vision. One of the plans of the city spread
out on the surface of paper with its houses, towers and
walls on a barely visible outline of the previous map. In this
way it obtained its original, largely imagined story.
The tracing paper used by the author is mostly old and
damaged. The yellow sheets resemble the materials from the
past, such as parchment or papyrus. They tell a story. Their poor
condition adds to their antique nature and it gives credence
to the passage of time. The artist does not care about flaws,
such as smudges or tears. The defects are corrected and they
become the elements of a constantly developing story.
Jolanta Wagner also uses new sheets of tracing paper.
In this case, it poses a different challenge to the artist. The
blank sheet becomes an unknown land to her, an area of
a peculiar clean, ‘unwritten’ board.
The very concept of tracing paper reminds us of the motif
of retaining, but also copying something. The collection of
works is like a self-reproducing, constantly supplemented
and quoted message.
That motif is most strongly connoted by technical tracing
papers used to make copies on drawing boards, which
were adopted by the artist. The boards themselves also
become the space of artistic exploration. They have a
specific quality: various defects, protrusions cause that the
drawing looks slightly different. The ink reacts differently
to the original background, the lines are more diffuse –
the drawing merges into the drawing board, its structure
absorbs the recorded story.
Jolanta Wagner also creates her drawing works in chalk on
the blackboard, like in a kind of ephemeral land art, being
ready for the risk of rapid changes and transience, the
possibility of the vision disappearance. When we take into
account the earlier contexts (for example, what happens
with old technical drawings and the fragile material the
artist uses in her artwork), such activities seem to be
relevant and coherent.
The visions of the city are a significant visual motif of a large
part of Jolanta Wagner’s oeuvre. Old urban maps were the
inspiration for creating many of them. The images of cities
drawn by the artist are half real, half fantastic. In some
cases – it refers for example to the maps of ŁódĽ (including
Plac Wolno¶ci drawn on canvas, buildings in Piotrkowska
Street, the house where Władysław Strzemiński lived),
Czech, German and Italian cities – we are able to recognize
even specific buildings and their familiar details.
however, that the correspondence of the created vision
to the actual shape of the objects is not the main goal
of the author. She rather creates a kind of universal, but
varied architecture with archetypal, model outlines of
houses, castles and bridges. At times, even the motif of the
‘impossible’ architecture appears, though it is not drawn as
accurately as, for example, by Maurits Cornelis Escher.
In his book Invisible Cities Italo Calvino evokes the motif of an
atlas that ‘also shows the cities about which (...) geographers
do not know if and where they exist but they could not be
missing among the forms of possible cities. (...).’3
Jolanta Wagner’s cities are built centrifugally, the houses,
sometimes increasingly sparse, like in Map of the Town A.,
stretch radially towards the outskirts, at the same time to
the edges of the work of art, creating an impression of
immeasurable continuity beyond its frame. Running out
of the drawing, the streets connect somewhere in space
with others that cross the boundaries of the next picture.
There, in the second picture, single houses and roads run
– converging towards a central building or square. Eco
emphasises that in the case of that structure cities have
their centre, because their suburbs connect with each
other outside the image – the world they represent is
deprived of it, its structure is not centralized4. It is like in
the postmodern vision of the world, where there is no
dominant centre that organises the entire structure. And
like in the concept of rhizome by Gilles Deleuze and Felix
Gauttari, which refers to the non-hierarchical model of
reality controlled by a network of specific connections
– relations occurring between the world of nature and
culture or their elements5.
On various levels Jolanta Wagner’s attitude combines both
rationalism, the need for order and idealism supported by
a certain kind of innocence. It does not come as a surprise
that one of the artist’s favourite painters is Cy Twombly. His
artwork represents a desire to escape from rigid conventions,
expressing longing for sincerity and spontaneity.
