Golden West? Jan Sawka's California Dream

Audio Transcript

Teresa: Welcome to the audio tour for Golden West? Jan Sawka's California Dream. This exhibit features the art work of the Polish born American artist Jan Sawka. With the artist being born in 1946, most of his childhood was overshadowed with Soviet Communist dominance over Poland.

Hanna Sawka gives background on Jan Sawka and his early history

Audio Transcript

Hanna Sawka: My family lived in Poland. I was born in Poland, and my father was an artist, and at that time we were basically by proxy occupied by the Soviet Union. This was the Cold War, we were behind the Iron Curtain, and freedom of expression was not a thing. And actually my father was involved with the opposition and he created art that was critical of the system, that was provocative. And eventually things started to get very difficult for him, and for our family, and we were basically, to make a long story short, we were exiled. And the first stop as exiles was in Paris, the Centre Georges Pompidou, had just opened, that’s the big kind of factory building in downtown Paris, and my father was invited to be an artist in residence there. He had won an award the year before in the International Festival of Painting in France. So he’d been noticed, he’d been given this great opportunity, and we had a place to go. However the government in France changed in the meantime and also my father started to do well, he started to have some commercial shows outside of his residency, and the government in Poland changed its mind and said ‘We want him deported back.

Audio Transcript

Teresa: After being prosecuted Sawka and his family ultimately traveled to the United States. Here he made his mark in the art world and continued to work until his last breath. When asked why he fought so hard for his artistic freedom he went on to state: "I want to express my feelings dreams and frustrations."

Co-Curator Frank Boyer speaks to Sawka's vision of America, and California

Audio Transcript

Frank Boyer: ’ And also a show about the image of America that Jan developed actually in Poland. He did a number of works in Poland or before he even came to America.[...] So he had developed this image of America, and an image of California, that he started to both invest in, as a dream, something that kind of attracted him, but he also had a very critical sense that that image was created from the materials that were available to him in Poland primarily. Which was propaganda. And anything that was available in Poland was suspect

This is a work of a San Francisco trolley car before Sawka had ever gotten to visit the United States.

Jan Sawka


Broken Down Cable Car, 1976

Ink, gouache and pastel on paper


Courtesy of the Clare L. Schulberg Collection

Audio Transcript

Teresa: Jan shows his mistrust in the media in several of his artworks. This fear originated from his home country In communist Poland artist were trained to create propaganda posters with the objective of convincing surrounding countries that everything was going beautiful. Jan end up being one of these artists but instead of using these newly taught skills for what his government wanted, he took those teachings and applied them to his own art. In the eyes of the communist region Sawka was creating highly political and illegal art.

Jan Sawka


California Dream #1 (Sunday’s Pleasure), 1977

Acrylic on masonite


Courtesy of the Jan Sawka Estate


Exhibited at the Ankrum Gallery in Los

Angeles in 1979.

Teresa: Upon entering Jan's exhibit you'll be welcomed by one of his first pieces made in America. This acrylic on masonite artwork shows a woman looking upwards towards the sky. The following is some information about the piece. While Jan and his family struggled to survive in a communist country Jan had a dream about what America was or what it could be. He believe that the freedom to use whatever color one wanted and the freedom to be able to express your ideas through art is what made America so great. When Jan and his family finally made it to America he had the lingering question: "Are my hopes and dreams fooling me?" The Golden West is depicted through this golden girl, who at a first glance seems beautiful and complete but in reality she is broken off at the legs, thus revealing that she is fake.

Hanna Sawka on California Dreaming

Audio Transcript

Hanna Sawka: [...]kind of like the lady, California Dream no. 1, who has it turns out, she’s so voluptuous! She’s kind of outrageous, it’s a work about commodification right there. And then you realize, her legs are cut off at the shin. And she’s actually made of plaster, she’s kind of fake. It’s a big joke, really. I love the outrageousness of her. She’s got like unbelievable makeup. You see this lipstick, her nails are really painted, and that’s fun too. It’s kind of outrageous, it’s very big. It’s like, ‘Boom!’ There she is. And then, ‘wait, what’s going on? Oh, she’s made of plaster.’ Right? So, that’s definitely, I think… there’s a light-heartedness in there. At the same time of course, that’s not a good thing. Sex shouldn’t be selling things in the first place, it’s sacred, right? And women shouldn’t be reduced down to these things. My dad was a pretty awesome feminist. [laughs]

Jan Sawka


Woman Pushing 40, 1988

Acrylic on masonite


Courtesy of the Jan Sawka Estate

Audio Transcript

Teresa: Jan believed the media also played a huge part in the objectification of woman, which he resented. This artwork is titled Woman Pushing 40. This artwork features a young woman looking into the distance. According to the media 40 is the age where woman are no longer considered young in modern commercial they feature woman who need cosmetic aid because they no longer feel young. By looking at the lips of the woman you will see that they seem to be lifting off of the face leaving the appearance that here face is decomposing. Jan commonly uses form and empty spaces as a metaphor in his work. The empty space that we see behind the woman can be interpreted in a variety of ways. One of them possibly being that she feels empty after being considered no longer young.

