SEVEN DAYS INSIDE
The Early Works
of Christian Narkiewicz-Laine
By Kieran Conlon
St. Ives Harbour, 1972. 18 x 30 inches. Oil on canvas. In the Permanent Collection of the Cultural Center of M. K. Sarbievijus, Kražiai, Lithuania.
Few contemporary artists match Narkiewicz-Laine's epic reach, and his work consistently balance powerful imagery with acute critical analysis.
During the 1980s through the early 2000s, Narkiewicz-Laine produced a diverse body of work comprising of painting, sculpture and installation that has made him one of the most prominent European-American artists of the past decades.
In his early works, Narkiewicz-Laine was critically engaged with myth and memory, referencing totems of Eastern European culture and collective history. Those references sprung from his own past as a citizen of both Finland and Lithuania and as a descendent of a prominent noble family with wide and far-reaching influence, particularly during the Russian Empire.
He started to professionally paint as a 16-year old student studying art, literature, and architecture at the Université de Strasbourg. There, he executed landscape paintings en plein air, based on the outdoor paintings of the Barbizon school and Impressionism, but looking closely at his own roots and early 20th-Century Russian painters such as Vasily Polenov, Isaac Levitan, Valentin Serov, Konstantin Korovin and I. E. Grabar. As a student, he traveled throughout Italy and Great Britain, painting and sketching scenes and landscapes from Tuscany to the Cambridgeshire countryside and seafronts.
Those landscape paintings were exhibited at Foyer des Étudiants Catholiques (FEC) in Strasbourg, France.
Sadly, the majority of those early works were subsequently destroyed when the artist’s studio in Galena, Illinois was vandalized in 2010. Only “St. Ives Harbour” (1972) survives from this period and is preserved in the permanent collection of the Cultural Center of M. K. Sarbievius in Kraziai, Lithuania.Auferstanden aus antiken Ruinen (“Risen from the Ancient Ruins”), 2000. Bitum, oil, shellac, insects and dirt on masonite. 51.5 x 70 inches (131.80 x 177.80 cm.).
In the early 1980s, Narkiewicz-Laine returned to Chicago and studied printmaking, etching, woodblock printing, and engraving at the Evanston Art Center (Evanston, Illinois) and exhibited those printed works frequently at the Center. “The Finnish Orthodox Church In Karelia” (1975) shows the artist’s masterful return to portraying recognizable objects, such as buildings or the human body (although sometimes in an abstract manner), in a rough and violently emotional way using vivid colours and banal colour harmonies.
After completing his studies in France, Greece, and at Lake Forest College in Lake, Forest, Illinois in 1976, he became the architecture critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. After four years of writing criticism for the newspaper, Narkiewicz-Laine won the Critic’s Prize from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts in 1980. The Foundation was founded in 1956, and Narkiewicz-Laine’s prize is the second such award given in the organization’s 60-year history.
With the Graham Foundation Prize, Narkiewicz-Laine took up residency at The American Academy in Rome painting and writing. While at the American Academy, he became interested in photography and undertook a two-year study documenting “Ancient Cities under Reconstruction.” His photographic works, exhibited first at the American Academy in Rome and later in Chicago, combined the disrepair of Roman and Greek ruins counterbalanced with the scaffolding erected to reconstruct them. The result is the jolting juxtaposition of ephemeral objects added over historic ruins. His photographic studies include the Parthenon in Athens and other buildings on the Acropolis, as well as such revered Roman monuments as the Coliseum, the Roman Forum, the Pantheon, and St. Peter’s Basilica.Frei wie ein Vogel in die Schönheit des Himmels (One-Winged Angel), 2003. Copper with Natural Patina. 20 x 28 inches.
Translation:"Free as a bird in the beauty of heaven.”
The works from this study are a masterpiece of photographic light and shadow.
Those ideas are at their artistic highest level when Narkiewicz-Laine presented “Beaux-Arts Chicago,” an exhibition at the Chicago ArchiCenter where the artists presented his photographic documentation, along with painting the entire museum center in rich murals like scenes of Pompeii.
His interests in photographing architecture continued while the artist rediscovered the recently revived neoclassical works of today.
