Social commentary: the paintings of Marta Czok (NY Arts Magazine)

Timelessness can be translated as the quality of being eternal, ageless, immortal, or not affected by time. This sense of perpetual time is evident in the insightful work of Marta Czok. In Czok’s paintings there is a sense of profound mystery as figures are bracketed and framed by adjacent solid color canvases. These adjoining canvases create a cinematic quality that distills time and evokes a feeling of suspension. This suspended void, as it were, allows for a stage or platform in which figures act out a plethora of human expressions. Marta Czok’s work invokes a world full of wondrous insights into the many facets of humanity. The way she illustrates towers, machines, mannequins, and the human figure is evocative and compelling. Each painting reconstructs a narrative that has specificity but also universal appeal. With irony, wit, satire, and warmth she creates work that touches on personal and political sentiments with great poignancy.

Czok was born in Beirut, Lebanon in 1947 and has a multicultural background being British/Italian of Polish origins. Her early life involved moving around quite frequently. Her Polish parents were in the Middle East after having managed to escape the USSR where they had been prisoners of the Soviets. While Czok was an infant, her family moved to the UK where she received her formal education. Interestingly enough, it was later in life that she found her voice as a painter. She states, “I turned to painting after I finished my studies at Central St. Martins College of Art and Design in London where I did a BA Course in Fashion and Textiles. In fact, on arrival in Italy in 1974, I worked for some time as a dress designer for various fashion houses and it was only when my daughter was born and I saw the world for the first time as it really was and not as I hoped it might be, that I finally dropped designing work altogether and concentrated full time on painting.” This turning point is incredibly telling in terms of her thought process. Czok’s work has a direct relationship to her immediate world. When her formal propositions are posited against one another, they form a visual compendium of thoughts and reflections of a particular moment in time. Take for instance her work entitled Tank. In the center of this medium sized canvas lies a beautifully rendered yet enormously threatening tank. On both sides of the canvas are adjacent canvasses that have been butted up against the central canvas. On the left hand side are two flat colored canvases, both a deep crimson red and on the other side a pale blue. Underneath the tank is a long horizontal band of light gray. In the center of this gray expanse lies a small photographically rendered portrait of a young girl on a vintage bicycle. An arrow connects the image of the girl and the tank in a dialectical manner. By connecting these five panels and disparate images in this fashion, Czok implores us to read this painting synchronically and diachronically. The red panels seem to be symbolic of the residue of war, namely blood and death. The opposite panel being a pale blue inspires a bit of hope, it hints at the potential for peace. The images in the center highlight two modes of transportation, two manned machines. One machine, the tank, is made for destruction and war the other, a bicycle, for joyriding and transit. Czok’s tank in all of its gruesome detail is a baroque manifestation of power. She has also rendered the image in such intricacy, drawing the viewer inside into its mechanical engineering. A cacophony of gears, spindles, pistons, and guns, serve as a viscous reminder of its potential. In contrast, the young girl on the bike is a symbolic representation of what war destroys, specifically innocence and freedom. When paralleled, the subtlest image, that being the girl, is actually the most powerful. Czok’s painting also shows us how Western cultural priorities are out of order. Countries spend trillions of dollars updating and expanding their military advantage, yet often at the expense of their most valuable asset, humanity. When considering this painting I couldn’t help but be reminded of the aftermath of the Holocaust. Czok has addressed this tragedy in a recent body of work. For about three years she devoted a series of paintings to children in the war and the holocaust. The resulting exhibition has already been on show in Rome and Padua and is slated for Ferrara some time in 2012. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, many of the survivors sought shelter in displaced persons camps provided by the Allied powers. The girl pictured in this painting could be one such displaced person, one of the countless individuals who have been victims of atrocity. With incredible tension, Czok’s moving work embodies the displacement that occurs through unnecessary aggression, reminding us that displacement is not only physical but also psychological.

Marta Czok, Historians, Acrylic, graphite and Indian Ink on canvas 50×50 cm, 18 x 24cm, Courtesy of the artist.

