The origins of popular art called pop-art can be traced back to the 1950s. It was England which became the forerunner of the style destined for the mass audience. Pop-art moved onwards to France, only to find the natural homeland in the United States and its main centre - New York. With the use of repetition, known everyday forms, mass produced goods, as Cambell’s soup can by Andy Warhol, depict the unemotional, matter-of-fact recording of typical props of the world where the contemporary man lives. Watching Sławomir Toman’s work presented in the Sandhofer Galery, we get the impression that this is what exactly constitutes his art as well. However, as the artists says himself, paraphrasing the proverbial ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ - ‘don’t judge my paintings by the beautiful surface’.
The artistic activity of Sławomir Toman begins in the communist times of the 1980s in Poland. It was a hard period in economic terms before imposing martial law: empty shelves in shops, rationed food for coupons, endless queues, drabness of the streets. In the grim reality only few could stock themselves up for dollars in so called Pewex shops - stores selling western goods. The ones who had families in Germany or the USA were lucky enough to have more frequent encounter with luxurious goods, savouring real chocolate at the time when Poland was seized by chocolate crunch bar having nothing to do with chocolate itself. Throughout those difficult times of poverty and unified culture, Toman dreamed of western, mass produced goods desired in Poland back then. Looking for his own ways of liberating himself from the limits set by the ruling regime, he began by painting the characters created by American film studios. Having been consequently incorporating colours which did not use to be commonly applied at the time, he exposed himself to misunderstanding and criticism. The professors of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw were not in favour of the art of such a rebellious student at that time, who would depict plastic products which advocated growing consumer society. His work diverged from the dominant trends, thus it could not aspire to the real art, created in pain and set out by dark colours. The artist met with the lack of understanding of the general concept of his painting.
The forefathers of pop art were not successful in fulfilling the ideal of a pure picture. Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Hamilton endeavored to find a way of abandoning the search for meanings and intentions in paintings. Throughout years the style evolved to the state which we find in Toman’s work – recalling connections with the prime context by depicting everyday reality. Presenting nice, colourful objects and fairy- tale Disney’s world, he did not give credit to the modernist culture, just the opposite. The surfaces of his canvas convey humour or sarcasm at times, indicate the superficiality of joys and sorrows of the consumer society, trivializing the power of the contemporary media. Occasionally, through arousing controversial issues in his paintings, Toman focuses the attention on the problem which comes along in the era of visuality and affluence. He is an objective observer of the contemporary world, simultaneously somehow adapts the role of a moraliser, often not disguising a critical approach towards it.
Focusing on the visual aspect of the artist’s works – what do we see looking at the painting? One depicts collected, bulging, colourful tic-tacs almost pushing and shoving the canvas’s edge. Another - a pool table with chaotically scattered cue balls. The other shows tangled tubes, colourful drink straws, caps from bottles of popular drinks. In a word – well-known forms of everyday life, hyperrealistic, frequently multiplied in a large scale. The meticulousness in rendering the detail, a surface of the canvas rich in texture, blinks of light, abundance of saturated and pure colours – all this strengthens the visual impact on the spectator. We have a feeling that a depicted object attempts at liberating itself from too tight frames of the picture, it is within hand’s reach. The multiplied objects on formats completely covered with paint called all-over, subject all the space to themselves, somehow reinforcing the titled ‘Mono-Poli’ – unity in multiplicity. They become a self-contained identity, apparently empty and simple in its artistic perfection.
Once critics accused Andy Warhol of trivializing art. Depicting the world close to him, beautiful and interesting in his view, he gave it a new life of an autonomous, isolated creation of the culture industry. Sławomir Toman took a step further – he added a meaning to the tissue of reality which surrounds us. He suggests giving a thought in a microscale on one’s own desire to posses things, in a macroscale - on progressing consumerism of the society and deterioration of higher values. Things desired in the communist Poland suddenly became accessible to everyone and their mass production, cheapness, promotion and popularity keep arousing the desire of possessing. By creating ideally realistic objects, aspiring to the role of a quasi – relics, Toman calls for the necessity of distancing from superficial luxury. As the well-known proverb goes: all that glitters is not gold.