Through his friendship with the Luxembourg architects, Léon and Rob Krier, Narkiewicz-Laine rediscovered classical architecture and neo-traditional architecture and planners. Narkiewicz-Laine was influenced by Leon Krier’s writings has been to explain the rational foundations of architecture and the city, stating that “In the language of symbols, there can exist no misunderstanding.” Narkiewicz-Laine was particularly influenced by Leon Krier’s 1985 book on the mesmerizing works of Albert Speer. The artist studied the early classical architecture of the City of Chicago, particularly the works of Daniel H. Burnham, William LeBaron Jenney, and Louis Sullivan for his own radical mysticism as demonstrated in ornament.
In 1982, Narkiewicz-Laine presented his photographs of classical buildings in Chicago at the Chicago ArchiCenter, where he exhibited those work against walls he painted murals with polychrome in the intimation of pseudo-Roman murals of Pompeii.
Color in architecture also formed an intriguing and captivating study of the works of the Mexican architect, Luis Barragán, where the artist was exhibited at the Buenos Aires Biennial in 1989. His interview with Luis Barragán was published the same year.
Narkiewicz-Laine’s fascination with mystical Chicago architect, Louis Sullivan led to the artist gathering the architect’s unpublished poetry of scattered in archives throughout the United States and published Sullivan’s unpublished manuscripts in one volume of work: Inspiration: Nature and the Universe by Metropolitan Arts Press.
As an architect, Mr. Narkiewicz-Laine incorporated a fascination for architectonic space, dimension into his works.
In 1987, Narkiewicz-Laine organized a major exhibition on the Leon Krier’s New Plan for Washington, D.C. at the American Institute of Architects in Washington.
After this period, Narkiewicz-Laine’s paintings and art (1990-2004) became exposed to elements like acid and fire, and incorporate materials such as lead, burned books, concrete, thorny branches, ashes, dirt, lead, photography, woodcuts, sand, straw and all manner of organic material and clothing with references that have included the Black Forest, Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Caspar David Friedrich’s Romantic landscapes, and Russian Orthodox mysticism. The artist’s religion, Russian Orthodox, brought a spiritual and metaphysical dimension where he created work that affirmed the redemptive power of art in general and painting in particular, drawing upon a variety of themes including the mythological, the cultural, the historical, the nationalist, and the erotic.
In 1993, the artist exhibited, “Resurrection,” (word in Russian) a bold, dark masterful work, at the Palace of Schaumburg-Lippe in Schaumburg-Lippe, Germany. The work is the first of its kind by the artist to display the cool, distant sparseness of Minimalism and Conceptualism also seen in the works of Georg Baselitz, Julian Schnabel, and Francesco Clemente. The work is now demolished.
The painting “Resurrection” is portrayed in an almost raw and brutish manner, newly restoring in the frequently large-scale works, the highly textural and expressive brushwork and intense colors that had been so recently rejected by major preceding modernist art movements.
By adding found materials to the painted surface of his immense tableaux, he invents a compelling third space between painting and sculpture.
During this period (1990-2004), Mr. Narkiewicz-Laine’s work closely resembles the look and style of the German Neo-Symbolist artist, Aslem Kiefer.Der Sterbenden Stern (The Dying Star), 2002. Velvet Bound Cover with a Letter from 1882 and Sketch and Unique Photograph in oil and bitum.
In 2001, the artist moved from Chicago to the historic 19th Century city, Galena, Illinois, alongside the Mississippi River in a landscape called the "driftless area," immersed in valleys and rolling fields and pre- historic forests. Here the artist was deeply moved by this unique landscape and the majestic beauty of the Mississippi River. The artist produced over 30 large-scale riverscapes, oil on wood, that are dark, mystical and moving and inspired by verse written by the Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke.
In 2002, the artist mounted a pivotal exhibition at The Cultural Center of the Catholic Church in Naxos Castle in Naxos, Greece where the artist present a series of works where his paintings and photographic prints became more metaphysical, and featured unusual textures and materials.
The exhibition also introduced a new direction for a cycle of large paintings and photographic prints of the cosmos where shapes, forms, diagrams painted on the landscapes depict astronomical observations.
