Celebrating bodily intimacy and desire: Krzysztof Strzelecki’s ceramic visions of a gay utopia

Artist Krzysztof Strzelecki works across a vast array of mediums—photography, installation, painting and ceramics, all of which intersect and blend with one another through his artistic practice. Krzysztof studied fine art photography in London and his photographic work remains integral to his art. In his photographs, for which he often uses his own body as the subject, the human figure is seen interacting with space and landscape, either to alter it or to merge with it. His series ‘Alone in the Wilderness’ presents the human body as an agency and subjectivity moving through the landscape, and yet simultaneously as a feature of its environment—the landscape itself is as much the subject of the photograph as the human presence.

Since moving back to his hometown of Świdnica, Poland, where he has a pottery studio, Krzysztof has focused primarily on his ceramics practice. His ongoing project, ‘Cruising Fantasies’, presents a series of vases depicting, in Krzysztof’s words, “gay men enjoying every imaginable coupling”. The images painted onto the flat faces of the vases are brightly-coloured, exuberant, unapologetic and uninhibited. Men recline naked together on beaches, engage in sexual activity, dance, kiss, sunbathe and swim. As in Krzysztof’s photographs, the human figures in his ceramics inhabit natural landscapes presented as Eden-esque utopias. In this, he is envisioning a “perfect gay world” in which gay men are unconstrained by discrimination and bigotry, free instead to display tenderness and intimacy, to love and make love openly. Against the erasure of queer love throughout much of art history, many of Krzysztof’s ‘cruising’ vases draw on famous paintings by well-known artists such as Georges Seurat, Henri Matisse and Hokusai. His reworkings of such paintings around homoerotic couplings and gay fantasies intervene in the heteronormative narratives that dominate art history. In this way, the vases are an assertion of queer visibility in a world that has repeatedly rendered gay people invisible. The figures in Krzysztof’s work are given the space simply to exist, to revel in their bodies, sexualities and relationships.

AMM: Hello Krzysztof! Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background? For instance, was creativity a big part of your upbringing?

KS: Hello! I am originally from Świdnica, Poland. From 2014 I lived in the UK, starting my journey in Edinburgh and moving to London a few years later to study BA (Hons) fine art photography at University of the Arts London (UAL), Camberwell. I came back to my hometown during the Covid-19 pandemic because it’s where I have my ceramic studio.

Art was always an important aspect of my life. As a child I was always creative, loved to paint, scrawling on paper or the walls in my bedroom, playing with salt dough. My two older sisters were painting at this time too, so I definitely grew up in a home where creativity was encouraged.

AMM: We’re interested to see that you studied Fine Art Photography—this of course remains key to your practice but we’re wondering when and what it was that made you branch into ceramics?

KS: It took me a long time to find the medium in which I could fully express myself and it’s only recently that I developed my technique. During my first year at UAL, I was studying painting but I could not settle on one style–I was experimenting with classic painting, abstraction, combining different techniques. I think I wanted to try everything and it just didn’t work out. On the other hand, I was doing more photography at this time.

Moving to London had a big impact on my choice of medium because painting is slow and requires a studio. My space was restricted and transporting paintings on the tube was a challenge so I became less and less interested in painting. Photography was more attention-grabbing for me and fitted into a metropolitan lifestyle. Commuting on TFL every day for two, sometimes three hours allowed me to edit my photographs, and I did not need a lot of space—just a desk. Taking pictures allowed me to visit places, meet new people; the energy of taking pictures suited the intensity of London.

My first ceramics experience was in 2011 in Warsaw where I took a course; I remember I really liked all the possibilities of working in clay. After that I was travelling and unfortunately never had an opportunity to work with clay again until summer 2019 when I was visiting Japan for the first time. My experiences in Tokyo and Kyoto proved intense but afforded me a deeper understanding of the Japanese passion for ceramics. Japan possesses a very unique culture that connects to an enduring spirituality. While in Kyoto I took classes at Asahi Yaki Pottery and was inspired to develop my skills during the final year at UAL. It was just natural for me to work again with clay; from the first day at university I almost didn’t leave the ceramics department. It allows me to work in three dimensions, as well as transferring my painting and photography skills to create a new meaning via a single medium. I am always excited when I open the kiln after firing, seeing what results I get, whether the form survived the high temperature, how colours come out. I am not sure if I can compare it to anything else. I just love it.

