Among the numerous incidents that almost got Jakub Julian Ziolkowski expelled from art school, one in particular stands out in his memory. During his first year at Poland’s prestigious Jan
Matejko Academy, Ziolkowski, frustrated with the banality of his courses and convinced that he couldn’t work in a roomful of other students, decided to stay home and paint. So he skipped his classes one day, and the next day, and the next. A month later, when he’d completed 40 paintings, he finally got the nerve to go back and face his furious teachers.
“They told me, ‘You just cannot do that! You have to be here. You have to paint this still life,’” recalls Ziolkowski. But the paintings must have been extraordinary because the school eventually agreed to a rare arrangement, allowing him to continue working alone at home. “They understood that they could not stop me.”
Evidently nobody can. Ziolkowski, 30, is still as prolific and reclusive, but now he’s one of the most acclaimed young painters on the international art scene. His work is being chased by top curators and megacollectors such as François Pinault and Dakis Joannou, and he’s about to open his first New York solo show, on June 30 at Hauser & Wirth.
Ziolkowski’s hallucinatory works, which offer a lurid contrast to the wave of cold-eyed Polish realist painters who made news a few years ago, depict a phantasmagoric world of disembodied limbs and breasts, squirting capillaries, vomiting mutants and coiled snakes. Look closely at one of his busy landscapes and you might see a tiny image of a rape in progress, or Ziolkowski himself, in the form of a skeleton, greeting the viewer with a creepy wave. The works swirl with conflicting narratives and present a compulsively cataloged vision of inhumanity.
“What I love is that it doesn’t look obviously contemporary,” says curator Massimiliano Gioni, who selected Ziolkowski for the seminal “Younger Than Jesus” show last year at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York and for the upcoming Gwangju Biennale in South Korea. Art critics compare Ziolkowski to a remarkably broad range of painters, from Hans Bellmer and Hieronymus Bosch to Philip Guston and outsider artists. “There’s a balance between the exquisite refinement of the technique and then this total obsessiveness,” says Gioni. “Also, there’s the courage to do something really far out. Jakub’s work is really a journey across his mind.”
Sitting in his Kraków apartment and studio, Ziolkowski, wearing jeans, a loose-fitting orange T-shirt and glasses, is affably courteous and mild-mannered, though he laments that he’s not used to discussing his work with strangers, particularly with a tape recorder on. (When we stop for a break, he takes a deep breath, runs his hands though his hair and says, “Oh, I’m so stressed!”) For all his shyness he seems incapable of dodging any questions; while formulating responses he often gazes into the distance and tenses his mouth, and then tries to tell the truth, or at least most of it. “I just believe that people are really bad,” he says at one point. “We think we are clever, but we are very, very primitive.”