Critical Text

‘To relate is to exist’, the paintings of Agata Sulikowska seem to tell us. There is a yearning for intimacy, for camaraderie, sometimes punctuated by solitude and a sense of shared longing–or nostalgia. The scenes she chooses mostly take place in public places: bars that she has visited in cities around the world, streets where locals and visitors mix or where people demonstrate, and rarely, someone’s house, a place of one’s own, where the painter can explore her subjects from a deeper place of trust. The life and works of Agata Sulikowska are deeply intertwined. In the timeless tradition of artists who paint organically, almost urgently–triggered by an image or a mood, Sulikowska’s paintings take shape in rhythm with her surroundings, like an offering for her viewers to contemplate the immediacy of life.

A large part of Agata Sulikowska’s works reflect her everyday life: a group of people who caught her eye at a bar in Tromsø­–where she is based, or a couple of friends whose personalities fired her imagination. More recently, she has also started moving towards more abstract settings, in which she conjures her memories of people and places, or more exactly of atmospheres.

Her other paintings evoke the many trips she has embarked on throughout Europe, South America or Asia. Fascinated by the many declinations of humanity, Sulikowska absorbs ambiences and colors, and transcribes them onto her canvases, tainted by her own emotional and artistic leanings. The colors are exacerbated, sometimes verging on the neon spectrum, sometimes influenced by the mood of the scene, with greenish tones that evoke a diffuse loneliness, or on the contrary warm colors that fire up the canvas with light and the heat of human proximity.

Indeed, if Sulikowska’s paintings are deeply inspired by reality–and often drawn from photographs she takes, they nonetheless do not belong to a stricly realist school of painting. Beyond the colors that respond to perceived atmospheres, the shapes and perspective are also twisted and tweaked to highlight her characters or to render a particular personality trait. And if some of the representations can seem at first glance to verge on caricatures, there is a deep sense of tenderness and understanding towards her subjects. At the same time, it would be hard to say that Sulikowska presents an insider’s view on a specific place or scene, as the space between the painter and the subjects remains quite notable in the foreground of her works. In that sense, Sulikowska’s paintings seem to replicate her own craving to fathom the bonds­­–and distances–that make up the fabric of human connections.

Her choice of subject can be deemed trivial, but far from being a drawback, it becomes a strength under Sulikowska’s brush: a painter of the human condition, an artist who has also worked in factories and lived in rural areas, she paints without judging, focusing on the complex palette of experiences one can find in the ‘ordinary’. Her paintings thus have the quality of showing what is now too often concealed behind layers of high-tech photos, retouched selfies, or abstractionism that seem to lose sense of the human in a sea of virtual possibilities. Obviously rubbing shoulders with the people she depicts, Sulikowska invites her audience to join her in meeting others on an equal footing, avoiding the flaw that consists in glorifying poverty or marginalized people to try to redeem one’s position of privilege.

To an extent, her artistic endeavor therefore has similarities with some of the Renaissance Flemish painters who strayed away from religious topics and portraits of wealthy patrons to represent the everyday life around them. But in contrast to paintings from the likes of Joachim Beuckelaer and later Adriaen van Ostade and Pieter de Hooch, Sulikowska does not attempt in any way to introduce religious topics, moralize or elevate her subject in the viewer’s mind; she simply gives them her full attention, and records slices of life with solemnity: it is a form of respect and maybe homage to the millions of habitual moments that constitute our existences. Further, some of her paintings are reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s works, with the presence of solitary emotions pervading the painting, the melancholia in the midst of a lively place, the fusion of softness and remoteness in portraying her subjects.

Finally, it should also be said that although nature and the environment are not central themes in her body of work, the paintings of Agata Sulikowska are far from detached from the current ecological context. As mentioned before, the life and work of the artist are deeply intertwined: travelling by train and bike around the world and sleeping in a tent or in people’s home, Sulikowska limits her own impact on the environment, and this form of travel also allows her to have a more direct access to local hangouts and ways of life. Besides, she cultivates an approach to painting that is imbricated in life rather than put on a pedestal: she prefers taking her canvases off their frames to roll them and send them in an easier, less environmentally-costly way, and to make it easier for her works to reach a wider audience. She has also been reusing the dried out paint on her palettes to form new paintings, giving a new life to what is normally considered rebuke.

In conclusion, Agata Sulikowska’s paintings invite us to journey within the complexity of the ordinary, and to embrace both loneliness and proximity as sides of the same coin: our desire to reach out and to find the Other in ourselves, to welcome our differences and learn from our resemblances. It is a humanist message that is also profoundly humble, from an artist whose art follows her life: nomadic, borderless, and emotionally rich.

Written by Marion Bouvier