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Jan Sawka Makes An Elegiac Impression In Print

December 01, 1986|CHARLES SOLOMON

"I never treat classification in art seriously: I hate it, and am happy we have a real victory over it," says painter Jan Sawka, describing his recent work, "A Book of Fiction" (Clarkson N. Potter, Inc.).

"It is a book without words; it is a printed thing that is painted. You cannot call it an illustrated book, because it is not a book. It is dry-point engraving, and it is not--because it is tinted with gouache and water colors. It is published, but it is crazy."

A painter, print maker and poster artist, Sawka (pronounced Saff -ka) is as difficult to categorize as his creations. A compact, voluble man with a full, black beard just beginning to gray, he discussed his work at the Anca Colbert Gallery in West Hollywood, where an exhibit of his paintings and hand-tinted engravings is on display through Saturday.

Sawka became interested in the possibilities of hand-tinted prints as a young man in his native Poland.

"Ten years ago, I was rejected by the so-called 'serious people' in printing because I was adding colors by hand," he says. "They told me it was no way to print well. But how can you keep the quality of a red if you overprint it with black? They told me, 'We don't regard you as a printer at all,' so I forgot about trying to be serious in printing. Now I have an art extravaganza printed--what irony!"

Although his work had begun to attract an international audience, Sawka chafed at the artistic and political restrictions in Poland. In 1976, he left for Paris, then moved to America a year later. While he did illustrations for the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times and the Boston Globe to support his family, his paintings, prints and constructions received increasing critical attention.

In 1983, Sawka received a grant that gave him unrestricted use of a modern print-making studio for one year. The artist revived an idea for a book of engravings that he had conceived a year earlier--the work that ultimately became "A Book of Fiction." He drew on sheets of plexiglass, rather than the usual zinc or copper.

"I worked with metal plates for a number of years, but the unreliable quality of the studios (in Poland) and my ever-moving, ever-troubling life presented problems," he explains. "If I did a plate, I never knew when I would print it--it might have to be abandoned for a year. I discovered that zinc plates corrode after being stored away, and if you try to clean a corroded plate, you devastate it, because any touch alters the surface."

While sharpening an engraving needle on a piece of plexiglass, Sawka found the plastic held an image perfectly and wouldn't corrode, regardless of how long it was stored. When the first impressions of the plexiglass plates emerged from the press, he decided to try coloring them by hand.

"I thought to myself, 'Let's color them, but play with it.' Within two months, I was totally gone: I did only two or three paintings during the next year. All the rest of the time, I was printing and coloring this mess, adding a little pigment here and there. It was a hell of a time when I recall it!"

Sawka speaks with an infectious enthusiasm, describing his own work, artists he respects (Samuel Beckett, Francis Bacon, Bob Dylan) and artists he dislikes (Andy Warhol, Madonna) with equal gusto. His exclamations are accompanied by sweeping gestures that move his entire body.

After a year of engraving, he spent 13 months approving a wearying succession of proofs as Japanese printers struggled to copy the flamboyantly colored pages with state-of-the-art laser scanning equipment. Sawka delights in the contrast between the hand-crafted original book and the elaborate technology needed for the printed version.

The resulting book evokes illuminated manuscripts or ancient papyri. The brightly colored images accompany blocks of calligraphic lines that resemble text: Sawka uses graphic imitations to represent words, as Saul Steinberg did in his imaginary documents. For all their bright color, the pages suggest an elegiac, alienated world dominated by a remote melancholy.

In addition to the "Book of Fiction" engravings, Sawka is showing some small watercolors, which he describes as "little brothers" of the large acrylic paintings he's been doing. While he obviously enjoys his current success, Sawka dismisses the New York art scene: He moved out of the city to escape its desperately chic life style, which he found suffocating.

"Now that I'm at the point where I can do what I like, I must control myself twice as carefully as before," he concludes. "Before, if I made a mistake, nobody jumped on me. Now, if I start to get loose . . . " He finishes the sentence by slapping his hands together, and gives a hearty laugh that reduces the art world to an immense private joke between himself and his listener.

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