Marrying surrealist depictions and flesh-coloured forms, Piotr Janas continues his exploration of the human psyche on canvas with Voltage, a solo show on view at Echo gallery in Cologne through May 4. Unpicking the primal forces behind his artistic vision, Janas discusses themes of existentialism, introspection and interpretation and the effect his work has on the viewer’s psyche alongside the energy inherent to his work.
Your current exhibition Voltage sounds like an intriguing combination of a preoccupation with surrealism and bold painterly gestures. Can you tell us how you've drawn inspiration from the Rorschach inkblot test for this body of work?
Well, me using the Rorschach test as an inspiration to compose some of my older works is an outright admission of being inspired by Surrealism. As it is with Surrealism, not knowing exactly if it is conscious or not. This inspiration seems to be very useful for works of the diptych type, where two canvases can pretend to be two sheets of paper, the paint – ink, the viewer – a psychiatrist. Yet, my role in that transformation remains unclear in a way.
My artistic practice or modus operandi is in most cases not having an exact master plan. Created step by step as a result of simple dependence of cause and effect, action and reaction. They just sometimes need some starting motion, a little bit of fuel to power the process. [The] Rorschach test is exactly that, a perfect inspiration, the impulse for the rest to happen.
The description of “faecal smears, pink bodily skins, self-penetrating amorphous creatures, and organs suspended in plasma and fluids” is undeniably vivid and provocative. What led you to explore such visceral and confrontational imagery in your work?
I have always wanted to paint works that have a stimulating rather than relaxing effect on the viewer. Francis Bacon used to say that there are two kinds of works, some are created "from the brain" and the other "from the nervous system" which the artist located along the spine. It is easy to guess which group better suits my work. The focal point, the pivot around which the subjects of my works revolve is always the human being. Sometimes as a whole, with a soul, more often without a soul, and sometimes only as a single fragment of a person, just a part.
The title Voltage suggests a sense of energy and intensity. Where did this come from?
The latest series of works I'm showing in Cologne is a bit different from my earlier ones. Apart from the purely painterly differences (flat painting, simplified composition, greater sterility of the pieces), they are also less corporeal, using the language of geometry, surrealistic but more in the spirit of Francis Picabia. I decided to add new elements to my bestiary, drawn from technology and electrical engineering.
The figures that we can see in the Cologne exhibition somewhat represent a hybrid of electrotechnical devices powered by electricity and organic elements or those devices put against organic bodies. To the compositional, colour and formal tensions, I added electricity, the voltage. The choice of the exhibition title Voltage was therefore obvious.
Your work often challenges conventional notions of beauty and aesthetic norms. What do you hope to achieve through this?
As I mentioned, I have always wanted to paint images that arise "from the nervous system" and affect this system. The worst punishment for me has always been the indifference of the viewer. I try to do everything possible so that the viewer does not remain indifferent. And whether he will like my work or not is a secondary matter.
Many years ago, Adam Szymczyk wrote about my works, quoting from memory, “In a cultured viewer, Janas’s works arouse irritation and disgust, at the same time, leaving him in total ignorance of the reasons for this state.” I can offer that kind of tension to the viewer. The tension arising from the work and individual reception and interpretation.
In your earlier works, there's a palpable tension between ambiguous organic shapes and geometric forms, creating a dynamic interplay between sexual allusions and violence. How do you approach the balance between form and content in your compositions, particularly when dealing with such charged imagery?
There is no balance between form and content in my book. In general, if I had to define my work in one word on the basis of opposites such as balance-unbalance, then I choose unbalance. Similarly, plus-minus, minus. Anxiety-peace, anxiety. Harmony-dissonance, etc. I refer to my work as a highly processed product. What I mean is that it’s a concoction of which composition I cannot remember, over which recipe I do not have full control. References, memories, passions, complexes, fascinations, mix in various proportions coming to the fore in different circumstances. My role is to keep an eye on the formal shape of the work and the artistic quality.
The autonomy of the picture seems to be a significant aspect of your artistic practice, referencing the tradition of 1960s and 1970s Polish painting. Is it difficult to negotiate the tension between spontaneity and control in your process, especially when allowing the painted matter to arrange itself freely on the canvas?
That’s an interesting question. I think that in my work this tension between spontaneity and control is what constructs and creates the painting. I really like using this juxtaposition – fragments that are refined and completely random, sometimes even "not created by human hand", acheiropoietos as the Greeks used to say. This balance between emotion, finding balance between detail and smear have often been the leitmotif of many of my paintings.
When it comes to inspiration from Polish ‘60s and ‘70s painting, apart from the obvious influence on me simply by their presence in the culture in which I grew up , what connects me to this phenomenon is the subject of war. War, quite understandably, was one of the main themes of Polish artists in that era. The war is also in my paintings. Not the second world war but the war of tough against soft, greasy against dry, black against pink, fever against hypothermia, etc.
The themes of bodily fluids and penetration are recurrent in your work. Could you elaborate on the significance of these motifs?
“I’m human and nothing that is human is strange to me.” I think it was Terentius. If the primary subject of your work is [the] human condition, otherwise known as the humanities in the broad sense, you cannot just pass over the subject of bodily fluids and penetration. Because why would you?
Your paintings  have previously been described as “portraits of an existential condition”.  How do you tap into the realm of the unconscious and repressed content to create these introspective narratives within your work?
It happens on its own. That’s the most interesting thing about it, this moment of bringing out shapes and objects that you don't know where they basically came from. I really like to look at my older works and wonder how they came to life? What were the inspirations, associations, what emotions accompanied me and I can never tell exactly. Too much time has passed! I look at my older works as if they were made by a stranger. That's what I like most.
Your work seems to invite viewers into a dialogue with their own subconscious and existential inquiries. How do you hope audiences will engage with and interpret these introspective themes within your paintings?
That’s also an interesting question. How to engage the viewer, pull him [in], so to speak, into the depths of the image, to interest him in the subject, structure, composition of the image? I’ve got to admit that I have no idea how to do this. In my works, I try to be interesting and intriguing, giving as much room for interpretation as possible. However, I think an artist shouldn't only think about how to please the viewer, but rather, not forgetting about him, what more can you give him. More than he expects, sometimes more than he can handle.
Finally, looking ahead, do you see any shifts or developments in your practice in relation to the exploration of existentialism and transformation?
The furthest I see is the unfinished painting hanging on the wall in my studio. The rest is lost in the darkness.
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