My personal geography: A conversation with Artur Przebindowski

Artur Przebindowski speaks with Małgorzata I. Niemczyńska. Przebindowski was grand prize winner at Szczecin's 23rd annual Festival of Modern Polish Painting in 2010 and received honorable mentions at the 40th biannual "Bielska Jesień" painting competition.

Lately I read an interesting observation about how airplanes, 99% of the time, aren't flying precisely in the direction of their destinations, though they are on course. Flying is a constant correction of course."I feel something like that," reflects Artur Przebindowski.

Could you live without painting?

I return to my paintings like a criminal does to the scene of the crime. Often, usually in the evening, when I'm leaving the studio, I promise myself I'll never return, or at least that I won't any time soon. But not long after, most often the very next morning, I'll want to be there again and nothing can hold me back despite myself. I often loathe my paintings and can't bear to look at them, but in the next moment I realize how simply beautiful they are. I'm aware furthermore that nothing else can draw me in so utterly, though I pay dearly for my work each day in a million quandaries and suffering, often quite tangible.

What causes you such suffering and leads you into such quandaries? It's only canvas and paint, after all -- not some kind of torture device!

Like a man lost in the labyrinth of the city (the object of my obsession) I too, sooner or later, lose myself in each new painting. The original forms and intended composition often give way to an influx of chaos, dynamically arising from the creative process in which I take part.

Looking at it from that perspective, just as the city -- in its chaotic attempts to bring order to the spaces we inhabit -- knows no beginning nor ending, my paintings too appear endless. I wonder time and again when precisely I should declare a painting complete. The thought weighs down on me that I'm dealing with a subject beyond comprehension. I often can't make either heads or tails of it.

Your words teem with emotions. Tell me more about your feelings. What are your fears?

I'm afraid of many things. I aim to confront them and learn to live with them later in life. That's partly the result of cellular memories, meaning dormant ones. A mother supposedly passes her anxieties on to her child. Considering my family's history, I'd believe that. Like everyone, I suppose, I struggle with the kind of idea like time and what follows it: the painful and incomprehensible fact of life's end. At such times I recall the words of Sophocles: "The greatest joy is to have never been born." That's an astute observation, in the face of which it's difficult to remain impassive. I identify perhaps even more closely with St. Augustine, in his quintessentially human desire to take a 'vacation' from life.

Do you hide your fears in images? Or perhaps conceal them?

Jerzy Nowosielski asserts that every painter creates the world in which they wish to live. Mieczysław Porębski reminisces in one of his books about finding Nowosiel, then a professor at ASP, on his knees before an unfurled electrical line. That scene speaks to me. It occurs to me that in my works I am shaping reality. My images are a kind of refuge, which allow me to substantiate myself. Lately someone asked what I'd have become if I hadn't been a painter. I concluded I ought to fight to remain what am. After all, here I am in space and time, with my individual limitations and abilities, and that's all I have to offer. Yet I constantly feel driven to define myself through my paintings.

Is it self-justification? Are paintings supposed to demonstrate one's purpose in the world?

I've always wondered what I do it for. At which moment in life did I decide to become a painter? It thoroughly frustrates me when opposition to the matter makes me want to give up and run away but, as I now know from experience, that's only a momentary temptation. I reach the same conclusion time and again, that my having become a painter was in no way anything forced, but something spontaneous. It all began in my childhood years, and no one forced me to do anything. It might well have been a surprise for my parents and those who knew me as a child. Back then I didn't know anyone who had similar interests. I have to admit though, I've had times when I haven't painted at all. I went through the longest such crisis towards the end of university. I gained a certain impetus from school in Bielsko, where I was educated, cognitively at any rate, as an artist. During studies my professor questioned my decision, which blocked me for some time.

Do you feel more confident nowadays in the path you chose?

Frankly, I hope for my paintings to strike people the way Niagara Falls does. I want them to contain not only my personal geography, but even my genetic record. That requires total deviation from the norms of the dreaded info services.

What do you still dream of? What is it that you still desire?

I'd like to feel satisfied in life; to accept my own decisions and to feel good about them. That takes a hell of a lot of courage, getting to know yourself a bit; gaining an insight into yourself.

Do you feel good about your artistic choices?

