Leaving the Szukalski show at the Laguna Art Museum is like waking from a fever dream. After being in the grip of a force so bizarre and all-encompassing, it's a relief to be free and to shake off those haunting images.
Stanislav Szukalski (1893-1987) was an artist of relentless intensity. Whether casting sculptures in bronze or drawing in conte crayon, he sustained an edge-to-edge, high-energy, high-decibel level of visual hyperbole. The Laguna museum's retrospective, "Struggle: The Art of Szukalski," feels not just exhaustive, but exhausting as well.
The Polish-born artist moved with his father to Chicago as a teenager, then returned to Poland to study art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow. Over the next few decades, Szukalski lived in Chicago, Paris, Hollywood and Warsaw, developing a grandiose style that merged the decorative flourishes of Art Nouveau, the emotional theatricality of Romanticism and multiple currents of early 20th century European Modernism--Cubism, Expressionism, Symbolism. You name it, Szukalski crammed it into his work.
Living in Poland in the late 1930s, with government patronage and a museum dedicated to his work, Szukalski had achieved a degree of fame. But World War II slammed shut that chapter of his career, and the German bombing of Warsaw wiped out most of its contents. A long wall of photographs in the Laguna show documents dozens of Szukalski's Rodin-inspired sculptures that were lost or destroyed.
If Szukalski never reclaimed his earlier status after settling in Los Angeles in 1940, it wasn't for lack of trying. As a man and an artist, he thrived on bold gestures. His work persistently aspires to the monumental, regardless of its physical scale, which is generally modest. Muscles are taut and exaggerated in his human forms, facial features are chiseled. Szukalski fetishized the heroic and the mythic, and his images are overwrought with symbols of power. Somewhere between camp and kitsch, Szukalski's art looks like a deadbeat dad to Matthew Barney's staged, over-the-top epics in film, photography and installation.
Szukalski didn't just illustrate myths, he first fabricated them, twisting familiar characters and historical or biblical events to suit his theory of human origin, which he called "Zermatism." He filled 39 volumes of notes and sketches elaborating his theory. The decorated spines to those volumes appear in the show, as do numerous images showing the influence of ancient cultures (Egyptian, Aztec, Easter Island) he studied on the way to formulating his own myths. Szukalski was an ardent Polish nationalist, and he claimed that Polish was the language that survived the biblical deluge. While he stopped short of developing a theory of racial superiority akin to the Aryan model, he came close with his notion that dangerous aggressors in politics and crime all descend from an inferior strain of ape-like beings.
Reputed to be a brash character with a volatile temper and eccentric habits, Szukalski was a myth maker through and through, the construction of his own public image included. One apocryphal story in particular illustrates Szukalski's fiercely idiosyncratic ways. As a young man, the artist used to take regular walks with his father. One day, it is said, he arrived at their usual meeting place to find his father not there. A commotion on the street nearby indicated an automobile accident, in which Szukalski's father had been killed. The artist followed his father's body to the morgue, where he proceeded to dissect it. Since the intensely palpable human form is central to his work, and he refused to work from live models, he was often asked where he learned anatomy. He always answered, "My father taught me."
Szukalski's life does make a good story. The museum show, curated by Tyler Stallings, plays into the artist's image as obsessive eccentric and preserves the tone of cult-like hero worship that pervades the slim body of existing literature on him. (The catalog for the show has not yet been published, but a galley version available in the galleries promises more of the same.)
What's missing is some critical perspective on this odd visionary whose work does occasionally glimmer with a strange, impassioned wisdom, when not strangled by its own self-importance. Scholarly attention has yet to be paid to the grittier biographical details of Szukalski's life--how, for instance, the fascist monuments springing up around him in Europe might have fed his vision of the heroic and noble, or what impact L.A.'s underground comics scene, which embraced the newly arrived Szukalski in the 1940s, had on his audacious fantasies.
Szukalski took it upon himself to rewrite history according to his own delusions. Just as outlandish is the effort, through this show, to rewrite art history with Szukalski as anything more than a minor footnote.
* Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8971, through Jan. 7, 2001. Closed Wednesday.