Katarzyna Żelaska was born in 1953 in Warsaw. In 1978 she left Poland to live and work in Paris. For the last 10 years she has lived and sworked South of France.
From 1973 till 1978 Żelaska studied at the Faculty of Painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. As a student she made her first film entitled Projektowanie formy w przestrzeni (Designing Forms in Space), at the Faculty of Sculpture in 1973; the film featured a chicken alive then dead. The film attempted to provoke a deep reflection on using animals to produce art, which Żelaska strongly opposed to.
In 1974 Żelaska co-founded the Prom group and exhibited with them till 1977. Her graduation work, under the supervision of Professor Stefan Gierowski, was composed of a series of black and white as well as red and white serigraphs, and was a rebellious gesture against then prevalent tendencies at the Academy, which at the time was dominated by the so-called "Polish school" of Colorism.
After 4 years of studies in computer generated art, in 1982 Żelaska graduated from the University of Paris 8 – Vincennes, with a BA degree in computer science. That was a time when repetitive music, understood conceptually, was at a forefront, with such seminal works as John Cage’s 4'33'' concert, where the interpreter abstains from playing for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. Żelaska was deeply impressed and her art was informed by milestones of repetitive music and its strategies, such as a concert during which a pre-recorded tape is played in several players so that it creates a loop in space and – as a result – music is cut, which means the end of repetitions of a musical piece, visualized by the end of the movement of the tape in space. A famous concert by Iannis Xenakis, where every sound gets its equivalent in a line or point sent by laser may be cited as another influential example.
Working on computers in the evenings in the newly established IRCAM music centre in Paris, Żelaska felt tightly connected with these tendencies in music. Unfortunately, at that time computer art resembled acoustics rather than music. Artists had to face serious problems of a predominantly technical nature, clouding the actual artistic work. This aspect persuaded Żelaska to focus on traditional media, and her works of that period are multiples and photographs.
At that time she made another film, entitled "A Plane on Fire". A plane is falling and is on fire, its individual, intense and expressive form changing in time. Its movement in space is contrasted with a indifferent and independent one, i.e. a fixed shot of a green meadow and blue sky. Elements of this film, transformed into the form of abstract or colorful rhythms, appeared then as a motif or a structure in Żelaska’s paintings. Copying a gesture and being a gesture on its own, these elements became a reference par excellence.
Between 1982 and 1988 Kasia Żelaska took part in a number of group shows in Paris.
In 1983 she started to create works using free forms, not limited to a definite surface. She also reduced the range of colors in her work to black and white and the three primary colors, never using a wider palette since.
The colors in her work most often include: cadmium yellow lemon (cool), cadmium red light (warm), cobalt blue (medium). These cool-warm relations came to the fore in her work. This was her final "settlement of accounts" with the heritage of Polish colorism, that must have influenced her five years spent in the Academic studies. She also decided to liberate her work from aesthetic postmodern preferences, namely minimalism and conceptualism.
The last year of the 1980s Żelaska spent in San Francisco, California, where she returned for short stays over the next five years. It was there that she started cooperation with the Trojanowska Gallery, where her works on paper were presented.
In 1990 a piece entitled "Sky made in California" starts a partial return in her artistic work to the plane created by the division between the free form and the form defined by the right angle.
The subjects present in her works of that period question the artistic tradition in general as does "Essay of Style" for instance, or interpret the symbolism of common signs, like in "Choose Your Sign" or "Heaven and Hell". They also touch areas of personal experience – "Requiem", "Doors of Paradise" and "The Sadness of Warm Countries".
In 1995, she displayed her works at an individual show at the Gallery of the Association of Polish Artists and Designers – DAP.
In 1998, Żelaska commenced working on a painting series entitled "Baroque for ever". She referred to her favorite period in European art, namely the baroque – a historical period emphasizing art-cognition as a process, and not as a set of rules necessary to discover the sense of a piece of art.
Baroque – for Żelaska – for the first time presented the intellectual model, where the structure emerges from the sum of the individual answers and connections between different parts of the whole. The artist also noticed strong opposition to this artistic trend evolving for about 400 years and opening the world and art-world to new perspectives, where the calmness of being able to embrace the whole at one glance has been disturbed.
