As I entered the Piotr Janas exhibition, currently showing at the ICA, the wall text rather dryly promised me “amoebic forms recalling organs, bodily fluids and various body parts”. Being relatively unfamiliar with Janas’s work, I was expecting something almost anatomical from this; something perhaps even quite heavily scientific. Hence, I was rather unprepared for what would be one of the most grotesque and unique series of contemporary works that I had seen in a while.
Warsaw-based Janas’s style recalls Francis Bacon and Salvador Dalí, but at the same time is entirely distinct from both of them. Without being fully figurative, his paintings provoke a sense of gut-wrenching, empathetic pain in the viewer; organ-like forms are pierced with unidentifiable sharp objects in landscapes of pain, or otherwise caressed in hedonistic liquid oceans. They are stretched and twisted until they excrete their inner fluids around the canvas; Janas has an interesting technique of painting hyper-realistic forms, before stabbing them violently with the paintbrush in order to give the effect of liquid seeping out in water.
The first piece to greet you in the exhibition is Untitled (2011), a nondescript title that does not really suit the image. Against a black backdrop is the figure of a head, wrapped in what seems like a gimp mask. Even without being able to see its expression directly, you can really get a sense of the anguish on the form’s face. There are also indistinguishable blade-like shapes stabbing the head, creating chasms from which dark brown fluid bursts forth, mimicking the spurting of blood from a head wound. But this image is only a gentle introduction into the graphic, surreal world of Janas.
Another work, Nowotko (2011), resembles an intestine wrapped and stretched around a black shape with blades jutting out of its sides, piercing through the intestinal lining with brown paint oozing out, resembling both blood and faeces in a similar manner to the previous work. As a reference to the first piece, also, there is another masked head suffocating in the right-hand corner of the work, trapped inside the intestinal shape with a screaming expression of pain just visible through the skin of the organ. But what is most interesting about Nowotko is that it is painted over two canvases that have been pushed together, so that although it is difficult to notice this immediately, the black spiky form does not align in the middle; there is a disjuncture between the two halves that interrupts the otherwise highly fluid piece. The piece is, presumably, named after Marceli Nowotko – the Polish communist activist who established the Polish Workers Party (PPR) in 1941, following the German invasion of the USSR. His murder remains unsolved – he was brutally killed in Warsaw, and discovered near the railway station with bullet wounds. This work evokes something of the pain of such a horrific death, whilst the misalignment of the canvases (and, therefore, of the entire image) seems to recall mystery surrounding his end, through the feeling of something ‘not adding up’.
An equally striking image was God (2012). Looking at the title before the work, I found myself automatically searching for religious comment within the painting. However, it immediately became clear that the work was not referencing religion, but rather the exclamation one cries out at the point of orgasm. In the work is a pair of pink lips, out of which dribbles a black substance, whilst a large phallic form sits erect, surrounded by the same black liquid, which bursts out from its end in the same manner as the blood in the other works – an interesting replica of the moment immediately following ejaculation. The body parts, the penis and the mouth, stand alone and without any other figurative elements. The liquid substance that surrounds both forms and fills the canvas seems to blend these elements into one large form, one singular representation of the orgasm.
Finally, perhaps one of the most striking works in the exhibition is Suicide (2012). There are several separate elements at work here – there is a stomach-like organ with a blade forced through it, out of which two eyeballs dangle out, suspended by the optic nerves. There is also a bleeding, rotting skull, and in another area, a nose. All of these body parts are arranged rather precariously on top of an anonymous set of steps, which is set against a Dalí-esque surrealist landscape. Surrounding these organs is what looks like blood and faeces, violently stabbed onto the canvas.
Piotr Janas’s work is the height of contemporary abjection, and the epitome of what Mikhail Bakhtin called ‘the grotesque’. The pieces in this exhibition pare down the human body into singular parts and organs, defined not only by their excretion of faecal and sexual fluids, but primarily by the ways in which they experience extremes of pain and pleasure. His paintings are unique in the way they explore these abject experiences and, with their graphic surrealism, the way they cause the viewer to replicate the sensations being depicted within them. Definitely a must-see.