Dragonflies and Paper Bricks in the work of Alicja Mrozowska
Artist Alicja Mrozowska recounts a memory from her childhood in Poland of her grandfather building a summer house in her parents’ back garden to live in whilst he was building his own house. Once the house was finished, he took the summer house apart and used the materials to build a garage and then, later, another summer house. After she left Poland for England with her parents and siblings at the age of nine, each time they returned during one of their annual visits home she would find that something else around her grandparents’ place had changed. Her grandfather was always making, and she loved the way he repurposed the materials.
Mrozowska has now lived in the UK for nearly 15 years, but her sense of home remains unsettled after having moved around many times with her family since they first arrived. “Perhaps that’s why I’m ‘building my own’ from these bricks,” she reflects. The bricks she’s referring to form both the ‘canvas’ and central motif in a new series she’s working on for her upcoming solo exhibition at PAPER (11 April-11 May). Unlike the stone bricks her grandfather once used however, these are cut from paper – a material she has grown to favour, in part for its easy transportability.
What’s most appealing about the story of Mrozowska’s grandfather is the metaphor it holds for the fluidity of home – for home as something that can be rebuilt, time and again, as we carry some constant fundamental aspect of it with us to each new place we settle. Yet, as her own experiences reflect, a true sense of home is equally a very fragile concept. As fragile as paper, at times. In an uprooted age of transient living – of short-term rental contracts, frequent relocations, constant travel, dispersed family networks, and mass migration – home can feel fractured for many or even like an irrevocably distant memory. The very notion of ‘visiting’ home is complex to unpack.
Unpacking (2018) is the title of a previous body of paintings by Mrozowska made on sections of thick white paper cut into packaging box nets, which were exhibited earlier this year at HOME Manchester. She began work on the series just after finishing her Fine Art BA at the University of Salford and, for the first time, felt faced with the overwhelming question of where to live next – either ‘back home’ in Poland or in the country where she’s slowly built a new home (and uses the northern word ‘lad’ “far more than most,” she jokes). Formed in a swirl of vivid colours and dreamlike fragments, each of the pieces is based on a loose montage of family photographs taken during successive trips back to Poland.
“They are portraits, but deconstructed,” she explains, “of myself and my relatives in conversation. They contain how I see them, how I think they see me, and how where I have lived has shaped me.” Later in our conversation, she remarks: “Sometimes your family just gets a part of you that no one else will.” Yet this statement is then qualified just a few sentences on: “Each painting is about what was unsaid between us, as well; about when you go home to visit your relatives and can only give them ‘the good bits’.”
Home is deeply connected to our sense of identity and to feel displaced from it (whether physically or emotionally) can be highly destabilising. But we can also feel not at home in ourselves; in our own skin and bodies – the primary vessel that carries us through life. Mrozowska’s series for PAPER is all about this other aspect of experience – mixing a fluid and unsettled notion of home with her conflicted and fluctuating feelings around her gender and sexuality. She sends me a photograph of the first finished piece. In the top-half of the painting, three men sit together against a brick background drinking beer. In the bottom section, a comparatively giant bottle-green dragonfly momentarily perches, as if about to take flight. “I’m the dragonfly,” she tells me. “But the piece is also talking about the men in my life, and the man I am and am not. It’s about finding yourself somewhere in between.”
Mrozowska’s use of bricks makes sense in many ways apart from her grandpaternal connection with them. As a painted motif, not only do they connect to her strong identification with working class culture and ‘the industrial north’, but the gridded structure that they make up when cemented together provides a sense of order and stability amidst everything – including the form and content of the work. “I like to mix things together a lot and I think it helps guide the eye a bit more,” she explains. Additionally; continuing the union between canvas (flattened boxes) and concept in Unpacking, bricks will likewise inform the support of several of the paintings at PAPER. The largest piece in the exhibition, for example, will consist of several paper bricks dispersed across the actual bricks of one of the smaller gallery space walls, “like pieces in a jigsaw.” The idea seems to capture the way in which we all seek to overlay home onto space; a simple act of place making.
There’s an unguarded sense of internal honesty and openness to vulnerability that sits at the heart of Mrozowska’s practice. When I comment on this, she acknowledges that it’s something she’s actively tried to pursue and hopes her work will encourage among others. “It’s still just life, though,” she laughs, as our conversation draws to a close. “They’re just paintings on paper, and this gives them a reassuring kind of lightness or impermanence. They could even biodegrade, and, in the meantime, you’ll have more experiences. Painting means everything to me, but it’s only art.”
Alicja Mrozowska’s solo exhibition will run 11 April-11 May at PAPER.