This intense pattern painted on a surface cannot be printed; its characteristic does not allow it interfere in any form in any space, material or illusory. It always exists independently, allowing the artist to combine individual images into one field and creating one large plane that can be multiplied endlessly by adding new components.
Fragments, repetitions, retakes, copies of own works, became the features that she has recently structured around "the stories", creating sketches for multiple possible scenarios. It seems that everything could be combined once more in a different way, without losing the trace of the whole.
Individual shows of Żelaska at this period include: "The Hunting of the Snark" at Art-77 Gallery, Micky Engel, Paris; "Tell Me That You Love Me" at Klima Bochenska Gallery, Warsaw; "Exhibition" - Museaav, Nice; "Sweet World" at TEST Gallery, Warsaw.
The TEST Gallery presentation was the last show of Żelaska's paintings. From there on, she has been creating narrative ensembles made of video works, paintings, photography and later digital art as well. Such a trans-media approach to artistic expression marks her comeback to her early career phase, when Żelaska made photography, film and computer art. Combining several media in one interactive whole allows Żelaska to build a multi-narration, containing a number of plots. Each narrative path is considered a story within a story. These stories are unified by a common subject matter, but are not necessarily directly related to one another. One can experience them separately, when one is exposed to only a partial view of the show.
This is how the artist describes her show: It starts with a video where 19 friends of mine who came to visit our house in the South of France in 2009, announce "the beginning of a story". Throughout next four exhibition spaces we experience several elements of the exhibit, and at the last, fifth space, which is actually the last room of the gallery, the same 19 people declare "the end of story". The tension between the declared beginning and the end of the story is enforced by the fact that in the spaces between, these 19 people told their personal stories. These stories were substituted and appropriated by the actual show and its themes.
In the introduction to the exhibition catalog, Żelaska writes: Over the years, the central themes of my work have been related to space and its multiple meanings and contexts it appears in. Today, I focus more on the narrative of my surroundings. I create an area where different types of space manifest themselves in the shape of documents. In my current work everything has the potential to account for its temporal framework. This concept is materialized in the viewer's head, who, by walking through the gallery space, creates her or his own narrative. This current show contains a collection of moments, experiences and feelings that I have put together for the viewer.
'Being an artist' is the theme of the show. The theme is approached through an 'encounter' and a 'mixture' of attitudes and the emergence of a new quality that serves to present a subjective and personal story.
An 'encounter' takes place between the forms created in 80s and the new forms present in this show. It is also an encounter between the artist put in front of a canvass and the artist of a next generation, a manager and entrepreneur.
A 'mixture' concerns fragments of forms created earlier that re-appear in new and random configurations. It is not so much a formally empty manipulation of the images, but a reflection on the inability of leaving one’s world and one’s sensibility and remaining free from other artists’ influences. The artist copies, reproduces himself or others, which brings newness in her art. The question remains whether it matters if the elements created by an artist are recognized by the viewer? Definitely the artist does not care. What is important for her is an experience and a reflection, which led to certain 'mixture', or, in other words, another attempt by the artist to say something meaningful.
A new quality emerges when a real image of a ‘mixture' confronts its ephemeral equivalent. Ambiguity of this situation creates the 'new'. This ephemeral nature of the image parallels the ephemerality of a given moment in the art history, the ephemerality of a work of art in general…
The central work of the show is entitled The List.
Every artist has one's own list, containing one's knowledge about the visual world. In this case the list contains painters' names only.
The List is like a library of books read. It contains the favorites and the insignificant ones, but the fact of its existence is a somewhat like a piece of homework subconsciously done by the artist. A piece of homework that enabled her to understand, and therefore incorporate or reject certain art phenomena.See the video The List.
At 2012 exhibition at the XX1 gallery in Warsaw I tried to think about
It all started with myriorama, a set of illustrated cards dating back to 1830, published in Leipzig and still printed in same versions to this day. I received such a set as a gift, on my first birthday as an émigré in Paris in 1978 (see the video Myriorama).
A further reason for my focus on landscape is the memory of the moment when I, when looking at a landscape—the plane of a field and a cloud with its shadow—for the first time felt the excitement of painting, of producing a synthesis of what I was seeing. That was in 1974, after my first year of studying painting, during an open-air session in Szurpiły.