I do more and more so. To the extent that I'm completely absorbed in and fascinated by my latest 'Megalopolis' series. And I believe that the paintings are worthwhile. That's why I limit neither the amount of time I devote to them nor the degree to which I involve myself in them, though painting is also sometimes torture. I went through such a time recently, and nearly destroyed two paintings. It's rough for a painter rushing to meet deadlines. I'm don't feel comfortable rushing but I've learned that, when I try to, the universe does slow down and effectively come to my aid. I left those paintings alone for a few days and turned them around to face the wall. That helped. I reapproached them partly mechanically, partly methodically, building something up. Then I spent nearly half a day doing precisely nothing. I was in the studio, but not painting. After resting, I began painting anew. I did so only when I felt sure that I wasn't forcing myself. There's something perverse in the sort of work you can't force. That's probably why I'm always working on so many paintings at once. I can't imagine how a painter can sit and paint one single image from start to finish, though I know it does happen and even know painters who do it. But I just can't conceive of working that way myself. I've got about a dozen works in progress at the moment.

How long does it take you to finish one?

Usually quite a while, though my favorite in the series, among those I've prepared to exhibit, turns out to be the one I spent least time doing. Even with paintbrush in hand, I still never know what's coming next. I'd have imagined that after years of painting it would have become old hat. Turns out otherwise. I know it sounds coy, but it's true. I usually start out with a phase of notetaking in my sketchbook, followed by studying photos, which I also enjoy taking. Afterwards I allow myself to be guided by pure intuition, because other 'aids' begin gradually to interfere. In a sense though, it invokes the spaces we inhabit. I don't paint the same way Mark Rothko does, although his style is beautiful in its way. My paintings are however depictions, albeit only in one sense.

So you mean you don't know what you intend to paint when you start out?

My imagination may entertain very concrete ideas, but it's impossible to predict exactly how they'll come out on canvas. My intuition leads me into realms I never could have foreseen. Surprises like that are a nice part of the work. Like in real life, meeting people. We come up with notions about things which might happen, and life the meanwhile takes its own direction. We're either disappointed or excited. Rarely do things turn out just as we expected. That's a universal truth, applicable to everyone and not only painters; but perhaps to painters all the more so.

There is however one concrete aspect: you chose the city.

I try to tell the story of humanity, but also - and perhaps above all - my own story, in a discrete enough way to charge my paintings with the maximum possible emotion. The theme of the city allows me to do just that, though it's gradually become nothing more than a pretext. The city is the material trace of humanity's presence or, from an emotional perspective, the mark of our limitations. Compositional methods and permutations serve to underscore and intensify these phenomena.

Which was the first city you lived in?

I tend to romanticize it these days. It was at the meeting point of Silesia and Lesser Poland, where three empires formed a triangle. The bicycle shop, the 'Chrysanthemum' theater, the dairy, the buildings surrounding the square... Ania's pastry shop and Trzetrzelewski's ice-cream shop. The children's hospital beside our house, until the government had it demolished, that is. Also the so-called 'co-op', and the windows of 'Kościuszko' mine but a dozen or so meters from our building. All that stuff contained in one tiny area framed by a few streets. In the 'OTK' housing development there was a community center where I went to the art club every week. Behind our tenement grew chestnuts. Further back, on the other side of the fence, the sports hall perpetually under construction. We had fun there.

Which other real cities influenced your imagination?

To be honest, there isn't any one concrete area I'm especially interested in. My cities gradually form into colossal structures, piling on top of one another and evolving. I am however aware that all manner of associations may occur to my paintings' viewers.

Is art for you more about the finished product or the creative act?

Neither can exist without the other. Any good work of art constitutes a part of its author's biography, not to be read directly but rather as a representation of the emotions which accompanied its execution. When one looks at the paintings of a good artist, one immediately knows with whom one is dealing. In a nutshell, painting is the artist's logotype, his trademark.

But also a display of possibilities.

Now and then I think to myself, "I wouldn't have known how else to paint that, but it's good." That kind of situation forces me to explore my own limits, though of course I aim for my paintings to be as monumental, as complete and as defiant as possible, above all to myself. If the an artist's consciousness has shined through, the work is a success. When an artist is absorbed in his own world, his work is branded by it. That's precisely what I'm getting at. People will always respond to that kind of message. And, conversely, they reject what they feel is insincere.

And what of the temptation to simply show off technical dexterity?

