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Communist frying pan and capitalist fire

22 February 2013

Jonathan Evens on a Polish artist in search of true freedom

Angst and ecstasy: Maciej Hoffman's The One, which is in his exhibition in Southgate, north London

Angst and ecstasy: Maciej Hoffman's The One, which is in his exhibition in Southgate, north London

A STRIPPED and disused former bank houses SPACE, the gallery in which Maciej Hoffman's unstretched and unframed canvases currently hang. As a not-for-profit enterprise in property that could be let commercially at any time, this liminal space with its whitewashed blocks and exposed wiring is the perfect setting for Hoffman's existential and expressionist art.

The child of artists, Hoffman was antagonistic to following in his parents' footsteps, which resulted in a "troubled" childhood. He was a teenager during the beginning of martial law in Poland. Then came the fall of Communism and his immersion in the birth of Polish capitalism. For 15 years, he worked for one of the biggest advertising agencies in Poland; but this freedom to use art for commercial purposes, combined with the unrelenting dominance of the profit principle, came to seem as much of a trap and constraint as that which he had experienced under Communism itself.

Hoffman's canvases hang from the ceiling, as well as on the walls of SPACE, forming walls within walls, a maze of images to circumnavigate, and a recreation of the traps that Communism and commerce represented for him. Yet, on these immense canvases, where all the angst of the world seems spilled out in drips and splatters on distressed surfaces depicting equally distressed characters with existential force and a seeming spontaneity of style, he has also realised his vision of freedom.

There is great freedom and improvisation in his gestural brushstrokes, overlaid with flecks and drips of paint, creating the sensation that he has almost physically attacked the canvas; and yet concept and composition also clearly underpin his expressionism.

First, he says, "there is always a concept, an idea." As he works, however, intuition guides him, and the painting paints itself. The images that emerge from this maelstrom of paint, although often founded in the darkness of existential angst, exhibit a dynamism and energy that move towards freedom.

Escape and Dynamic move from darkness into light, the violence of the brushwork conveying the force of their motion. The One depicts bowed, cowled figures, forming a mass of interlocking downward-looking faces, from which one upward-thrusting, ecstatic figure emerges unhooded, and eyeballing the crimson sky.

Hoffman is interested in art as freedom. His sense is that our control-systems for classification, measurement, and supervision are narrowing our space for what is irrational, imperfect, or disordered. Artistic creation remains the one real margin of freedom we can use.

His is an art that connects with the work and styles of earlier émigré Polish artists in the UK, such as the mystical expressionism of Marian Bohusz-Szyszko, and the satirical expressionism of Stanislaw Frenkiel. It also has synergies with the continuing resurgence of neo-expressionism, which is currently well represented in London through the work of Philippe Vandenberg, which can be seen at the gallery Hauser & Wirth in Piccadilly.

Hoffman's philosophical or intellectual expressionism (to borrow a phrase often used of Marlene Dumas) also makes sense within the modern history of Polish art, where the Symbolism of Józef Mehoffer, Janusz Bogucki's promotion of the sacred in art, and the neo-Byzantine iconography of Jerzy Nowosielski all reflect on the meaning of human existence as being more than the material alone.

Hoffman studied philosophy at the Faculty of Theology at the Papal Theological Academy in Wroclaw - the study of "life", he has said. The subjects that interest him are those "issues that puzzle us throughout the years, forming our way of looking at the world, changing us".

Our reluctance genuinely to explore these issues features in another key image from this exhibition, But what's going on? - a question posed by those whose covered faces prevent their seeing. It is his willingness to look into the abyss, enabling the abyss to look at us, that makes his work both so striking and such a challenge.

Ultimately, his are grandiose, dramatic works, full of the tension and conflict by which, he says, he is frequently seized - the collision of thoughts with reality. Stress and fear flow from the problems of the everyday through the walls of his studio to rip apart the work. Almost all his days, he says, are accompanied by stress and the fear of danger, encircled, as he is, by a world in which a price is paid for each breath. Chaim Soutine, Willem de Kooning, and Anselm Kiefer are each inspirations and references, but Hoffman is assuredly his own man, with his own existential vision. His fluid, gestural manipulation of paint on canvas is seemingly raw, random, and unfinished; and yet the emotional impact of both his angst and his search for freedom is as great as the size of the works themselves.

Maciej Hoffman is exhibiting work at SPACE Gallery, 141 High Street, Southgate, London N14, until the end of the month. Opening hours are: Monday to Friday, 5.30-7.30 p.m.; Saturday, noon-4 p.m.; Sunday, noon-4 p.m.

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