Written on the body – Glass meets the up-and-coming British artist Ewa Wilczynski

”I am drawn to visceral reactions as well as the dark. I am interested in anatomy and want to make the inside come outside in my work,” says the London-based artist Ewa Wilczynski as we drink tea at Maison Bertaux cafe in Soho, soon after her one-night-only show, Throes at the Royal Academy, London. With her palely powdered face and her confectionary clouds of white-blonde hair, Wilczynski who wouldn’t look out of place in the court of Louis XIV, embodies delicacy and determination, is as familiar with the work of the past masters as she is a digitally savvy deployer of social media.

For the 25-year-old Central St Martins graduate Wilczynski has a formidable work ethic, rising as she does every morning at 4am or 5am  in the studio in her Ealing home, her grandmother’s former house, and where she works ”everyday, all day long”. Her Polish parents are both dentists, as is her sister, and they hoped that she would follow them into the profession. This wasn’t to be, as from a young age Wilczynski, who was brought up in Surrey, was determined to be an artist. ”I work hard, mainly to make my parents proud. They wanted me to be a dentist so I have to work really hard to justify myself,” she says.

Making a virtue out of what she found to be the somewhat detached attitude of the tutors at she encountered at Central St Martins (CSM), where she took a degree in fine art, Wilczynski participated in a study exchange at Académie des Beaux Arts , Paris, where she learnt old masters’ techniques such as mixing pigments, special solvents and glazes to make paint and old master painting techniques, ”it’s like alchemy”, she remarks. ”I think if you understand the materials of your craft, you have a much richer appreciation the work. You take your time, rather than just producing it quickly and easily. I am really dedicated to my craft.”

EWAEwa in front of Celestial Bodies 2015, rose gold and oil on canvas, 155 x 175 cm .
To be auctioned at Avenir’s Art Auction

Influenced by artists Francis Bacon, John Martin and Marc Rothko and the philosopher Jacques Derrida, Wilczynski paints huge (2m x 2m) canvasses. Her painting Crux took seven months to complete and contains 70 self portraits and is an exploration of in between states – both inside and outside the body. It was during her sojourn in Paris, that she began reading Derrida and was fascinated by his concept of the hymen as metaphor, ”I am interested in this theory as a vehicle to push my portraiture; how appearance in human nature can diffuse into one another and how the hymen broke and the flesh seeped out in to the background.

“What I say about my work is that what I paint is how I think and how I feel the colour, gesture and the momentum of working is used to convey emotion and, hopefully, make meaning,” she adds.

ew4Ewa Wilczynski

Since graduating, the charming and engaging Wilczynski has quickly attracted the attention and support of fashion and art notables such as Lulu Guinness, Zandra Rhodes, Allen Jones, David LaChapelle and Adam Ant. She has appeared in a number of short films, like Dennis Da Silva’s Apophonista?! (2013) where she was cast in the lead role and which was screened at the Cannes Film Festival and she co-wrote and starred in a short art film directed by Joel Byron called A Thin Place. She has also been picked out as one to watch by The Independent, Wall Street Journal and photographed by Gozra Lozano, Paulina Surys and Rankin, and her work has been featured in a range of magazines and publications.

Since her exhibition at the Royal Academy, where she was one of the youngest artist ever to hold a debut show, which was very positively received, her work has appeared on electronic billboards across London in a project to use advertising space for more creative expression and is presently in the studio working.

Can you tell me something about how you came to be an artist? Could you tell me some more about the route that took you to Central St Martins and beyond as you have also studied in Paris and Berlin.
Growing up I was always artistic – it began with an obsession with drawing and developed into oil painting when I was 13 or so.

At a very early age, I would go to art classes at the weekend, art clubs at school, get the art prize every year, 100 per cent for my art exams and then eventually the scholarship. So I was very focused that it was a career I wanted to have and in particular remember telling my mum I was going to be an artist when I was seven years old. She wanted me to be a dentist (as are all my family) but things didn’t quite to plan.

I then studied fine art at Central St Martins (CSM) with an opportunity to study at the Académie des Beaux Arts in Paris in my second year, and after a year of graduating I moved to Berlin to check out the art scene and goings on over there.

