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Nick Wadley Print E-mail

Secret Lives, 2002

Since the early 1970s, Ewa Kuryluk’s images have been stamped with her wish to work closer to life than to art. Her first paintings that I saw seemed to play subversive games with the practice of painting, almost toying with the medium. Flat, unpainterly, they were never windows onto another world; more like pages of memorabilia, or a card table dealt with private tarot cards. Schema from a personal file. When in around 1977, she first drew these dreams onto draped cloth, the forms became garments from an autobiographical wardrobe. It’s an art that is folded like clothes, and stored in drawers, and that travels in a suitcase.

In 1998 she took her suitcase to Fukuoka on the island of Kyushu, in western Japan. The Secret Life of Clothes was a suite of four exhibitions at Artium art gallery, uniting seven artists from Europe and America who, in very distinct and original ways, use clothes as a medium, and as cyphers for profound meaning. For most this has been a strategy to evade the aesthetic object, and to operate as artists in the actual world. And while it may seem predictable common ground in a post-modernist climate, for Ewa it was a poignantly congenial context, as if the public arena had contrived to match her private fantasies.

On the cover of the Fukuoka catalogue, the title is printed across the folds of an open-weave cloth, half lost in shadow. The transformations this effects are even more apposite than the young Japanese designer intended. Meaning is obstructed: the word ‘clothes’ is muffled into ‘cloth’, and the whole title is swallowed into the pictorial illusion. The context of Japanese culture, ancient and modern, resonated many chords with Ewa Kuryluk’s work, some fundamental, some fortuitous: the important role of cloth in Japanese life; the kinetic dialogue between nakedness and cloth in so many woodblock prints; words in folds of paper tied on trees; the alien animation of language; incoherent words whispered behind a geisha’s hand.

Ewa Kuryluk’s exhibition in Fukuoka was a cameo retrospective. As well as an outdoor installation/performance in the park, she exhibited a curtain wall, two tall hanging pieces from the Theatre of Love, two shrouds from the Memories series, and a compelling group of chairs from the early 80s. The exhibition was dominated by figures of Ewa. They looked immersed in a narcissistic melancholy; their gaze was penetrating and made contact with the visitors. One wrote in the book of seeing the picture, but of feeling the secret life: eyes as eloquent as the tongue.........I shan’t sleep tonight.

The autobiography of her work puts us as viewer in the role of mirror, but what we look at remains full of secrets, like the unintelligible words that whisper in the folds of many recent works. One of the etymological sources of the English word cloth is ‘Clotho’, spinner of the thread of life, one of the three Greek fates who determine good an evil in a newborn. In some of Ewa’s works the cloth is clearly shroud-like, redolent of closure more than of a beginning. And in all, the many lines drawn on the cloth stand as traces and stains of having lived. It’s not simple to decipher her images in terms of good and evil, but difficult to turn away from the unsmiling eyes with their stoic awareness of life, and their burden of memory.

Trained as painter and art historian Nick Wadley was for a long time Head of Art History at Chelsea School of Art, London. Most of his scholarly writing has been on late 19th century French painting and drawing, but he has also organised exhibitions of modern and contemporary art, in England and Europe, as well as Japan. He writes regularly for TLS, and his drawings appear in London newspapers and journals. Two books of drawings were published in 2003.

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