Audio Transcript

Frank: There’s also a true empathy for people. Even these guys, you know? [referring to the One Man Show paintings below] It’s how… what does it mean if for these people these cheap souvenirs are the brightest part of their personalities? I mean, how does that affect them? Because it’s not just, he’s not criticising the people so much as the mentality. And there’s a sense of empathy for human beings caught in a system that has all these sort of undersides and undertones to it. You know, people get pulled under. And objects get discarded, and people get discarded. Again, and it’s not… he’s not doctrinaire about it. He’s not didactic about it. It’s all on the level of feeling and empathy. And you can see it if you look at the pieces and ask some questions about them, or really spend some time with them. Like the painting of the woman behind us, if you look at it, it reads very quite--this is a woman pushing forty. And if you look at her, it reads very directly. There’s the woman, you see her--but if you look closely, she starts to disintegrate. And then half of the painting is this blank space. And you wonder, ‘Well is that blank space in a sense a metaphor for how she feels?’


Hanna: Yeah, if she’s just been reduced to, ‘You need to be young all the time.’


Frank: If you need to be young all the time, where are you? There’s a kind of anxiety that’s presented and expressed in the piece...


Hanna: And it’s well known that commercials feed off that anxiety, right? Marketing stuff to make you look young or pretty all the time. But my dad was very concerned about ‘Well what’s going on with this anxiety?’ And you know, what’s happened to people’s souls and how they feel about themselves.


Jan Sawka


One Man Show I, 1980

Acrylic on masonite


One Man Show II, 1980

Acrylic on masonite


One Man Show III, 1980

Acrylic on masonite


Courtesy of the Jan Sawka Estate


Exhibited at the Ankrum Gallery in Los

Angeles in 1981

Audio Transcript

Diego Irigoyen: One of the most relatable things about Jan Sawka’s work in the accessibility of it. When you look at his work it immediately is understood. His work is typically illustrated in that there’s figures but he also uniquely combines an aspect of surrealism into his work and that makes it very enjoyable to look at.

This initial component spend some time in that is not overly complicated overly formalized in this fine art sense it allows somebody who is maybe without any background to approaches work and enjoy the colors enjoy representative aspects within the work and this is something that can be challenging for an artist as somebody who has worked with in the fine art realm myself it’s something that I'm constantly thinking about in the creation of work what is the catch or what is the hook at the beginning of the story and a lot of times with fine art objects it's how that object looks. If something that looks interesting or something draws you in, now you have that audience there to interpret your work further and Jan leaves the store open very beautiful in his work he's really encouraging you to take a closer look and to understand it in a way that is unique to you he wants you to provide your perspective.

In one of these in recent talks with had this exhibition a gentleman who worked with Jan personally here in California came out to talk a little bit about his experience with Jan but he also brought this very unique component in his work up in the conversation which is that Jan always seems to leave a window or a door open and his work to another space to something that is behind and beyond in the work and when he mentioned that I knew exactly what he had meant. I had only spent maybe 3 or 4 weeks with Jan’s work at that time but it was enough for me to have recognized that pattern existed and learning more about who Jan was it seemed as if he had a lot of ideas he was constantly working - jazz or rock and roll music was blasting in the background, and he was jumping from one work to another work and trying out ideas and experimenting on different techniques in creating work. It seemed as if he was a funnel for ideas and didn't necessarily have the answers to the problems that he was seeing in society but wanted to express that he was recognizing them and by doing that he created extremely beautiful and accessible works that allow somebody to come in and look at them and spend a little bit of time and encourage you to spend that time which is an incredibly difficult thing to do and he wants to know your opinion he wants your interpretation he's leaving that window open he understands that his sight is limited. And so when you're looking at his work take a moment to have your own opinion about it Jan came from a background where expressing your opinion was not easy to do and you could be punished severely for it and he understood that simply having a voice and being allowed to have that voice was a big deal and it's really incredible that he allows in his work for someone to feel as if they can have a voice. That they should be allowed to express their opinion in that in the space that Jan has created within his work they are allowed to express it opinion. So, I touched on it a little earlier but as you look through the images below this audio transcript pay attention to the different mediums and the different approaches to creating a visual representation that Jan uses in his work. He is very experimental and creative with how he uses space, with how he created canvases. He wasn't just painting on stretched canvas he was creating sculptures to paint on and it's really an incredible use of medium and what we have here in the gallery is only a small portion of what he's worked on. Some of the later works in his career are these 10 story banners that he created for the Grateful Dead 1989 tour and so he was jumping around from all these different mediums really just a creative soul at the heart and it shows in his work. 

