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Nature and Culture: Drawings by Elzbieta Sikorska

McLean Project for the Arts, Emerson Gallery

Looking at the large-scale drawings by Elzbieta Sikorska that comprise this exhibit is akin to walking down a path into a dense and woody thicket.  As the senses become alert, taking in a complex and multi-layered visual environment that will need to be navigated carefully, some areas stand out, while others wait silently in the background.  Clarity coexists with vagueness, and vital experience gives way to soft impression.  Sikorska’s expressive works readily embrace this essential duality that describes how we move through and experience our own reality. In this drawn world, the natural mixes with the energetic, and that which we know blends quietly but distinctly with the unexpected.


Sikorska explores ideas around nature and culture by drawing the natural world and by introducing our human shadow into the same picture.  Questions about our relationship to nature lie at the heart of these exquisite and subtle works.  Are we part of nature or are we somehow separate?  Can we coexist or is some form of destruction always eminent?  These are the questions, too big for answers but always worthy of asking, that provide for Sikorska an endless resource for imaginative musing.

On the surface, her tools are simple.  Making marks on paper to describe and express is as old as the ages and a truly elemental human urge.  By limiting her color palette primarily to blacks, greys and variations of brown she speaks in the familiar visual language of nature.  When a carefully chosen vibrancy is added in the form of blue, pink, purple or orange, a sense of “otherness” is introduced.  This judicious use  of color allows the drawings to transcend references to reality and take on a   mystical, open-ended tenor.  Mystery and the mundane are thus skillfully and subtlety introduced to each other.

As Sikorska points out, nature and culture are both related and separate. Their co-existence is described in these works by an adept use of transparency and layering.  Sikorska’s drawing style, active, dense and consisting of multiple layers of markings, both obscures the image and describes it with clarity.  In the forty-nine part drawing entitled “Nature and Culture”, from which the exhibit takes its name, Sikorska’s use of transparency reaches its pinnacle.  Hung in a grid format from a framework that allows for both front and back viewing, each small drawing presents a portrait of an animal on one side and a symbol on the other.  Executed on delicate handmade paper, the works are partially transparent, allowing for the simultaneous viewing of both images.  Animals, referring to the variety and vitality of nature, are juxtaposed with symbols that introduce a more human, cognitive (cultural) element.  Both the duality and unity of nature and culture are thus aptly described.

Sikorska uses animal images in many of her others works as well- to ask questions, transmit a sense of energy and express ideas.  Human bodies and body parts also emerge from the work, sometimes prominently, sometimes partially hidden in an under layer.  The presence of figures (human or animal) within the landscape again speaks of the existence of both nature and culture, of nature within culture and vice versa.  In Sikorska’s world, Elk fight to the death amid bursts of flame-colored orange, a single deer melts into the brush and reappears again without moving an inch, and fragments of the human body sit calmly, as if waiting to again transmute into some un-named new life force.

There’s a truthful interplay between the mundane and the transcendent in these works.  Both separately and as a group, the drawings in this exhibit explore the full nature of nature, including our nature as human beings, both lofty and earthly.  Perhaps the triptych “Nature, Culture, Divine” is the most emblematic in this regard.  Moving in three pieces from the simplicity of sticks and earth, to space and air and finally to golden light and a soaring (or falling) wing, this enigmatic work wrestles, as we each do everyday, with the force and process of living in all its indefinable, and complicated simplicity. 

Nancy Sausser,