Michael Pierzynski

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Seemingly absurdist citations are found throughout Michael Pierzynski’s studio, stuck to the walls on handwritten Post-it notes or scattered about his worktable. Some will become titles of works, or works in their own right, as with a piece from 2005 that spells out the sentence “I Was Born & I Was Dead.” For the C.O.L.A. exhibition, the artist plans to recycle the title of a 1953 documentary film by Alain Resnais and Chris Marker, Statues Die Also. The most commonly accepted explanation for what something is—life, sculpture, the everlasting, the transient—is undermined by a language that seems to point off in the opposite direction.

All Pierzynski’s works, which are made to sit still as sculptures do, are prone to sudden convulsive reversal. The whole sculptural arsenal of materials, tools, and techniques is present in his practice, yet one gets the impression that the results are never quite as real and concrete as sculpture “should” be. These works are consistently representational but, ranging between tabletop small and jewelry tiny, rarely conform to the size of what they represent. Mountains are reduced to molehills, trees to twigs. To the viewer, these downsized things appear distant in space and time, even as one comes to stand right before them.

Toylike is one way to put it, thereby drawing thought back to the period of childhood when
toys fit in snugly with the bodily structure. As art-viewing adults, however, we have outgrown whatever is toylike in this work, and this can make for feelings of towering omnipotence or, conversely, oafish anxiety. Pierzynski’s trees and mountains are exceedingly delicate, very nearly perfect in their seemingly untouched resolution. They summon us to their side, begging closeup scrutiny, only to withdraw at the last minute. Where to? The recurring motif of a grinning skull, scaled down to the size of a tennis ball, offers a clue. A toy made for adults, it reminds us of death’s appearance on the event-horizon of a life just beginning, when first glimpsed from the point farthest away.

A skull is sometimes found embedded in earth, which takes on its imprint, revealing a reverse image in relief when the skull is extracted. What remains behind is a mold from which any number of new skull-copies can be produced. Pierzynski’s work invites nuanced speculation on the origin of art. Mountains, trees, and skulls often appear in art as objects utterly indifferent to the cultural history of humankind, though not here.

Here it is a matter of tracing the evolution of aesthetic forms both backward and forward in time. Although inarguably representational, Pierzynski’s mountains, trees, and skulls are far from realistic. Shrunken and withdrawn, they are acutely stylized, calling up a range of references, from the art of medieval Europe to Indian Buddhist kitsch. This is the stuff of the world strained through a mixed register of mythic symbols, charged with religious “spirit” but never parting with their secular context. That these works are sometimes derived from alreadymade, mass-produced sources—everything from hobby-shop models, fan-club collectibles, and tourist keepsakes to outright detritus like plastic take-out containers—only strengthens their ties to the world that they actually occupy and that occupies them.
—Jan Tumlir