WARSAW — When the new director of Warsaw’s Zachęta National Gallery of Art, Janusz Janowski, was appointed last year, he was the city’s second art museum director in two years to be nominated by Poland’s right-wing populist government without an open job search. Janowski has no previous administrative or managerial experience and is virtually unknown among Poland’s contemporary art scene. Last month, he contributed an essay to deliberation.eu — a new platform for Europe’s right-wing conservatives — in which he envisions the art institution as “a spiritual space” that precludes political agendas, including LGBTQ+ and other human rights. His inaugural exhibition is expected to open in a few months, although details are scarce.

Zachęta’s current exhibition, The Discomfort of Evening, has the scale and ambition of a biennial that will be unthinkable once Janowski’s regressive and discriminatory ideologies are implemented. The show focuses on younger Polish artists (most born in the 1990s), including several active in Warsaw’s art scene. Five of its six rooms are packed with an array of works, such as video projections next to paintings, salon-style displays, photographs, sculptures in conversation with installations, and various flatscreen TVs. In one poor curatorial decision, framed drawings, beautifully rendered by Iwo Panasiewicz, are placed flat on a narrow table instead of being hung on the wall. 

Installation view of The Discomfort of Evening at Zachęta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw; center: Kacper Szalecki, “Game of Telephone” (2022), video

But the exhibition’s tendency toward messiness adequately captures the pressures that a younger generation of Polish artists face with an increasingly oppressive and Eurosceptic government. In most cases, the artists tackle topics head-on: the vulnerability of the self (Kornel Leśniak and Patryk Różycki); queer identities and gender stereotypes (Kacper Szalecki and Sebastian Winkler); institutions of oppression (Adam Kozicki and Ala Savashevich); our bodies’ relation to virtual/digital realities (Eternal Engine, Martyna Miller); and folklore, mythology, and the role of the absurd in everyday life (Cyryl Polaczek and Karolina Konopka).

Sebastian Winkler’s sculptural work originated in a series on self-abuse while alluding to sexual fantasies of subordination within a queer context. Winkler takes photos of himself, which he then prints, tears, and collages onto the surface of a polyurethane foam core. In “David and Goliath,” a sneaker pressed into a face is both a fetish object and a threat, fusing desire, pain, and fear. Winkler’s work externalizes his anxieties through his sculptural collages while acknowledging his vulnerable position as a queer person in conservative Poland.

Sebastian Winkler, “David and Goliath” (2022), digital print, polyurethane foam

Another body marked by societal pressure and historical weight is that of Belarusian-born Ala Savashevich. The artist’s video, “Pose. Position. Way” (2019), shows a pair of feet (presumably the artist’s) walking in high heels, in which the heel is a red star that punctures through the sole of the shoe. With each attempt to take a step, the feet press down into the peak of the star. Every step is a painful reminder of how Savashevich’s Belarusian identity is intertwined with the nation’s Soviet legacy — particularly as Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko has recently allowed the Russian army to use Belarus as a staging ground for the war against Ukraine

After visiting The Discomfort of Evening, a quote by Virginia Woolfe came to mind that I had read at another Warsaw exhibition (Dominika Olszowy at Galeria Foksal): “The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think.” The artists gathered here understand what it means to be threatened by institutions, as embodied by Zachęta’s new director. Despite its dark undertones, however, Zachęta’s exhibition demonstrates that in the face of unprecedented local and global turmoil these young Polish artists are leading the way precisely because they see hope and opportunities for art.

Adam Kozicki, “Make It Fucking Quicker” (2022), acrylic, ink, and airbrush on canvas
Installation view of The Discomfort of Evening at Zachęta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw; foreground: Karolina Wojtas, “Species: Brother. How to Annihilate” (2020)
Kornel Leśniak, “Potential” (2021), oil on canvas

The Discomfort of Evening continues at Zachęta National Gallery of Art (pl. Małachowskiego 3, Warsaw, Poland) through October 16. The exhibition was curated by Magdalena Komornicka.

Born in Poland, Viktor Witkowski is a painter and filmmaker who lived in Germany, France, and the U.S. before moving to Vermont where he teaches, makes art, and writes on Same Old Art. He is currently...