AMM: Your art incorporates not just ceramics and photography, but also installation and painting. Why is it important for you to work across different mediums and how does your approach change according to the materials you’re using? Do they ever overlap or connect?

KS: I like challenges and trying new things—I don’t like monotony and I believe it’s important to be open to different possibilities. To work in ceramics you need certain skills which photography and painting definitely helped—a sense of colour and form. Installations for me are about the space, how objects reflect the space or how space changes meaning with an installation. You can have an amazing piece but it will have a different meaning in the white cube gallery to a church. Working with installation helps me to understand this effect.

Right now, I am focusing a lot on ceramics, since travel is restricted and therefore there’s less opportunity to take photographs. But all these mediums are connected. Making a living from art is more complicated than most people imagine. Today’s artists need the wide knowledge and skills which make it possible to sell art. Making art is not enough; you need to take an interesting picture of the art, edit the image, promote on social media to approach a potential client or just make the piece stand out more strongly. Today’s artist has to have knowledge of all those aspects to be successful. Working across different mediums helps with that.

Seashore (Cruising fantasies series), glazed ceramic, 43 x 34 x 11 cm

AMM: Can you tell us about your extensive lockdown project which uses vases as vessels for exploring ‘cruising fantasies’? It’s interesting to us that you’ve chosen to depict situations revolving around physical contact and bodily intimacy, since these kinds of interactions are currently limited by Covid-19 regulations. Did the restrictions of the past twelve months engender or influence the creation of these images at all?

KS: We spent the last year in more-or-less strict lockdown, depending on the time of year and country, and I know many people hated it, but for me it was useful. The break from the world, from travelling, was essential to have the space to develop my work. Of course I was frustrated when I had to cancel all my bookings for future travel—not able to meet with friends and my partner for a few months as we were in different countries. All this was infuriating, but it gave me something that I never allowed to give myself before: time to be in one place, the possibility to work without distractions, take some distance and observe.

We altered our style of living almost like a sci-fi vision: replacing face-to-face relationships with online contact. We became afraid of human touch or even being close to each other. I wanted to create work which gave an opposite vision: a new-old world where gay cruising is taking advantage of the ability to meet and looking forward to a time when meeting a stranger brings excitement and joy— this is what ‘the cruising fantasies’ is about. Many artists have visited parks and lakes to watch people and sketch them at play, and gay men used parks, forests and abandoned parts of the city as venues for illicit sexual encounters. Cruising sites have now lost their ‘aura’ and today most gay ‘cruising’ happens online, privately behind phone screens. Following this shift to online life, I have focused on sourcing images from the web to conjure up new scenarios, new encounters.

AMM: In what ways does your work seek to engage with contemporary and historical queer culture and LGBTQ+ issues? Does your art often respond to current political events?

KS: A significant issue of queer culture is ignorance of its presence in ‘Straight White Male’ culture. There are not many paintings representing queer people in the everyday landscape. In many historical paintings, gay men seem to not exist or are invisible in the artist’s eyes (with the exception of a few paintings, rather forgotten by mainstream publicity). My recent vases reinterpret famous paintings, presenting them with only gay men. Those previously invisible are now taking over the space to remind us that gays were, are and will continue to exist. Mimicking these ‘utopian’ painterly visions instils the idea of ‘cruising’ as integral to everyday life. Paul Gauguin and Georges Seurat depicted a heteronormative utopian vision in their paintings but imagine, instead, what might have been conjured up had they adopted a blatant same-sex agenda? I created vases based on ‘A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte’ and ‘Bathers at Asnières’ (painted by Seurat) and the vase ‘Dance’ based on four different paintings by Henri Matisse. This gives my vases a contemporary sensibility—subverting these famous paintings which appear to exclude gay life, and instead populating them with gay men enjoying every imaginable coupling. My focus is on the fantasy of a perfect gay world. Some of my work focuses on historical conflicts and also responds to events in the present which are emotional for me. The vase ‘Olympia’ was influenced by the Black Lives Matter protests; ‘Empire-Deity and Lighting’ comments on women’s fight in Poland for the right to make decisions about their own bodies and lives instead of the Church’s political agenda. Making a utopian vision is maybe impossible but worth trying.

