Alicja Kwade via New York’s 303 Gallery at The Armory Show 2023: A Look Back

At this year’s edition of The Armory Show, held at the Javits Center in New York City, I was introduced for the first time (as best I can remember) to the work of artist Alicja Kwade, born in Poland but now working in Germany. Several pieces from the artist were showcased by the local (to the Javits Center) institution 303 Gallery, whose overall presentation went through a series of artists. The pieces from Kwade match established interests of mine, and I wanted to highlight them — with an eye towards hopefully seeing more of these pieces and a larger, artist-specific presentation in the future.

Introducing the Works on Display

Kwade’s several works shared through the exhibiting gallery consist of stone and metal, in general terms. The pieces of stone closely approximate what appears sure to be the way they were originally found in whatever location or environment they originate. Little aesthetic modification is evident. The naturalism of these self-evident pieces of the natural world stands in contrast to the sharply polished metal that connects, though indirectly, the various stones. “Heavy Skies,” 2022, hangs from the ceiling and resembles, in its general form, mobiles that hang above babies’ cribs, though here, the overall shape isn’t as symmetrical. Once individual lines of the partly truncated, reversed football goal posts of metal reach their downwards end, you find pieces of stone. (You can see photos below.)

“Reversed Skies,” 2022, consists of roughly the same structural approach — but now reversed. The thicker, more obviously rigid metal extends upwards in straight spokes until the stones arrive, this time suspended in the air in an entirely unnatural position — while retaining their naturalism in their actual, physical appearance. Viewers at Javits also found “One Year V,” 2022, which features minuscule, individual watch hands assembled across cardboard — and behind glass — to resemble the sprawling cracks that would form from isolated impacts on a fragile surface, meaning something like throwing small rocks at a window. On approach, I was surprised to learn that the piece didn’t actually consist of broken glass, because the appearance was convincing.

The works comprised of stone and metal clearly communicate contrast, but the impression continues from there. I discovered upon researching Kwade’s background that these assemblages of metal and stone used components and elements to their construction that mirrored a commissioned presentation that Kwade crafted for a roof at The Met in 2019, and there, evocative as her compositions were of the solar system, the existential implications of Kwade’s art seemed especially clear. (Check out Kwade’s work for The Met’s rooftop right here.)

Getting into the Existential Implications

In these powerfully stark portrayals of her artistic ambition, Kwade isolates the richly and endlessly dynamic interplay of creation and existence, polishing and the lack of it, and the real alongside the unreal, to get even more outward looking. The processes that created the pieces of stone incorporated into “Heavy Skies” and “Reversed Skies” are less knowable, in an immediate sense, than what produced the industrially fashioned metal pieces. No individual made natural rock. The stones exist because of forces completely and utterly outside ourselves, and in their very communicated essence, there is still more to their physical presentation — a layer of vibrancy that has somehow made this sometimes inhospitable planet a home, for now, to life. The pieces of stone, already beyond us in their formative processes, carry energy that may outlive any individual who visits the artwork.

This contrasts with the fashioned metal, which we know more personally. It carries the appearance of human touch — the obvious, manifested mark of human inspiration. The historical approach to making images found throughout what has sometimes dominated certain art history can sometimes obscure the many, many other layers to a scene that are always present, prioritizing visual aesthetics over the wordless presence of a thing. The stepping point between the known and the barely knowable seems on careful display here.

Kwade’s particular existential scenery suggests balance and gently uplifting harmony. Just look at the literally uplifted stones. While there is contradiction, even simply in the surface textures of the respective materials, it doesn’t lean into tension or frustration. Instead, though this time capturing and relaying something we’re not used to seeing so visually, I felt like this brief snapshot of Kwade’s work utilizes an approach not unlike the ultimately elevating harmonies of Impressionism. Even if those earlier painters leaned much more closely on the fuller breadth of their (subjective) sight, they were still focusing in significant part on what clearly comes across as pleasantry. Monet was obviously a big fan of flowers! And something similar can often be found elsewhere, even in the stricter harmonies of the most rigid Minimalism.

Our actual, lived experiences are comprised of so much more than the surface-level visuals, and it’s a wonder for our present’s — and recent history’s — artists to move their vantage points.

Kwade’s part of Armory was unfortunately less of a comprehensive exhibition than a brief look. The in-person version of the show ended, but you can see images of the works below via the artist’s Instagram:


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