One conclusion that we can draw from this work and others is that Czok is a realist. She states, “My chief aim was, if not to save the world, then at least to tell all and sundry what, precisely, I thought of it – and what better way if not through painting?” And it would seem that painting is a medium that suits her well. In another work, entitled Historians, Czok creates a witty commentary on history and our insatiable need to canonize, record, and document it. Based on Peter Bruegel the Elder’s painting entitled The Blind Leading the Blind, (1568); Czok uses a grayed palette in this work and incorporates two panels that form a table or shallow stage. Five men wearing dunce caps form a humorous party. In a line, they pull one another towards the edge of the platform. From the far edge of the canvas, the party seems to disappear into the softened, grey background. As the band moves closer to us their contours become more defined and linear. At the very edge of the stage stands the party leader happily assuming a position to leap into the void below. He smiles as an arrow points down into nothingness, it reads “hello again.” Here, history is literally about to repeat itself, as this grouping seems to be the blind leading the blind. Careless, lost, and almost jolly, the figures are archetypal stand-ins for all of humanity. In their capes and formal attire they also seem to have a certain pride, yet their dunce caps belie their false confidence. Again, Czok creates a stunning tableau replete with exquisitely rendered figures. Her use of a muted palette highlights the narratives she creates; it allows us to focus on her point of view in a very direct manner. So often history is written by those in power and skewed to fit ideological rhetoric. Czok displays these characters, as they really are, self-appointed individuals without any concept of where they’ve been and where they are going. With this piece, I couldn’t help but reflect on the idea that Western civilization often continues to advance technologically at the expense of our current environment. We are typically too far into the muck of a situation before we stop to consider its trajectory and the affect of our so-called advances. The philosopher and cultural critic Jean Baudrillard claims that Western society in particular has effectively dropped out of the grand narratives of history. He contends that we are no longer active participants in shaping society towards a larger end goal. Yet, he also feels that we are incredibly aware of this fact. Due to globalization, our enlarged understanding of humanity means that we will continue to play out an illusory ending in a hyper-teleological way — acting out the end of the end of the end, ad infinitum. In Czok’s painting this tragic-comic stage is a metaphor for our propensity to play out endings and beginnings without a sense of ultimate direction.

Czok’s most personal and perhaps most intimate painting is entitled Sleeping Beauty. This painting is split into two sections, one a deep gray, the other a pale, whitish gray. In the lower half of this work, a male figure rests peacefully. The delicacy with which this painting is rendered is quite something. The white folds of the bed have a beautiful translucent quality rendered in a deft, painterly manner with sweeping brushstrokes. From an aerial perspective, we view this intimate setting from a higher vantage point. In this work the viewer can almost locate the time of night, it appears to be before 4 a.m., when dawn usually begins to slowly turn its head. There is an incredible sense of familiarity that Czok has with her subject evidenced by the delicate paint application and close proximity. The title is also an indicator of the sentiment she places in relation to the sleeper. In this wonderfully sensitive work, Czok relays a poignant message of closeness, warmth, and affection. One is reminded of Egon Schiele’s languid sleeping lovers or solitary nudes. Yet in contrast, Czok’s work does not have an erotic overtone. Rather, this portrait is a devotional piece that conveys a sense of profound affection. As I viewed this painting, Walt Whitman’s “Sometimes With One I Love” came to mind. Therein he states

Sometimes with one I love I fill myself with rage for fear I effuse
unreturned love,
But now I think there is no unreturned love, the pay is certain one
way or another,
(I loved a certain person ardently and my love was not returned,
Yet out of that I have written these songs.)

Love fulfilled or unrequited, the payoff is in having loved and the beauty shared therein. In this work it is clear that Czok is a realist yet romantic. She wants her works to have certain qualities about them that provoke thought and reflection. When we pay attention, certain messages resonate on profound levels. She states, “I want my work to have an aesthetic quality, a work of art must have meaning, a work of art must ‘speak.’ Finally— and most importantly—a work of art must inspire the viewer to walk taller, be nicer, have more mercy, not to lose hope.” This painting by Czok conveys a strong message of the bond that two people create and inspires us to love more fully.

Marta Czok has created a spectacular oeuvre of paintings using soft, muted colors that create interesting juxtapositions in conjunction with her detailed graphite work. Her use of several panels and negative space encourages the viewer to see her paintings as cinematic narratives. Czok’s work is comprised of thought-provoking expressions of political and personal import. Each one of her paintings conveys a compelling story that highlights singular moments of perception in a visually stunning fashion.

Jill Smith