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Michael Polakowski: “Absurdist Surrealism”

Architerior interviewed Detroit based painter Michael Polakowski who works mainly with airbrush and cut paper. We talked about how the working conditions during the pandemic paved way for a simplified process and a focus on the concept of loneliness communicated through drawing. Michael also shared how the news of today impact his work and let us in on the emotional moment of installing a new exhibition.

Michael, can you tell us about how you found your way into art?

I started drawing with pen and ink when I was a teenager. Back then I did really precise and detailed drawings, usually from imagination or influenced by popular culture. I discovered painting and fell in love with it well before I had developed any competency. Even though I did other things in those first years, I think I always envisioned myself as a painter and had a strong desire to keep developing those skills. Weirdly enough, I have recently gone back to pen and ink as a little reprieve from the time consuming and involved process of painting. There is something about drawing that I innately love and it is exciting to go “back to my roots” in a sense. 

Are you educated in art?

Yes! I have a BFA in illustration and I’m always looking for opportunities to further my education in the arts. I just started working as an adjunct instructor at a local college in Detroit so I can stay close to academia and keep progressing as an artist. Art school isn’t for everyone, but it is a part of my life in a way that I greatly appreciate.

Let’s talk a bit about what defines your art style.

I would define my work as “absurdist surrealism” in the simplest sense. I communicate that through intimate scenes from my daily life with metaphysical motifs that help convey the mood or emotion that I have in mind.

What techniques do you use?

Airbrush and cut paper are at the core of my practice and give my work a unified aesthetic.

Has your style or technique changed over time?

The aesthetic of my work stays constant but I have to adapt to the time and physical limitations of a project. During the pandemic I was working out of my home office using gouache and ink, which was a way for me to simplify my process and focus on the concept of loneliness communicated through drawing. Now that I’m back in my studio I can explore those ideas and develop them into fully realized paintings and larger drawings. I had a residency a year ago with Red Bull Arts Detroit that gave me the time and space to completely dive into what I was doing with my work and allowed me to work larger and more detailed. During that time I had the opportunity to work at a level of “finish” and precision that felt right for me.

Which artists or art styles have inspired you?

I’m influenced by metaphysical painters like Giorgio de Chirico. His work had a huge influence on the “Chicago Imagists” of the 1960s and their work in turn has been really influential on my own.

When other people view your work, what are their reactions and thoughts?

I want people to bring their own meaning to my work. My work is largely drawn from my own experiences, and is a collection of motifs and scenes that mean a lot to me. Regardless of the viewer’s background, I want them to key in on the mood and emotion of what I am saying.  

Is there something in particular that you wish to convey to the viewer
through your work?

I don’t know if there is one thing, but I want people to have a reaction to the color and light within my work. There is something universal in those principals, and they are impossible to separate from the emotions they convey. The narrative of my pieces are usually really personal and I always hesitate to say exactly what they mean to me. However, the viewer should be able to understand the mood and emotion of the scene and fill in the narrative details that make sense to them.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on a large body of work for a group show with PLAYGROUND DETROIT. I’m also working on a series of drawings and smaller works on paper that I’m trying to keep under wraps, albeit really poorly haha. The smaller paintings are a way for me to fine tune my concepts and figure out where I want to take my next larger series, so I’m doing that in a space that is free from influence and critique.

Inspiration is important when creating, where do you find inspiration?

I usually work from photos that I take while on walks or when I’m inspired by the lighting of a scene. Right now I’m feeling overwhelmed by the news so I’m finding inspiration in scenes and lighting that are really overwhelming and foreboding.

Can you share one of your most memorable moment in your art career?

The most memorable moments have always been when I have just installed a show and get the opportunity to sit with all the work in the gallery. Painting is such a lonely activity and often-times the install day is the last chance to sit with the work as something that is personally your own. Once the show opens, the work takes on a life of its own. Pieces get bought and orphaned from the collection, which is a great thing of course, but there is something memorable about seeing everything just as you had envisioned it when you started a project.

How do you define good art?

Good art should stick with you and make you want to keep asking questions. However, it also needs something that grabs your attention in the first place and doesn’t let you move on. There are more things than ever that are competing for our attention and artists need to consider that when they make work.

Finally, in ten years time, where do you see yourself and your creative work?

I see myself progressing my body of work and refining the conceptual ideas behind my paintings. Kerry James Marshall talks about the artist’s career as getting harder as it progresses because they should be dealing larger ideas. I do a lot of murals and commissions, but my heart is in larger series and exhibitions. I’ve just started reaching into other markets with my work. In ten years I’d like to be working on a solo exhibition with a gallery that would facilitate these large narratives. I’ve experimented with custom lighting and installations, and I’d like to find opportunities where my paintings can be a part of a fully curated experience. 

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