Anywhere & Here’ presents a series of paintings that depict a shifting cast of protagonists. Each character is shown grappling with the reality of the here and now while dreaming of the potential of anywhere.
Our interview with Michael Polakowski shares valuable advice he’s received on approaching his work, the act of being present to inform his artistic voice, and the essential practice of running.
Can you share a little about your background and how you first heard of Thinkspace?
I grew up in Dearborn, Michigan, a small suburb of Detroit in the Midwestern United States. Not exactly an art hub by any means, but I always gravitated toward art and especially graffiti and skateboarding art. The work from the New Contemporary movement found its way to me through magazines and art blogs from LA, and Thinkspace was one of my early exposures to the art world that was out there. In a way, this show has been an amazing opportunity for me to connect with the art movement that ignited my relationship with art while paying homage to my home.
What was the inspiration behind this latest body of work? What themes were you exploring?
This body of work is about balancing forward progression and ambition with presence in one’s life. It’s about the individual parts that make the whole picture. That relationship between being present and engaged in your daily life while working towards a larger understanding of happiness or clarity is the central theme to this body of work. Creating this work was a balancing act for me, and the resulting body of work is about that process. Whether it is a painting that comes about through a conversation with a close friend or a realization that occurs in the middle of the night and is scrawled down on a sketchbook at the side of my bed, this body of work was about being engaged in the act of creating while not allowing myself to be overcome by it.
When you are triggered to chase escape, how do you bring yourself to acceptance?
I’ve grown to realize that some things just need time to work themselves out and that I have little ability to affect that. That acceptance of what I can’t control is initially defeating, but arriving at acceptance can open up new opportunities. Because of this, I like to schedule a break for myself in the middle of the day to run. This resets my brain and is almost like giving into the “fight or flight” response that anxiety can often bring about.
What was the most challenging piece in this exhibition? How did it help you grow as an artist?
The two pieces “Anywhere (Doorway)” and “Here (Doorway)” were among the most difficult in the series. They both feature a scene that has almost been “copy and pasted” onto itself, so in a way, it was like painting each piece three times to get the desired effect. Working on these paintings felt like I was doing workout repetitions to strengthen my painting ability.
Do you have any rituals that help you tap into a creative flow? What does a day in the studio look like for you?
With art, I find that there are times for fluidity and times for rigidity. As a painter, I needed to find the “non-negotiable” parts of my practice, like working 5 days a week for 8 hours a day but allowing myself to arrive at that goal in a variety of ways. Some pieces for the show I made over the course of a week or two, working entirely at night, while other pieces I made in a more traditional nine-to-five workday. No matter when I make it to my studio, however, I always dive into a deep level of focus that feels very cathartic and calming. I’ll usually take a break to eat and exercise (running has become the main way that I decompress), then head back to my studio and finish up for the day.
What excites you about your work / creative process? What frustrates you about your work/ creative process?
The act of painting is a very centering and engaging process. The detail and precision in my work mean there is no way to split my focus or do something partway. This can be great because it requires me to push everything aside but also can be frustrating when it just isn’t working out. My process for ideation also means that I am always engaged with my practice. I want my work to be a reflection of my life, not the entirety of it. By making my work about being observant of my surroundings and immersed in it.
When I started my career, I often fell into the trope of the “all-consumed” artist who never rested and gave everything to their practice. It wasn’t until I received advice from a more experienced artist that my goal should be to have a long career and evolve over a fifty-year career instead of working unsustainably for five years and then burning out. I took this advice to heart, and it shifted everything for me. First and foremost, my goal became about being an engaged and present individual, and the rest would follow. For the first time, I was able to think about what kind of artist I could evolve into, and that is the most exciting part for me.
Who are some of your creative influences?
I like to find inspiration for my work in other creative practices like film, literature, and music. Whenever I read a book or see a movie that sticks with me, I ask myself, “how could a painting create the same emotional response?” I’m a huge fan of Alejandro Jodorowsky and recently saw his film The Holy Mountain, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. As far as other painters go, I am a fan of the Chicago Imagist movement from the 1960s. Artists from that movement, like Roger Brown and Christina Ramberg, were able to interpret surrealism in such a personal way that reflected their experiences living in Chicago and the Midwest, and this authenticity to one’s own narrative has been a major influence on me.
The novels Franz Kafka’s “The Castle” and Dino Buzzati’s “The Tartar Steppe.” inspired the direction of “Anywhere & Here.” What are three books you think everyone should read and why?
Those two novels are a great start for anyone interested in absurdity and are two of my personal favorites. Both books feature protagonists who are completely immersed in what they see as their “life’s struggle” and suffer because they are ultimately unable to put separation between themselves and the systems they are a part of. A third book I would recommend is Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. This book is almost an antidote to the way of thinking that is pervasive in the previous books I mentioned. Murakami has had such a prolific output as an author, and this book details how the act of running has supported that process. My work is very physically demanding, and I don’t think I would have been able to stick with it had I not found this book.
What is your favorite thing to do outside of the studio?
One of my favorite things to do while I’m not painting is trail running, and the long winding roads that are seen in my paintings come from that. There is something very meditative about running towards a distant point at the end of a trail. You know that the end is coming because all things end eventually, but when you are in the middle of a run, it seems infinitely far away. Another hobby I’ve been drawn to is playing billiards, which is also featured heavily within my work. Playing 8-ball pool feels strangely like painting at times: you go into each game with a plan but must adapt and respond to the way it plays out.
What is one of the most memorable meals of your life thus far? It could be the food or the company that made it have a lasting impression.
My girlfriend and I recently traveled to Chihuahua, Mexico, for the wedding of two of my studio mates and longtime friends. During the trip, we stayed with them at a cabin in Santa Eulalia that was in the mountains. During the dinner, we all had sketchbooks out and were drawing in between games of dominoes and conversation. This meal stands out to me because it was one of the first times I drew the mountains, that are a central theme within my work. That meal was an instance where my artistic practice made me more present in my life and observant of my surroundings; the work that comes from these moments is always the most authentic and satisfying to me.
Exhibitions on view January 7 – January 28, 2023
Photos by Birdman.