To mention some of the details of the works below the first one phone booth 1989 features technique known as asemic writing which is essentially using the calligraphic form for its aesthetic end and not the literal end of words themselves.

The work below that Sky Map is a 3D work very subtle but he's created multiple layers on the canvas surface using cut wood to give the work some literal depth and using those elements to highlight certain images within the greater image.

On the road is a work that features a series of small paintings around the frame and through the center we have this yarn and clips that hold the background up and so Jan was very interested in media as we've heard a little bit earlier in the audio tour that he was interested in the illusions of media as well and how we recreated space and this is something that I've interpreted myself from looking at a lot of his work so they can see that he's into this movie magic and how our innocence plays a large role in that. Art shapes our world.

Below that we have a work telephone booth number one. Telephone booths are a theme that run through a couple of the works we have here in the Gallery and this is a series of 12 different works are made from one print or one plate I should say and each one is hand painted. So Jan is experimenting with medium here and is using the print technique however he's not using it to what we might consider be the most practical end of printmaking In this sense he's going back in hand painting them and rather than making them editions that are the same he's made them all very different and in this work he does something very interesting with the telephone booth and Frank Boyer shared some insight on this work through some of his writing and if you think about the types of conversations that go on and telephone booths and the stories the lives that were made or broken inside of telephone booths you can see on the door of each telephone booth and new image a different image a different story a different life in the last one he's left it blank for you to fill in your story.

You should also be able to zoom in on these images as you do the audio tour

The next work is untitled but it's an interesting work. The canvas surface that is painted is actually raised from the wood backdrop which is all this salmon Hue and we have in the image in orange Sky in a green kind of waste landscape and in the waste landscape you have an RV and a car that are slowly sinking into the landscape.

This next work is the moving landscape and it is sculptural. It features a broken down toy car, a Ford, and it's in front of this turn backdrop kind of similar to what you might see in one of the old movies if they're sitting in a car they have a background that is cycling through to make it look like the cars moving.

As you look through the images on this audio tour I want you to notice the courtesy line which is the lender who has provided the work to the museum Clare Schulberg is the daughter of Robert Schulberg and in the next few audio clips we're going to learn a little bit more about Robert Schulberg and the role that he played in Jan's life. It's a very important and interesting place Robert had an Jan’s coming to America and in the following clips we're going to allow for Hanna Sawka to share some of that history as she knows it best but I want you to consider theme of an abandoned room. Ultimately Jan was exiled from his home and had to carry on his with his life in a foreign land in a place where he had no family and Robert Schulberg became kind of a surrogate family but this idea of the abandoned space this empty space very relevant to Jan and his own history




Jan Sawka


Phone Booth, 1980

Acrylic on masonite


Courtesy of the Jan Sawka Estate

Jan Sawka


Sky’s Map, 1983

Acrylic, ink and boards on masonite


Courtesy of the Clare L. Schulberg Collection


Exhibited at the Ankrum Gallery in Los Angeles in 1983

Jan Sawka


On the Road, Part One, 1979

Acrylic and board on masonite


Courtesy of the Jan Sawka Estate

Jan Sawka


Telephone Booth #1, 1975

Hand-painted etching prints


Courtesy of the Clare L. Schulberg Collection


Exhibited at the Ankrum Gallery in Los Angeles in 1979

Jan Sawka


Untitled, mid-1970’s

Hand-painted etching print and wood


Courtesy of the Jan Sawka Estate

Jan Sawka


The Moving Landscape, 1979

Board, found elements, acrylic paint, dust,

fixative


Courtesy of the Jan Sawka Estate

Jan Sawka


Are You Happy?, 1976 (top right)

Hand-painted etching print and pastel


Courtesy of the Jan Sawka Estate

Jan Sawka


Summertime, 1980 (bottom left)

Hand-painted drypoint engraving print


Courtesy of the Clare L. Schulberg Collection


Summertime exhibited at the Ankrum Gallery in Los Angeles in 1981

Jan Sawka


Swimming Pool, 1980 (top left)

Hand-painted drypoint engraving print


Courtesy of the Clare L. Schulberg Collection

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