One final reason is two exhibitions that I saw in Paris. The first, a very big one, focused on 17th-century landscape painting. The second exhibition focused on the painter Gustave Courbet. Thanks to Courbet, I think, my polemic with naturalism via realism is not yet over. This is a discourse that is bound to resurface sooner or later. And These exhibitions made me take a serious interest in the landscape.
“Contributions” are everything else in this exhibition .
Etymologically, a 'landscape' (French paysage) is an composition of lines, signs and shapes of a space limited to a 'land' (pays). It represents a part of earthly space perceived both horizontally and vertically by an observer. It is related, therefore, to a point of view.
The history of landscape painting in our culture and thus in Western art is short and fluky. Initially, there must have been an idea to transform a land/pays (country) into a 'paysage' (landscape). The transition was implemented by the painters of the 15th Century.
It seems that this idea comes from the Netherlands (ca. 1415) and it arrived in France through Italy in the 16th Century. It is in France that the word paysage is born.
At the beginning, landscapes are part of other pictures as decoration and only in the 17th century have artists started to consider it as a standalone subject. It wasn't by the 19th Century that we have witnessed 'paysage' as a topic and a relevant subject for art. Through and by landscape, a discussion about the interpretation of reality originated and a separate, landscape-specific branch of esthetics was born.
Currently, the semantic field of the word 'paysage' broadened considerably, including for instance a geopolitical sense, or an ecological meaning... but the importance landscape in art as such faded.
On the other hand, the concept of landscape became a popular idea, an idea we collectively share and accept. It became an idea allowing for intellectual or sensory understandings of space, space organized as several layers where we identify objects on. The idea is true for anyone but dependent on his/her culture and source of references.
This belief in the 'paysage' uniting us all, together with some facts of my life revolving around 'painting – landscaping' concept became the theme of this exhibition.
The show was inspired by Philip K. Dick's novel 'Ubik'.
In the show, two questions: 'what is hidden in a painting?' and 'is understanding of the painting ever possible' are related to actual depriving some viewers of the access to the massage carried by the painting.
7 QR codes of different sizes hide messages/stories. The stories can be accessed only by those who carry a smartphone or a tablet and are able to download an app to read QR codes. For these who couldn't fulfill these conditions, the reception of the work is limited to the esthetic aspect of the paintings.
Similarly, the viewers once looking at Hans Holbein's 'Ambassadors' unaware of its iconographic meanings must satisfy themselves with superficial observation and partial understanding of the famous picture's symbolism.
The same could be said about the viewers of Jean-Luc Godard's movie 'Socialism'. In 'Socialism', the thoughts about our world and its problems are pronounced in French while the translation into English is reduced to bare minimum. For non-French speaking viewers, purposefully, the 90% of the verbal message of the film is lost. The picture naturally caused a lot of frustration to those that had to suffer from the purposefully missing translation.
In Western culture, we identify with 'our times', and when our generation passes, we can rarely understand the new one. For this trivial reason, our understanding of the present times is almost totally impossible. See the video Drop.
The show delves into 3 simple grammatical times: I was, I am, I will be. The show also combines two art modes: the analogue mode, related to the physical world and the digital mode, which depends on numeric data.
In 2019, I was invited by curator Paweł Sosnowski to take part in a group exhibition entitled TIME - only broken clocks show the exact time. This exhibition took place in the Gdańsk City Gallery.
So this is what Paweł Sosnowski wrote about some of my work in the introduction to the exhibition catalog. The most personal object at the exhibition is a small painting by Katarzyna Zelaska. She painted it for me a few years ago in remembrance of the exhibition we prepared together. The starting point for one of the works shown at the time was a quote from Marcel Proust. The thing was about the memory recalled by the taste of cookie called madeleine. To activate this memory, it was necessary to use a telephone application and then an extensive story was revealed on the screen - a text by Proust read by a friend, another friend who was baking madeleines, a mother entering the kitchen, and an animated anagram with a nice message. This message was hidden under the same QR code painted on a small picture I ordered for a charity auction, which Kasia ‘portrayed’ when he was lying on the table in the gallery, next to my glasses and a coffee cup. And this is that picture.
- 19th Pitch, Nowe Horyzonty, Wroclaw, 2010
- Contamination, Studio Gallery, Warsaw, 2011
- Landscape, XX1 Gallery, Warsaw, 2012
- Ubik, Propaganda Gallery, Warsaw, 2016
- Time, Gdansk, 2019