Polish Painter Marcin Cienski’s Ominous American Life

There’s a dark humor in the art of Berlin-based Polish painter Marcin Cienski. Take, for instance, the 2014 painting New Providence, part of the show “Blissful Summit Days” currently on view at New York’s envoy enterprises. Here a clapboard church, complete with American flag waving in the front, is dramatically lit at dusk. It would appear to be an idyllic late afternoon—save for the comet streaking menacingly across the sky. 

This blend of the wholesome mixed with danger carries throughout the show, which features works by Cienski, created in 2014. A closely cropped oval portrait of a man, lying down, his expression open and intimate despite blood pouring from his nose, is titled after the slain Biblical giant Goliath. Another piece features a disheveled bed rendered in careful detail in a kitchily wood-paneled bedroom. Its title? My Lover Gave Me Crabs. 

There is something immediately familiar about the images in the show, as is often the case in Cienski’s work. But in this series religious imagery and family history have been taken over with a distinctly American iconography: a picture-postcard church, a leafy suburban street. A summer haze lingers. The artist often begins his work by referencing old photographs, images pulled from vintage magazines and personal ephemera. Though he does not copy the source material directly, its ghost remains, lending the images a familiar sensibility, almost like a shared memory. 

Cienski captures these images in rich oil paint, with nods to the Old Masters before him. Technically “correct,” yet still somehow artificial, the paintings sit on the edge of the the uncanny valley, the unsettling space where images hover between believability and uncomfortable artificiality. Visible brushstrokes and dramatic lighting remind the viewer that they are looking at a representation, rather than a thing itself. “I do not want paintings to imitate photography,” Cienski has said. “I am keen on remaining true to the medium of oil paint that enables a creation of an independent, parallel reality on canvas with painterly means.”

—Heather Corcoran

Blissful Summit Days” is on view at envoy enterprises, New York, Nov. 30, 2014–Jan. 18, 2015.

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