“The Universe is Burning” (2002) emphasizes large heavy forms and thick impasto of paint, and typically deals with historical narrative in terms of symbolism, allegory, and myth. Again, the title of the painting is written in Russian. Like Kiefer, the artist presents intense colors, dramatic usually figural forms, and emotive subject matter. The work is now demolished.
“Orion” (2002) demonstrates the artist’s fascination for occult symbolism, theology and mysticism. “Temple at Coba” (2002) echoes the same using archeological references such as the Mayan ruins found in Mexico and Central America. The work is now demolished.
Such works as “Wunderjahr’ (2002) demonstrate a kind of seductive isolation of the landscape and the word (in German for “Wondering Year”) as the meaning and message of the photograph.
“Death of the Poet” (2002) also conveys that same isolation and distant sparseness with accepted and rejuvenated historical and mythological imagery incorporated into the artist’s contemporary subject matter. In this work, the artist’s photograph is reminiscent of the painting by the 19th-Century French painter, Jacques-Louis David: “The Death of Jean-Paul Marat.” The work is now demolished.
These paintings and photographic prints at Naxos Castle depict historical subject matter, which came about with the rise of Neo-Expressionism. The landscape paintings, “Winter Solstice” (2002) in particular, demonstrate the contradiction and paradox exist alongside and within traditional dichotomies (light and darkness, beauty and death), reflecting the ineffable complexity of the human condition and human existence.
During this period, the artist was also inspired by the theological poetry of Rilke and Paul Celan as seen in the work: “My God is a Consuming Fire” (2002). The work is now demolished.
Mississippi River Valley, Poem I, 2001. 26 x 49 inches. Bitum, Oil, Shellac on Wood. Soviel kommen Einsamkeit und Neigung von dieser einer Stimme, deren heftiger Antrag der Regenguß. (So much solitude and passion come from that one voice, whose fierce request the downpour.) From Rilke “Before the Summer Rain.” “Vor Sommer-Regen.”
It was at this time that his first books of poetry were published: Distant Fires (1996) with introduction by the renown Italian architecture journalist and critic, Claudia Dona, and Baltic Hours (1999), which was republished in Lithuanian by Baltos Langos (2007).
These art works of Narkiewicz-Laine reflect the essence of a New Symbolism. In the mid-nineties and early years of 2000, he traveled extensively and some of his paintings such as "Temple at Tulum" (2002) and "Elgio de la Sombra” (2002) drew inspirations from his trips to the several countries he visited, Mexico and South America in particular. These works are now demolished.
By now, Narkiewicz-Laine had transitioned to more universal themes. Besides paintings, he created sculptures, watercolors, woodcuts, photographs, and books based around symbolic themes.
Narkiewicz-Laine is not a fan of forensically dissecting his art and has previously spoken of how he fears that the beauty of art will "dissolve into ashes."
"This is to allow the viewer to make their own personal connections with the works and also to allow for the purely aesthetic response to, what I feel, are sublimely beautiful works," states the artist.
LATER CONCEPTIONALIST WORKS
By 2005, there is a new transitioning in Narkiewicz-Laine’s newer works that still hold references to Neo- Expressionism, while venturing into more Conceptionalist work where the concept (s) or idea (s) involved in the work take precedence over traditional aesthetic and means of communication.
At this point, Narkiewicz- Laine begins to experiment with alternative and ephemeral materials such as sound, perfumes, smoke, etc.
At the 2007 Biennial exhibition at the Dubuque Museum of Art, Narkiewicz-Laine exhibited: “Someone Said They Heard Something in the Forest” (2005), which was an extraordinary installation, documented in a beautifully detailed photograph, where the artist burned wood, branches, found objects, memoirs, notes, letters, and diaries.
The 2007 Biennial Exhibition at the Dubuque Museum Art is a juried exhibition, and Narkiewicz-Laine was one of 20 artists selected from over 400 applicants from the United States to participate.
Many conceptual artists' work can therefore only be known about through documentation which is manifested by it, e.g. photographs, written texts or displayed objects, which some might argue are not in themselves the art.
In “Fin du Siecle” (2004), there is a dramatic shift in Narkiewicz-Laine’s work where he now uses color photography rather than traditional black and white from previous years and the image with the overlapping text is more mysterious and provoking.