Brian McAvera: Jerzy Bereś (1998)
(The review from the exhibition “Romantic Round”, Krzysztofory Gallery, Kraków, February 10-12, 1998; was published in: Sculpture vol. 17 No.7, September 1998, p. 74)
Jerzy Bereś (born in 1930) is probably the most important Polish sculptor working today. A major figure in his home country and well-known in Europe, he is unaccountably almost invisible in the English-speaking world. A small exhibition of his work in the cavernous underground spaces of the Krzysztofory Gallery demonstrates just how powerfully resonant his work can be. His means are simple – usually raw wood and cloth. His ancient techniques are deliberately crude, with knife, chisel, and saw being used to make rough joints. Seemingly simple, rough-hewn wooden sculptures in peasant styles are overlaid with a marked sophistication of purpose, often with a sociopolitical axis. Basic shapes, often related to mythological figures or peasant utensils are enlarged in scale, but instead of operating in some convenient and safe classical world, they are ruthlessly inserted into a dialogue with contemporary society and, for that matter, with contemporary art.
Liść Figowy [Fig leaf] (1997), for example, a large canopy mounted on four spindly wooden branches, looks like a peasant version of Oriental canopied sedan chairs – the Oriental influence being a major one in Poland. The title is a pun in Polish, referring to a literal fig leaf (Adam and Eve’s) and the notion of something being covered up. Midway between the four “legs” is a long, thin wedge of wood, with red and white bands painted on one side, and a green ribbon bow attached to the other side. The colors are those of the Polish flag. Into the colored section are gouged negative spaces in the shape of testicles. Into the canopy above is inserted a vaginal slit. An equation is seemingly being made between sex and politics, between power and religion, between an inadequate nationalism (as opposed to nationality) and an inadequate political structure.
A second work, Runda [Round], (1996-97), resonates with mythology. Its Pegasus theme is reflected in the shape of a roughly skewed, flying horse, one wing wrapped in white cloth, as if still fleshed, and dangling a large dice, and the other wing ribbed and thus skeletal. The head, a rough triangular shape, is turned as if inquiring, and one of the forelegs is raised, as if pawing the air. This mythological shape has another association, that of the huge wings attached to the hussars or 15th-century Polish cavalrymen. This almost surreal attachment was meant both as decoration and as a means of instilling fear in the enemy as it rustled eerily in the wind.
One might view the skeletal wing as suggesting that the military is no longer either relevant or powerful. This is a winged horse that will never fly. Its title, which means “a round,” as in a boxing round, might be taken as implying that the battle is still being fought in the interlinked cultural and political arenas.
Bereś is an artist who clearly distrusts facility, much in the same way that certain painters deliberately shackle their gift for craftsmanship by drawing with the left hand. He distrusts the neat finish of craftsmanship and
operates instead in a world of rough honesty. One of the most impressive elements of his work resides in the fact that, although clearly earthed in Polish soil and Polish history, the works them-selves are universalized; they are icons of integrity, reaching towards our primitive tribal instincts but requiring a sophisticated and complicated response.