Zawistowski’s paintings hover between the visual cliché of the religious icon and the immediacy of their sculptural surfaces: the gouged and gooey paint literally materialises the spiritual subject, making it matter. There’s historical resonance to all this, since it might be said that the materialisation of the immaterial was the motor behind great leaps in painting during the Renaissance, but there’s more going on than that in Zawistowski’s work.
Rafal Zawistowski’s work plays on the viewer’s recognition of certain well-worn subjects in western painting in order to re-energise the act of looking. Head-like forms in fat clumps of encaustic (pigment mixed with hot wax, to create a thick and nubbled surface) are highlighted with sprayed haloes or aureoles and titled after significant figures from Catholic iconography: Jesus, Mary and Judas, but also Benedict XV and John Paul II.
His palette – nightclub pinks and neon yellows – creates a kitsch separation between subject and handling, and place the gnarled surfaces at a remove from the rest of the painting. There’s a sense in which the gaudy aureoles become quotation marks around the figure, or even a kind of barrier or cage, compounding the haunted, disintegrating look of some of the popes, recalling Francis Bacon’s similar treatment of the subject.
That the meshes of thick paint never quite coalesce into a recognisable form is part of the point: the familiar face is never fully revealed, terminally stilled in the act of becoming, spirit never quite transcending matter.