Mateusz Sarzynsky: “I treat painting very seriously”

Mateusz Sarzynsky’s Instagram handle is @badpaint. Wrestlers, religious warriors, action figures, weapons and dangerous animals are popular subject matter in his work, along with blood, gore and violence. Brand names and consumer culture references also permeate his work alongside scenes borrowed from art history. In Mateusz’s work, brand names and religious iconography also exist side-by-side, interchangeably, both seemingly a part of the ubiquitous macro-narrative messaging that shapes contemporary culture. 

Mateusz’s child-like style of painting is deceptive. So is the seeming nihilism. Underpinning the images is an inherently formalist approach. “The main principle of my work is the work itself”, Mateusz explains, and says that the violent subject matter is merely a means to an end for resolving formalist challenges of color and composition. He is interested in the materiality of painting and in the process of working within the confines of the medium. We caught up with Mateusz to find out more about his work and the art scene in Kraków, Poland.

AMM: Hi Mateusz! To start us off, please tell us a little about the Kraków art scene right now, and where you fit in. 

MS: I know a few painters in Kraków, but I find it difficult to refer to them in my own practice. The name Sasnal echoes in Kraków continually. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow (where I am now finishing my MFA) and shortly after graduating became internationally famous. Many young artists from Poland are still inspired by his work. There are also some young abstractionists/minimalists who are said to be promising. Minimalism itself has always bored me, I’ve been dealing with it for a long time during my architecture studies (I received a master’s in architecture in 2014). I’ve always liked more brutalism as a style in architecture. For my diploma I designed the Museum of Contemporary Art constructed completely in raw concrete. Maybe this is why my paintings look so raw?

AMM: Are there opportunities for young artists to exhibit and sell their work in Poland? How do you get your work out there? 

MS: There are not many of them or I just lack knowledge about that. From time to time I will sell a painting or two, but these are very random situations. A lot of Polish artists agree that the art market in Poland does not exist at all. There are some auctions of young artists’ work, but the quality on such events is very low. From my perspective I only invest money into painting but I do not have any problem with that. I do various activities to support my painting. I do architecture, I work in a tattoo studio, sometimes I design small things. I treat painting very seriously, but making money out of that is still surreal for me.

AMM: What are you listening to, watching and reading right now? 

MS: Currently I am reading William Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and I am listening to many things, from death metal to classical music.

AMM: How do popular culture and media influence you as an artist and relate to your work? 

MS: Probably more than I would have wanted. Visual information is everywhere, especially in a big city. I used to hate popular culture, but now I think it should not be overlooked. Of course, it is largely exaggerated but I think that you can learn a lot by approaching this topic in a proper way.

AMM: Are you influenced by your surroundings? In what ways does your art relate to your environment and experiences? 

MS: I was born in a small town in the east of Poland with about 25,000 inhabitants. I moved to Kraków to study in 2009. In 2014, I completed a master’s degree in architecture and shortly after I started studying at the Academy of Fine Arts. Everything I do affects my paintings.

AMM: Can you tell us a little about your style of painting and how this has evolved over time? What are some of the influences that have informed your work stylistically? 

MS: Polish painters such as Andrzej Wróblewski and Artur Nacht-Samborski had a big influence on my work. These were some of the first inspirations. I probably started painting because of those guys. At that time I did not even know the history of art at all. Later, I caught up with it. Now I like William L Hawkins very much (somehow I have always been drawn to primitive painters), Jonathan Meese, Tal R, Daniel Richter and many more. I respect Louis Kahn. He is my favorite architect and also a great artist. I also admire many contemporary artists, whom I know from social media. I would have to write a very long list here, haha.

AMM: Where do you look for daily inspiration?

MS: Mainly in everyday life. Television, internet, books, everything influences me.

AMM: Is your art a form of social commentary and critique? Please tell us about the motifs and subject matter in your work. 

MS: It’s hard to tell, every behavior is some form of comment. I live in the 21st century, I watch TV, browse the internet, read, visit the world… It all somehow influences me as a human being. I do not try to explain everything. I understand that the image has its own life and it’s often drastically different from the artist’s intention. That is why I very seldom talk about my motivations. I would not like to dictate the interpretation. There is always a story behind every piece but I would prefer not to reveal all of it.

AMM: Death and religion have been key subjects for artists since antiquity. In your work you give these themes a very contemporary and graphic expression. Please tell us about these themes in your work.

MS: I really like traditional painting. It may sound ridiculous, but I really like Rogier van der Weyden, the Bellini brothers, Delacroix and other old masters. For example I really like the painting of Delacroix “The Execution of the Doge Marino Faliero”. The whole 3rd plan in this painting is in my opinion, very avant-garde and very modern in form. Regarding religious topics, it was always common within European culture. Some think that it was even the main purpose of painting for a long time. I am not a very religious person, but I use this iconography in a natural way. Sometimes
I am just trying to give it a more contemporary look.

AMM: As an artist, do you aim to provoke people? What’s your intention for your work? 

MS: As an artist, I am trying to satisfy myself first and foremost. Maybe it sounds terribly arrogant, but I’m the first one to see the painting. I paint until I cannot find any problems to solve or I’m starting to appreciate something. I certainly do not plan to provoke anyone, I do not even try to provoke myself. Often, the brutal scene is just an illustration of the problem that the picture itself creates. For example, recently I painted a blue background so it was natural for me to use bright red over that. Those two colors pop next to one another. This is the struggle with the materiality of painting. The main principle of my work is the work itself. This is the main criterion, all the rest can be interpreted in different ways.

AMM: What’s your process of painting? Do you sketch and plan each composition, or follow a more intuitive approach? 

MS: My process has evolved over time. However, the continuous coherent feature of my work is the lack of a detailed plan. Of course, I have some idea in my pocket when I start painting, but it is so loose that during work I can always go in a different direction. I used to try to draw a composition in a sketchbook, even set up colors on small samples, but it never worked out for me later in a larger scale. I like working on a larger scale, not huge but in which I am able to relate the size of the canvas to the dimensions of my own body. Typically, the longer side of canvas is about 2m. I am an architect by profession and maybe this is why my own dimensions are very important in my process. Currently, when I start work the image I have in my head is only a very general outline of what
I want to achieve on the canvas. Usually these are mainly formal solutions. I like painting over older paintings (as well as over newer ones to be fair) to change their meaning a bit. When I start a new painting I often feel a bit like playing a strategic game. Each move determines the next step. Painting can never answer all questions. You always have to give up something and every step forward also closes some paths. It sounds very analytical, but it’s mostly very simple intuition.

AMM: What appeals to you about the medium of painting? 

MS: Paradoxically its limitations. According to me painting has its limits and I like that. There are certain rules that determine this game and not everything is possible. Of course, it shows that my understanding of the painting process is very traditional. A painting is for me just a juxtaposition of colors on a flat surface. I know that this may sound like a very archaic approach, but it does not bother me at all.

AMM: Do you have any daily rituals? 

MS: Probably not many. I try to work every day, seven days a week, also on holidays. Even when I do not have to come to the studio, I try to imagine what I can paint in my head. Painting might be my daily ritual.

AMM: What keeps you awake at night and why? 

MS: Nothing, I keep others awake at night, haha.

AMM: Any exciting projects coming up? What’s next for you? 

MS: I am currently setting up a few small exhibitions, nothing to brag about. The most important thing for me is systematic work on paintings. I hope that this is what awaits me in the near future. The grind is real; I still have a lot to learn.

Learn more about the artist: www.instagram.com/mateusz.sarzynski

Text and interview by Laila Leiman for ArtMaze Mag.