Can you share with us some of your inspirations, art and otherwise? I wondered if you have ever seen the work of the French photographer Antoine D’Agata, as your work, especially the Throes pieces, reminded me of his photography.
Antoine DAgata hasn’t been a conscious influence, more so Francis Bacon which does have that visceral fleshy hybrid vibe as well. I love the work of John Martin and his nightmarish fantasy landscapes have definitely influence my use composition. I learnt everything about colour from Rothko.

In our technological age of instant imagery and the internet, where do you see the future of painting? Where do you think your work fits into this?
Having just had my debut show at the Royal Academy (RA), London this February and judging by people’s reaction to it, it seems to be the mark of a return to craftsmanship not just with my work, but many of my contemporaries as well. I truly dedicate myself to the process of painting, which takes time and isn’t an app you can download instantaneously. I think with the rose of technology in art, carves out more of a inch for tradition which in turn adds more value to it.

I was very conscious of the return to tradition not just by using old masters techniques and making my own paints, but with every aspect of my debut solo exhibition – I handwrote letters and invitations to guests with gold calligraphy and wax seals with my emblem, and even sprayed the Royal Academy Senate Rooms with Diptyque lavender perfume as a bit of a nod to the 18th century.

Your work is described as “exploring suggestive dichotomies, particularly in human nature and metaphysics”. Do you think this is so? Is this a useful insight? Can you explain what this quote means to you in terms of your work?
For me, I am drawn to the in between state of appearances in human nature – this thin place , this skin, this membrane where horror and magic meet and diffuse into one another. With my painting, I always look for a visceral reaction, and that mixed with my interest in anatomy helps me fold and unfold flesh to create a dreamlike landscape .

It is quite an accomplishment to have a show at the Royal Academy so early (March this year) on in one’s career. Can you tell me how the show came about and how you feel about it?
The show itself was really a year in the making – from an initial idea to the final outcome. The work itself was all painted in the two years from graduating. I’m very focused and get up everyday at 4 or 5 am to start working or painting depending on the light so I just get my head down and work as hard as I can really and the show stemmed from that really.

I didn’t really have any expectations for the exhibition as it was my very first time putting on a solo show so I really didn’t know what to expect. But I have been completely overwhelmed by everyone’s response and enthusiasm about it. I have been blessed to have had so many creatives, mentors and friends support me it has been incredibly touching. I also had the opportunity to work with a great team; and curators Will Ballantyne-Reid (who is only 21 and still studying at the Courtauld) and Kenzie Yeo Donaldson curated the exhibition perfectly.

There was such a magical atmosphere at the private view and it really seemed spark the beginning of something, what I can’t put my finger on, but excitement was definitely stirring. Adam Ant even said it was  one of the best show London has seen in decades, while the Evening Standard said I looked like Marie Antoinette “among a sea of gentlemen in frock coats with powdered white faces” which I thought was rather fabulous.

How easy (or otherwise) do you think it is for a painter to make a living these days?
It’s not easy. I sold quite a few pieces at the show which I wasn’t expecting to. I think there is a structure to it, albeit unconventional and it’s just about making it up as you go along whilst being sure of yourself.

I believe you are an admirer of the philosopher and writer Derrida, what is it about his writing and philosophy and literary theories that appeal to you?
It was mainly his metaphor of the hymen. It just seemed to conjure such a string visual idea for me that I used the membrane or skin or veil or mask as a vehicle to drive my portraiture.

What are your plans for this year? Do you have anymore shows lined up?
Plans for this year include painting away in the studio and following up commissions from the show. I have so many ideas and am itching to get back and paint! And when I have my next show, I will be sure Glass Magazine will be the first to know .

by Caroline Simpson

Wilczynski’s work is on show in The Age of Oil at Dadiani Fine Art 30 Cork Street, London from September 1– 7
Her work will be included in Celestial Bodies, Avenir’s Art Auction with Sothebys at The Groucho Club in September

She will be representing new British Artists at Yellow Sun: The New Contemporaries art fair in Africa


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