Why you should care
Because it’s this kind of grit that always ends up fueling a certain type of artistic awesomeness.
“I consider myself more a thinker who happens to do art.”
The speaker is the 30-year-old Michał Szyksznian (pronounced Sicksh-nyawn, and yes, Polish people also have a hard time pronouncing it), and the rail-thin artist is Skyping us from the garage “that doesn’t even have its own address” where he lives with his boyfriend in Szczecin, Poland.
It’s cold and he’s bundled in a coat, with the tools of his trade spread around him, and as we talk the same thought keeps coming up: Why is he not absolutely huge now?
Red is for life. Red is for death. Red is the philosopher’s stone, it’s a talisman.
His paintings and illustrations – sometimes electric, sublime, sometimes not-so-sublime and nothing if not sly in their use of colors, both muted and vibrant – are noted for their occasionally transgressive subject material. The work is often sexual if not full-on sexy. For those over 40, you might agree when we say that it reminds us of the fantasy-sci-fi-erotica artwork in Heavy Metal magazine, the American-derivation of the French art magazine Métal Hurlant. Those magazines had been out for about a decade by the time Szyksznian hit kindergarten and started to draw, mostly, he tells us, because he ”realized quickly that adults complimented me when I drew, so I was using this form of expression very often.”
“Michał Szyksznian is a very talented artist,” says Alan Sasinowski, a writer from the newspaper Kurier Szczecinski. “There’s a lot of literary culture behind his work and most of it is ‘linked’ with many different senses, contexts and philosophical allusions. It finds itself embedded in contemporary pop culture and iconography. But maybe unlike many, Szyksznian really cares about the dialogue with his audience much more than celebrating himself.”
Unless “celebrating” himself takes the form of Nihilimbus, or his “blood series.” Ten paintings, at present count, painted with blood from over 100 razor cuts on his thighs, chest and arms. Open wounds that he dipped his brush in, inspired, he says by “human forces of passion. I’ve used blood for a purpose. Red is for life. Red is for death. Red is the philosopher’s stone, it’s a talisman. It shows how serious I am about what I do and what I want to say. Again, it’s not for attention. It just fulfills my alchemical needs.”
Needs that, at least locally, have not caused concern in the largely Catholic country. “People seem to be quite fascinated by the choice of media rather than disgusted,” Szyksznian says. ”But there’s one work from Nihilimbus, the title is taken from Dali, and it’s called The Great Masturbator and it was done almost two years before Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac posters came out. After I finished it, I masturbated onto the portrait, the stains of which are still visible. And believe me, no one was disgusted by this. After Serrano, how could they be? But there has been absolutely no mention of this in the press, so silence perhaps equals praise, I don’t know.”
Szyksznian chats easily about his wide variety of work and styles. But this ease masks the bristle of an artistic intelligence sharp enough to cut you in two, and born out of his time at the High School of Arts in Szczecin, followed by five years of philosophy at the prestigious Szczecin University. Which suddenly makes sense when you learn that his approach to art has been influenced by everyone from Alphonse Mucha to Ludwig Wittgenstein.
“Or more like a cross between the industrial pop art of a Roy Lichtenstein with the commercial illustration chops of a Drew Struzan,” said Scott Walter, a former fellow at the National Museum of American History. “But largely without the humor either of those have brought to bear. Which not only speaks to his particular circumstance I would guess, but that he considers this to be a darker time, at least from an Eastern European perspective.”
Szyksznian likens it to making friends with demi-gods.
So when Szyksznian says “connecting vivid and unusual ways of thinking with drawings took a long time,” we start to understand how a borderline autistic kid became the furiously productive artist he is today. Even if the largest and much significant leg-up came courtesy of kismet.
It happened at a Marilyn Manson show in Warsaw in 2009 when Szyksznian wanted to do something to amuse the performer. Szyksznian bridles at being called a Manson fan – “It’s inappropriate because I don’t consider him an idol. He’s my shaman and there’s a significant difference.” He sent backstage a painting that he had done of Manson, and the response was fairly immediate.
Manson wanted to see him right after the show, a meeting that resulted in later commissions, and ultimately a friendship of sorts. (The agent-less Szyksznian stays vague when it comes to talking cash and what his works are worth.) The association dovetailed perfectly with Manson, who was himself a writer prior to being a rock star, and whose work frequently branches out beyond music.
It wasn’t just Szyksznian’s hyper-real portraiture that reverberated with Manson, or the copious amounts of his own blood in the Nihilimbus series, or even his belief in Manson’s “very unique and uncanny skull structure: like there is a Fibonacci sequence in his genotype.” No. It was the fact that Szyksznian has a stylistic directness that is cartoonish yet not comical.
”While his work might occasionally be dismissed as Drew Struzan-like, pretty illustrations that lack depth,” says Jerzy Kochan, a philosophy and culture professor at Szyksznian’s alma mater. ”These might be critiques that lack an understanding of the deep philosophical underpinnings of what he is working with.”
Which may be why the work ended up on the controversial art rocker’s walls, where Szyksznian picked up Johnny Depp, among others, as fans, and now sells a modest average of about six works a year, absent a gallery, straight to whomever asks at prices “that vary.” But rather than this precipitating a rocket rise to the top of some heap, Szyksznian likens it to making friends with demi-gods. Crazy and unlikely, but now a matter of fact.
Szyksznian’s next steps include scenery, costumes and stage design for a contemporary Polish dance troupe, computer games and, in the biggest stretch of all from an oeuvre that’s included strippers, drug addicts and Satanists: a book for kids. Which, to hear him tell it, is a simple story of a small boy playing hide and seek with his favorite toy. It comes out this July in both print and as an iPad app.
”You know, I know my ‘job’ is strange but I tried to have a ‘real’ job and I made it for five months as a consultant in a corporation. And for five months I had diarrhea. So while not having regular money is a problem, living accurately to your feelings, attitude and wishes is something I’ll defend,” Szyksznian says, adding without the slightest trace of irony, ”until the last drop of my blood.”