Hyde Park (Cruising fantasies series), glazed ceramic, 55 x 43 x 20 cm

AMM: We’re struck by the resonance between your vases and ancient Greek pottery, particularly in relation to your own depicted narratives of queer identity and classical allusions to queerness in mythology and art. Is there a connection between your works and depictions of queerness in art history?

KS: Greek and Roman mythology represent my favourite periods in our civilisation. My appreciation started at school when we studied ancient civilisations; it was impossible not to notice the acceptance of sexuality and adoration of the male and female body. For me, it seemed like a time when sexuality was explored and worshipped rather than being a source of shame and a taboo subject. Mythology is about the storyteller, fantasies, imagined creatures, handsome powerful gods, a vision of the world and its creation. By making my own vision I create mythology based on gay sexual fantasies. The simplicity of visual expression on Greek pottery is particularly inspiring for my art. Many ancient civilisations used ceramics to depict everyday life, wars and sex—including gay sex. I see such pottery as a record of history. I want to create the same freedom and celebration of sex on my vases, creating this mythic atmosphere and telling stories of love, equality and freedom.

AMM: The naked body is prevalent in both your photography and ceramics. What is the significance of the forms of embodiment your work represents?

KS: The body is part of our civilisation and nature. It literally embodies our lives and we are still too often ashamed or afraid of it. We often focus on clothes more than on the body itself. We hide under layers and layers of fabric, trying to be ‘perfect’ according to advertisements created by the media. People should appreciate their bodies more as subjects of adoration and care. In my photography, I often show the landscape as the main focus and it is only if you look closely that you notice my body. Nature absorbs human form, camouflages the fragile body and protects it. Looking at the desert landscape, it’s hard to find a naked body in the sand.

Hampstead heath (Cruising fantasies series), glazed ceramic, 56.5 x 51 x 15 cm

AMM: Much of your work situates the body in relation to natural environments—can you tell us about the thinking behind this?

KS: In relation to my vases, nature is a safe place; it’s the biblical Garden of Eden. It creates a safe environment for men to discover their desires. Nature has always been significant in gay culture; cruising for sex with a stranger often takes place in public spaces like parks, forests and beaches. I want to remind people of that heritage and how we are part of these environments. Many of us have forgotten how important nature is and don’t appreciate its beauty or necessity. Recently, when we were a banned from meeting inside buildings, people went out to meet safely in nature; open air once more became shelter for humans.

AMM: Your photography in particular revolves around the self-portrait. How does the concept of the artist as both maker and subject resonate with your work? Do you consider all your pieces to be manifestations of self-reflection and self- expression?

KS: I am drawn to the idea that the body is a medium for transferring feelings, but I continue to struggle with my role as performer or model. I use my body to explore how it affects the surroundings and, at the same time, how the environment impacts the body. I struggle with the idealisation of the male form in my own photographs and I am still exploring how I want the pictures to be read by a contemporary audience. The body has not changed through the centuries—only our awareness and approval has transformed. Taking self-portraits and videos confirms a view of myself and how others may see me. In all my photographs you can find my reflection and by this my expression of the given moment, my emotions and thoughts.

La Playa, glazed ceramic, 45 x 35 x 17 cm

AMM: Where else do you source imagery to inspire your work?

KS: At the moment, I find a lot of inspiration on Instagram—there are so many talented people and it’s like a never-ending scrolling book of artwork. ‘Cruising fantasies’ was inspired by pictures people have shared with me, pornographic movies and my own photography. Exhibitions, galleries and museums are my favourite source of inspiration—nothing moves me more than to see somebody’s work in real life. Art books and magazines are good sources too, often for selected best pieces. The most inspiring however is real life itself—visiting LGBT-friendly places, gay beaches and cruising areas—that atmosphere of freedom cannot be replaced by any book or picture.