I don't have such a temptation. There are many who surpass my abilities in photography or even just memory. If someone asked me to copy something according to some specified convention, I'd probably have a very hard time carrying it out. Plenty of artists can easily manage that sort of thing swiftly and skillfully. But luckily, painting is about something else altogether.

How does one balance technical skill with spontaneity?

A project is made up of different stages. The ground layer is unaffected by any experimentation. It's unlike a finished piece. There's more speculation and methodology in the moment when I'm starting a new painting, which I think is natural. Then, as I alluded previously, a critical moment arises. The original concept often gets discarded. At that point I've got to seek out new ideas, using some means I wouldn't have foreseen. That's the danger and potential of painting. Sometimes one's got to work backwards. The important thing is satisfaction with the finished piece. If I feel that requires splattering it with paint, turning it around, destroying part, or painting over, I'll do so without hesitation. Even if I spent the whole week arriving at that stage.

Does that cause you anger? Disappointment?

No. I've accepted it as a part of my job. I can't escape myself. What to do? You know, sometimes the process even moves me. I feel at home, in my domain.

Isn't a painter obliged to be possessed by a bit of madness? Is filling your life with creative anguish a conscious effort?

I don't feel that way. During studies at the academy I felt awkward carrying my sketches around under my arm, as if I were posing as an artist. It's not like I lie on the floor covered in paint, among scattered bottles. On the other hand I've tried to imagine myself getting up in the morning, like an engineer does, and going to work, but that's not really me. I do need certain timeframes and, to be sure, ways of what I call laying things out. I guess I'm just lazy and need a whipping. Owing to that, I've devised a method which works for me because, in spite of many doubts, I love what I do. I understand nonetheless that the image of a painter lost in a creative frenzy and struggling with himself is a lot more commercially appealing.

And so do you find that appealing?

Even if I do sometimes fall into creative furies, and I try not to out of regard for my family -- I don't mix private and professional spheres --d but if I could exercise complete control I'd probably lose the pleasure of locking myself in my studio and forcing myself to work twenty-four hours at a stretch, a unique part of the serious artist's existence. Guiding one's work in the right direction is a lifelong endeavor. Lately I read an interesting observation about how airplanes, 99% of the time, aren't flying precisely in the direction of their destinations, though they are on course. Flying is a constant correction of course. I feel something like that.

We humans have something in us which, if we're sensitive to ourselves and in touch with ourselves, we aren't satisfied with just any old thing. Why else would we go to so much trouble? Why else would people take such chances, do such dangerous jobs, or climb eight-thousanders? Although those are altogether different endeavors, the answer is most likely the same: for the fun of discovering oneself and one's limitations. I simultaneously value and admire those who perform the simplest, most neglected jobs, and are able to involve themselves in their work and feel fulfilled.

Is there anything you regret? Do you wish there was something greater you could do?

That's an interesting question. Once I asked someone, a person with whom I often speak, about things relevant to me. I asked because I'd wasted so much time in my life on these choices, rather than others. He told me, "You know, it's like this: If you've got to get from point A to point B, you'll get there, no matter which road you choose." It turns out, then, that those choices were necessary, that all those things had to happen. In the plan for our salvation, all of that has been calculated. That's how I understand it now, though I used to hold grudges against myself. It's a really elusive issue. On the one hand we can influence and shape our lives to some degree but, on the other, our abilities are limited by our state of our consciousness. And in hindsight, even the most difficult experiences look totally differently to us.

You mentioned the plan of our salvation. Tell me about what you believe.

I believe that our non-material aspect is immortal. That's how it's been in my life, ever since I quit giving in to religious pressure, I'm proud to say that my relationship with God has grown better and better. I can't imagine an end to my existence. That would be so opposed to the most fundamental instincts of my consciousness, that I can't even conceive of it.

But can you conceive of once never having existed?

Why don't people cry over not having existed a hundred years ago, if they cry because they won't exist in another hundred? Sure, that's astute. If I thought of my existence as finite, I'd simply commit spiritual seppuku. I don't want to think of myself in such a way. Whether I existed a hundred years ago is also a difficult question.

Don't you attempt to leave traces of yourself in your work? And through it attain immortality?

No, I don't delude myself that way, and that's not the kind of immortality I'm referring to. All traces of humanity and human thought will eventually be pulverized by time.

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