The maps drawn by the author are characterised by
a specific perspective – a topographical image typical of
naive, children’s art, or of historical conventions in which
the idealist element was dominant over the modern
realism. The maps of the world, typical of antiquity and
the Middle Ages, have a special position here. The fact of
belonging to a certain aesthetic formation is reinforced
by numerous additional images characteristic of Western
European panel paintings or compositions that form
kleimo, the borderline surrounding the iconic Byzantine
paintings. Moreover, these works are also characterized by
lively unrestrained colour scheme.
Such works in Jolanta Wagner’s artwork are not only
the expression of longing for sincerity of the means of
expression, but also an attempt to introduce a tinge of
mysticism, nostalgia for something distant – in time and
space, for something intangible and elusive. Also for the
arduous creation which posed a challenge for a cloister
scribe centuries ago.
References to calligraphy are visible in the artist’s work
on many levels. The works previously discussed originate
from such an attitude. In the case of colourful maps and
Calendar, calligraphic associations are also noticed on
the level of the material background which is a thick,
handmade paper with its organic and archaic nature.
This sphere of creativity also connotes a number of
oppositions typical of Jolanta Wagner’s entire work, such
as the opposites: poor – rich, simple – sophisticated,
sublime naive, elite – common, mass-produced – unique.
In his work titled Venus of the Rags (1967, 1974),
Michelangelo Pistoletto, one of the Italian representatives
of arte povera used the statue of the Roman goddess
looking at the heap of rags from a second-hand shop,
thus confronting the unique classic symbol of beauty with
products of today’s world of mass overproduction.
Jolanta Wagner juxtaposes mass-produced objects, such
as for examples packages of luxurious perfumes, creating
not only drawing visions, but also spatial compositions.
She combines the desire to use ‘fabulous things’ with
the idea of documentation. The installations are part
of a general inventory of items. They are here because of
their attributes (including the scent that releases not only
the aromas of perfume ingredients, but also an aura of
exclusiveness and prosperity) and because they reflect the
echoes of someone’s presence, combine the vicissitudes of
the original owners with the objects’ further story, to which
the artist contributed herself with her creative activities.
In these works Jolanta Wagner provides another kind
of documentation, not deriving from the pure ‘infinity
of the lists’. Nor is it just a message commenting on the
condition of our culture of excess. Piles of objects – even
that composed of books – although they come mainly
from the present, they become guardians of memory; the
message is a kind of memento. The compositions evoke
the echoes of the holocaust in Auschwitz. That motif
was also present earlier in the ‘technical’ drawings of the
The nature of Jolanta Wagner’s creation is associated with
the idea of new realism. It brings to our mind the works by
Arman, Daniel Spoerrie, where artists use ordinary objects,
everyday things, ‘poor’, ‘low rank’ goods. Such things just
wait to be artistically ennobled. The fact that they have
been selected and exposed turns them into art, though
some of them have already gained the status of being
‘beautiful’ (for example, a sophisticated, albeit slightly
worn cup). Beautiful items – even damaged – still remain
beautiful. It was the designer who gave them that value.
However, when the artist uses them in the composition,
they are taken to another, higher level. The ‘added value’ of
many objects also lies in their individual stories, the secrets
they hide (Inventory of a Wardrobe).
In a series of works titled Poubelles (Garbage) Arman
accumulated objects and embedded them in the
material. Jolanta Wagner covers her tracing papers with
wax. The wax is not just a security measure. It ‘warms
up’ the images which are underneath. The background
changes its character – it feels different. The encaustic
painting is an ancient painting technique. Images painted
with wax paints were durable, and colours were brighter
and deeper. That is why the Fayum portraits are still so
impressive today. Wax became a kind of reminder, like in
the works of the artist from ŁódĽ.
General Census which the artist carries out will never be
completed. It is obvious that we are not able to archive
everything. Someone who undertakes a similar task is
accompanied by a subjective feeling that it defeats them.
In terms of aesthetics this feeling is defined as infinity.
And Italo Calvino wrote: ‘The catalogue of forms is endless:
until every shape has found its city, new cities will continue
to be born. (…) In the last pages of the atlas there is an
outpouring of networks without beginning or end…’6
Transl. Elżbieta Rodzeń-Le¶nikowska