Two small paintings of Saturn bookend the Whitechapel's major exhibition of the Polish painter Wilhelm Sasnal.
The first, which starts the exhibition, is pale streaky grey and bleached out: the artist painted and then washed away Saturn for seven days. In the painting that ends the show, Saturn is thick and heavy, sitting in a black sky of overworked paint which the artist layered on for seven days. Sasnal approaches the sublime by doing both too much and too little. Too light and too dark.
Sasnal emerged in Poland as part of a Krakow-based group known as the Ladnie ("pretty") group. Reacting to the classical, conservative techniques of their instructors at art school, they focused on everyday scenes and images from pop culture. This, however, is not quite the Wilhelm Sasnal that we meet in this show, focusing on work that he has made over the last decade – a formative period for the painter, whose style and subject matter have matured into something nuanced, complex and subtle that remains graphically punchy and strong.
Sasnal's show is an interesting counterpoint to Gerhard Richter's at Tate Modern. Though not really comparable, given that Sasnal is half Richter's age, both approach complex histories and major historical events by adopting formal strategies to treat images from pop culture and media imagery. While Richter has occasionally overlayed a protective gauze onto his subject matter (in his paintings of 9/11, for example, or of Jackie Kennedy crying), Sasnal blankets horror out, leaving only peripheral details.
Sasnal's treatment of Art Spiegelman's comic strip Maus (1972-1991), a holocaust narrative enacted by cats and mice that was deeply important for a Poland that was assessing the behaviour of those who stood by, depicts peripheral background details from the story. The sidelines are important, Sasnal suggests. In a painting based upon a photograph of a female survivor of the Japanese tsunami, the artist has surrounded her with a painted swash of black wetness, the whole landscape dissolving behind her.
Remember that Sasnal has two guiding planets, however: there's sublime beauty here, and sweet oblivion, too. When two teenagers kiss, their mouths are obscured as though their white faces are simply running into one another. A girl runs on the beach with the light behind her, so bright that it flares the image into ecstatic haze. These are paintings that show us what is too dark to see and what is too blindingly, beautifully light.
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