WAKE UP! The offensive work of Radek Dabrowski







Such sentences can be found on recent paintings by Radek Dabrowski. What kind of paintings are these? What kind of remarks am I having to put up with? The canvasses seem to be talking directly to me. Radek’s work causes confusion, because a painting can’t talk to people, but I believe that these do. Take the sentence that tells me to ‘Get the fuck out of here’. Am I really supposed to walk away? Paintings have to invite people to look. That’s the paradox of Radek’s work: the paintings repel the viewer even though they’re extremely pleasing to the eye.

They’re actually monochromes. The strong color effect reminds of Barnett Newman’s work. Newman wanted to create a color experience in his ‘Who’s afraid of Red Yellow and Blue’ (1967). But he didn’t want to offend his viewers. Radek manages this quite successfully with his texts. What’s more, the color is fluorescent yellow so it’s really difficult to miss his paintings. They cry out for attention. You can see the yellow as one of the colors in a traffic light: when it’s red you have to stop, green says drive on. Yellow is in between the two.1 Maybe I can just get through, but maybe not. The color in these works underlines the uncertainty: can I stay and look or should I leave?

The bright white letters of the text on the canvas are the same type as the letters on electric alarm clocks. Radek got the idea when, after pushing the snooze button three times one morning, he considered that it’s always the same unpleasant numbers that tell him to wake up every morning.2 The white letters in the painting jump out of the yellow and after a while seem to float on the canvas like purple after-images. It almost makes you giddy. What is the meaning of this? Should you wake up or dream on? leave or stay? Why is this work so confusing and what’s the artist getting at? I’m becoming curious!

If you want to understand the confusion and irritation that this work causes, it’s important to look at the artist’s work process. I’m going to do this using two paintings he did about six months ago. The first one is a canvas measuring 203x154 cm. (June 1999) with adverts in black and white and silver. The initial impression is of normal advertising for everyday pro-ducts, but if you look more closely, you’ll find that they’re actually telephone numbers, numbers of sex lines. Radek cut the adverts out of magazines and enlarged them to A3 size on a photocopier. He then transferred the paper on to painted linen so the ink from the advert was printed on the canvas in mirror-image. This makes it difficult to tell straightaway that you’re actually looking at a sex advert. The phallus, which is still visible, is the only thing that gives it away. The painting is virtually littered with images and text. This overall composition and the use of adverts makes you think of the work of Andy Warhol in the sixties, but Warhol applied advertising for a different reason. He was fascinated by commerce. By using it in his work, Warhol elevated the banality of advertising to the level of art. He wasn’t personally involved and he didn’t make any social statement; all he wanted to do was to react like a machine. Warhol believed that it would be better to simply accept advertising and consumption, to him inevitable aspects of society. The best thing to do is to make art out of it and earn a lot of money with it. In Warhol’s own words: ‘The best art is the art of making money.’3

This is essentially different to Radek’s work and attitude. He isn’t interested in business itself, but in the way in which advertising appeals to the public. Moreover he isn’t making mechanical art, but is simply looking critically at human customs and needs. He does this by giving you an initial feeling that you’re looking at normal advertising. Only after a while you realize that you’ve actually been staring at numbers of sex lines. This isn’t funny! Or is it? Whatever it is, it’s shocking, because as well as arousing excitement and curiosity, pornography is also a source of shame.

Radek makes us think about the use of advertising instead of simply accepting it. He once said: ‘Society is so full of information requiring us to make decisions that we become insensitive. This excess of information makes us inclined to ignore what’s happening around us. Confrontation is needed to shake the viewers awake so they don’t ignore my work as well.’4 Radek creates this confrontation by veiling text. When you eventually realize that you’ve

been looking at pornographic texts, you feel ashamed and caught out. So the pornography plays an important role in waking people up, but does Radek deal with our tendency to ignore the information?

The artist has done so in a highly literal way by making the work partially ‘deny’ itself. The texts in the adverts are printed in mirror-image, literally an inversion. They are also partially painted over, so the adverts are covered. This masking and covering can also be seen as a form of ‘denial’, because the work is partially hidden from view. Radek uses the reactions of the viewers to ‘deny’ the work in yet another way, by confronting them with advertising. Advertising is an ideal medium for approaching people directly. Words and images conjure up a world that seems to have a relevance to the viewer. Jenny Holzer is an artist who has used text in a similar fashion. Her statements in ‘Truisms’ (from 1978-on) appeal directly to the viewer as well. The posters and electronic billboards she put up in New York with texts like ‘ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE’ confronted every passerby with her comments on society.5 Radek has no political intentions with his texts. By insulting the viewers, he’s compelling them to look at and experience his work. In advertising, you often realize that it’s only a way of selling something, so you ignore some of the message. The same is true of Radek’s work. On the one hand, the impact of the painting appeals to you, but at the same time, you realize that it’s ‘only’ a painting and it can’t really offend you.

An earlier painting by Radek is a multicolored work with over-paints and the same size, (203x154 cm, January 2000). If you look closely, you can just see the face of Christ (upside down) showing through the layers of paint. It’s a greatly enlarged icon, and the artist has used the same ‘printing technique’ as he did for the adverts. The fact that Christ’s face is upside down and covered with paint again suggests a kind of ‘denial’ of the picture; in this case the image of the icon. At first, there seems to be no relationship between sex adverts and icons. If, however, you assume that people worship icons because they think they put them in touch with a higher being, you could find a connection with people who call sex lines to get in touch with a prostitute. Personification and imaginary contact play a role in both activities. This is a result of our ability to bring something to life in our minds even though it’s not really alive. To produce the same effect in contemporary art requires work that appeals strongly to the viewers.

With his paintings, Radek shows that he understands this completely. In this respect, the self-portrait of the Italian painter Giorgione (1504) made a profound impression on him. The way in which Giorgione looks at us makes it seem as if he’s really trying to make contact. Radek is particularly interested in icons, because they also ‘speak’ so clearly to the viewer. He maximizes this effect in his bright yellow works with their offensive texts and almost human format (180x120 cm), which give viewers the feeling that they are literally being addressed.

These new works are bare and smooth compared to his earlier work; uncovered might be a better word. There are no layers of image/text and the words are legible. The effect of this uncovered work is that the texts and colors in the paintings act like a slap in the face, a comparison with irritating alarm clock that wrenches Radek from his dreams every morning. The realization that he had to get up made him ignore the alarm at first. Since Radek’s

paintings are so offensive to the viewer, the latter will seek to treat them in similar fashion. Whereas Radek covered his earlier work to create a ‘denial’, he now realizes that this isn’t really necessary; the viewers should do it themselves. Because they will want to ignore the text, they cover the painting as it were, though a masking has not taken place. The process of ‘denial’ is no longer portrayed as an event in the painting, but is an interaction between the picture and the viewer. Radek has achieved his objective; the work makes contact with the viewers and shakes them awake for a while.


Rosemarijn Bugel, January 2001

Translation: Liesbeth Machielsen



1. Interview with the artist, 17 October 2000.

2. Idem.

3. Ad de Visser, De tweede helft. Beeldende kunst na 1945, Nijmegen 1998, p. 86.

4. Interview with the artist, 20 October 2000.

5. M. Mekkink et al. (eds.), Kunst van nu, Leiden 1995, p. 143.