AMM: We love the organic, slightly imperfect forms of your ceramics. What do you find compelling about this way of working, as opposed to wheel-throwing the ceramics and striving to achieve perfect symmetry?

KS: Clay has its own ‘feelings’ and I like to expose them. I like how the force of gravity takes over the wet clay, making it ‘wavy’. I don’t want my work to look perfectly straight or smooth as if it came from a factory, copied unlimited times. Every piece is unique and that’s important for me. I like to use the walls of my ceramics as canvases for painting. Every wall tells a new story. Round vases are beautiful and possibly one day I will make some project with them, but they don’t let you see the whole picture at once in the way I am looking for at the moment. Plates have a flat surface to paint on, but I wanted to show a longer story—that’s why I moved to vases.

Camping, glazed ceramic, 43 x 25 x 18 cm

AMM: Talk us through some of the technical aspects of making your ceramics. Do you hand-build them? What kinds of pigments and glazes do you use?

KS: Yes, all my vases are hand-built and because of that, they are unique. First I make a collage in Photoshop of pictures and drawings I am planning to use. Then I make a template of the vase and cut the shape from a slab of clay. When the clay is getting hard I assemble the walls and the vase then dries, ready to be painted. I transfer the image to the clay by hand, adding the rest of the landscape details and then painting with colourful slips (liquid clay mixed with pigments). Depending on the size of the vase it can take from two days to four days to finish—it’s important to finish painting when the vase is still leather hard. After this, I am able to curve the outlines which add depth to the vase and brings out the details. That is the most time-consuming part and there is no room for mistakes. After a week, sometimes longer, I biscuit fire my work. This is the most vulnerable stage—if it cracks then I have lost a week or more of work on the piece. If it is successful there is a good chance that the second firing with transparent glaze will succeed. Ceramics are unpredictable. Knowledge of your kiln and glazes allows you to imagine the result before it is fired, but each work is still a surprise when I finally open the kiln.

AMM: Is your practice a collaborative one? Do you find it valuable for your own art to work alongside and in dialogue with other artists?

KS: Dialogue with other artists and other people is important. I am emotionally attached to what I am doing whereas other people can bring a fresh perspective to my vision. Connections are important and I try to keep in touch with as many artists as I can. Everyone should be able to hear feedback on their work—it can only improve the technique. In my practice, I generally prefer to work alone as a kind of meditation and introspection. I like collaboration but rather when working for somebody else than for my own projects. However, ‘never say never’—honestly I haven’t had an opportunity to undertake a ceramics project with somebody else yet, so it could still be something for me to discover and enjoy.

Dance, glazed ceramics, 51x40x16cm

AMM: How do you find working between London and Świdnica? Would you say the two places are vastly different in terms of artistic culture and creative community?

KS: It’s a difficult question. Because of the current situation (Covid-19) I have not been in the UK for a few months—the longest time since I first moved to the UK. After my graduation, I decided to live in both cities. Świdnica is a small city: it’s impossible to compare it to London and all the opportunities which London provides. London is the capital of art—it is an exciting world but often absorbing so much time that it leaves too little space to work on my art. However, Świdnica allows me the time to think and focus. I like being here primarily because it is close to nature and family—there are fields and a small forest directly behind my house. It’s a good place to work, especially during a pandemic. Moving back to Poland during the first lockdown, I never thought I would be staying for such a long period of time. I’m looking forward to being able to travel again between the UK and Poland.

AMM: What kinds of things are you working on just now? Are there a lot more vases in the making as the pandemic stretches on?

KS: I am still working on the ‘cruising fantasies’ series; the more I make of those vases, the more I want to make. I enjoy it and am still finding a lot to discover. I am absolutely planning to explore the series more and see where this will take me next—I don’t have any number in mind for when to stop. I’m also doing some experiments with larger scale and interactive work. For example, I would like to make a sculpture of Kouros 1:1 of a male posture and some wall installations with plates.

Find out more about the artist: www.krzysztofstrzelecki.com

Interview by Rebecca Irvin for ArtMaze Magazine.

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