On View at the Jones Center
A fallen oak thrusts branches to the sky,
Like a huge building, from which overgrown
Protrude the broken shafts and walls o’erthrown.
There is perhaps no stronger iconography of the Polish landscape than its forests, laden with beauty and witness to great atrocities. The ruinous trees illustrated by the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz refer to the Białowieża Forest, a vast, dark, and mythical forest, or puszcza, on the border between Poland and Belarus. As Mickiewicz’s words portray images of curved, bent, and broken branches—whose entangled forms evoke crumbling buildings and memories of past battles—so trees become metaphorical carriers of memory in the landscape. But Mickiewicz’s words could just as easily describe the work of Monika Sosnowska (Polish, born 1972 in Ryki, Poland). Based in Warsaw since 2000, Sosnowska lives across the street from another forest, this one home to a Jewish cemetery that was destroyed during the Second World War, as the Germans used its headstones for construction works. Shortly thereafter, the Polish people planted many of the trees that compose the current woods and began an initiative to restore the cemetery to its previous state, a project that continues today.2
This complex terrain serves as the immediate geographical backdrop to the artist’s work and life. But while Sosnowska’s fabrications may resemble the dark tangled trees of her country’s topography, her direct source material is the urban jungle of Poland’s oppressive socialist era, Brutalist buildings characterized by a stark economy of material, form, and production. Modernist facades, handrails, staircases, fire escapes, fences, walls, ceilings, corridors, and playground structures from the 1960s and 1970s become inspiration for the artist’s dynamic sculptures and installations in steel, concrete, and plastic: a vertiginous, melting staircase reaching to the sky; a toppled tower, its walls like the curved ribs of a Jurassic skeleton; rumpled folds of intersecting grids suspended from the ceiling. In scale and material, Sosnowska breathes new life into the broader history of postmodern sculpture, recalling Tony Smith’s black monolithic sculptures, Robert Smithson’s minimalist ruins, or Louise Bourgeois’s monumental steel spiders. Through her distinct interpretation of sculpture, context, architecture, and geography, Sosnowska manifests incongruous spatial assemblages that equally seduce and attract while confusing and distorting, challenging existing perceptions of environment and built and lived space.
For Habitat at The Contemporary Austin – Jones Center, Sosnowska’s largest monographic exhibition to date at a U.S. museum, the artist has created an immersive, two-floor installation of dystopic domesticism. In the building’s lobby, Untitled, 2015, a gargantuan plantlike structure, pushes upward and outward, the illusion threatening to outgrow its glass containment. Beyond this, the entirety of the first floor features Antechamber, a labyrinthine series of constructed, angled walls, zigzagging through the building and reconfiguring the space. The interior resembles a confounding series of hallways, but with a twist: the walls are adorned with hand block-printed wallpaper depicting the delicate cream contrasts of an eighteenth-century floral Georgian Knot pattern.3 The interstitial, liminal presence of walls and passageways has a long trajectory in the artist’s work.4 Here, dynamic and surreal corridors become Sosnowska’s phenomenological response to an environment frozen in time. Individual doorways inserted in the wallpapered corridors lead to smaller, triangular rooms, each containing a single sculpture by the artist. From within each sub-room, the reverse side of the constructed walls reveal themselves as exposed and unfinished, replete with visible wall studs, allowing the viewer behind-the-scenes access to these faux domestic constructions. The works inside are modestly scaled riffs on structures endemic to human habitats. Frieze, 2015, for example, consists of a concrete rectangle with downward-bending metal slats, the artist’s drooping interpretation of structural roof supports. In another gallery, Rubble, 2015, a tumbleweed of metal and concrete plugs, hangs from the ceiling, as if the wires of an old telephone line were pulled from the ground and inadvertently knotted into a messy bundle.
The second floor features three new, large-scale commissions for the museum, exhibited here for the first time. Characteristic of the artist’s process, the creation of the works began with Sosnowska rendering crumpled vinyl and paper into small maquettes. While these models loosely dictate the feel of her larger sculptures, her structures are made from exact, to-scale replications of existing architectural components, which are deconstructed and transformed into the artist’s unique forms. The site-specific work Handrail, 2016, an abstracted rendition of the cheap plastic-covered steel banisters from the 1970s, becomes a colorful wall drawing, a curvilinear trace along two adjacent walls of the gallery. Façade, 2016, inspired by the exterior front of a mass-produced building in Warsaw, threatens to entangle the viewer in its massive, snarled web. And Stairs, 2016, cousin to The stairs, 2011, currently installed on the grounds of the Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park at Laguna Gloria, consists of an extended, centipede-like structure stretched horizontally across the floor. By reinterpreting charged architectural structures from her surroundings, Sosnowska observes and transforms elements of a complicated past into resonant commentaries on the present.
1 Adam Mickiewicz, Pan Tadeusz, trans. Kenneth Mackenzie (London, 1964), 77, as reprinted in Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 59.
2 Artist in conversation with the author in Warsaw, Poland, March 6, 2016, and via email correspondence, July 30, 2016.
3 Sosnowska chose the Georgian Knot pattern for its relationship to Texas history: a 1963 photo by Yoichi Okamoto, found in the Lyndon B. Johnson library archives, shows a similar floral paper in a diamond pattern on the library wall at the LBJ Ranch in Stonewall, Texas, 1963.
4 Sosnowska first executed a version of these wallpapered corridors at the 54th Venice Biennial in 2011, titled Antechamber, followed by an installation at the Serralves Museum in Portugal in 2015. However, corridors, walls, doorways, gates, and entryways appear frequently in her iconography. Artist in email correspondence with the author, July 30, 2016.
This exhibition is organized by Heather Pesanti, Senior Curator, with text also by Pesanti.
Watch video of Senior Curator Heather Pesanti discussing this exhibition. Produced by Hauser & Wirth.
Monika Sosnowska Exhibition Support: Galerie Gisela Capitain, Hauser & Wirth, Horizon Bank, Linda L. Brown, MaddocksBrown Foundation, Vision Fund Leaders and Contributors
Monika Sosnowska (Polish, born 1972 in Ryki, Poland) currently lives and works in Warsaw. The artist studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Poznan, Poland, from 1993 to 1998, and the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam from 1999 to 2000.
Sosnowska’s recent solo exhibitions include Ginza Maison Hermès, Tokyo, and Fundação de Serralves, Porto (both 2015); Hauser & Wirth, New York (2014); the Pérez Art Museum Miami, the Aspen Art Museum, and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne (all 2013); Public Art Fund, New York City, and The Modern Institute, Glasgow (both 2012); the Tamayo Museum, Mexico City (2011); and the K21 Ständehaus, Düsseldorf (2010). In 2010, Sosnowska was an International Artist-in-Residence at Artpace, San Antonio, with an accompanying solo exhibition. In addition, the artist has had residencies at Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin (2004), and S-AIR, Sapporo (2002). Her work has been featured in numerous group exhibitions at venues throughout the world, including the Blaffer Art Museum, Houston, and the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw (both 2014); the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (2012); and Centre Pompidou, Paris (2010). In 2007, Sosnowska represented Poland at the 52nd Venice Biennale.
The artist's work The stairs is also currently on view at the Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park at Laguna Gloria.