What Lies Beneath

Niall MacMonagle - The Sunday Independent

Born in Warsaw, Katarzyna Gajewska grew up, “quiet and solitary but not immune to mischief” on the city outskirts, where “a lot of nature just outside our house was a big trigger to my imagination”. The “lush forest” nearby was a “sanctuary, a place where I could just lose time.”

She and her brother, home-schooled at first, “made Christmas decorations, little illustrated books for our parents, cards, drawings” and “that idea of self-directing a day, making choices, stuck with me forever.”

When Gajewska did go to primary school she was “hugely disappointed and felt quite oppressed. It was like being in a box, so I made a plan to go to a fine-art-oriented secondary school.”

Her art-historian father, her publishing mother and her grandparents who “introduced me to classical music, the magic of the forest, recognising herbs and mushrooms” meant constant stimulation.

With an MA from Warsaw’s Academy of Fine Arts, Gajewska came to Dublin in June 2005, where her long-term boyfriend, an architect, had found work. Having no specific plan, a meeting with Noelle Campbell Sharp led to an invitation to Cill Rialaig and a solo show, and then to a studio in Pallas Studios. And a few years and a few studios later, “I found myself happily pregnant,” she says.

“It was April 2011, but things went terribly wrong. I looked death straight in the eye in hospital. I travelled back to Warsaw with my little baby and underwent one surgery, then another and another.”

But she recuperated.

And she returned to painting.

“All the feelings, the memories, all the twists and turns” during “three years of intense painting” fired her new show.

“The struggle and fragility of feelings” inspire Gajewska. “Painting is like a living organism,” she says, and she is “telling a story about a dark and private theatre” where “true feelings are not necessarily easy ones”.

“I raised my son. He’s my anchor, love and fuel.”

Her near-death experience changed her as a person and as an artist. “The work is bare, and I’m opening myself up through the work completely. I paint physical pain, humour, intimacy, hardships and joy in a direct, raw manner.”

Elfriede Jelinek, Herta Müller, Allen Ginsberg and Baudelaire’s writings (“tangible as brushstrokes, suggestive and juicy”) inspire her, while books such as Megan Nolan’s Acts of Desperation and Emer Martin’s The Cruelty Men struck a chord.

Her new show, One Hand Clapping, takes its title from an Anthony Burgess novel in which he writes: “The clasped hands of marriage have been reduced to a single hand. Yet it claps.”

Gajewska works on the floor, and when her paintings are still drying she takes a day off. Her son “loved online learning during the pandemic and decided he wants to continue that way,” so he is now home-schooled.

This work, ‘Seas’, was prompted by Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The City and the Sea, “a dark but magical and otherworldly text that speaks about death in a beautiful way.”

The green and black bring to mind an evening landscape, the safety of nature. Time is passing, breathing faint and low. There is no escape but there is beauty in the rhythm and colour.

“Everytime I feel like I’m drowning in problems, or fear, or stress, I close my eyes and see water. And in that vision I’m completely strong. ‘Seas’ is inspired by this simple exercise, by the memory of a quiet world.”

‘One Hand Clapping’ is at Hang Tough Contemporary in Dublin, until April 9. Instagram: katarzyna_gajewska_work

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