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SLOWINSKI - A Psycho Self Portrait

by Berrien Thorne

The romantic notion of the suffering artist struggling through an existence bordering on the brink of madness is, unfortunately, a reality for many artists. Van Gogh, Caravaggio, Goya, even Michelangelo himself suffered with chronic symptoms of agitation, mania and depression indicative of borderline or at times full blown mental illness. To these artists the creative process is both a profession and a therapeutic tool, for their art functions as a buoy in the sea of madness and despair, keeping them precariously afloat in reality. Some, like Van Gogh or the more eccentric Richard Dadd, lose their grip and drown in the suicidal and murderous seas.

Recently, research scientists and epidemiologists have begun to examine and understand what artists have known for centuries: that creativity is both a blessing and a curse. Studies have show that the heightened state of awareness and perception in the creative mind of the artist exists near the border at the edge of sanity. Ironically, like a computer jammed with too much information moments before a crash, this border of unreason in the creative brain is a space of excessive awareness. Art in these individuals is a disease of too much sanity.

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acrylic, 24" x 18"

It was early in the career of the artist Slowinski, at the age of 19, that the artist first crossed the border in his own mind. "I experienced a transformation of consciousness and ceased to become myself," says the artist. "The person I had been all my life was lost." This alienating sensation of loss of self or ego dissolution left the artist in a state of shock that developed into severe depression and despair. "For over a year I struggled miserably to regain my sense of self," he said. "Only when I accepted the fact that my mind had been permanently altered and I adapted to the new state of perception could I achieve a state of mind I could tolerate." Such is the plight of the artist, to live in perpetual mental discomfort, a discomfort made tolerable only through the disciplined practice of painting. "I found that the process of painting, the conversion of my internal feelings into external imagery, was the only thing that could alleviate my anxiety and bring some measure of peace to my mind." Painting is not a choice for the artist, as much as an essential mechanism for the preservation of self, a link to reality.

Slowinski was born in 1957 to a large family in suburban New Jersey. At the time the family numbered ten, later to reach fifteen. Within this family the young artist was happiest when left alone and preferred to play in isolation. First contact with the outside world, in Kindergarten, resulted in immediate punishment for non-conformist behavior. As the years went by, punishments for drawing ensued as the young artist spontaneously covered everything from notebooks, textbooks, desktops, clothes and sneakers with rambling drawings and abstract designs. Although discouraged, the artist persisted, and by the age of 15 was creating series of drawings based on ecological themes. "Even from the youngest age, I always felt a sense of importance from my drawings" says the artist. "No matter what anyone said, the work to me had great value. I felt in it a connection to the future." Yet it was not until the cognitive transformation occurred in December 1976 that the artist we know today began to emerge. "I remember it like it was yesterday," he said. "Something just snapped inside me. Everything around me, the people, the whole environment was still there, but it was no longer the same…. It was as if my consciousness suddenly expanded and all of physical reality lost its substance, became two dimensional, like I was watching the world from inside a film."

This altered sense of reality, the feeling of living within the world while simultaneously detached from it, molded the development of the artist’s work. While superficially commenting on the external world, his work is deeply affected by the personal, internal struggle to live within an altered self. It is as if each painting is a mirror of the artist’s mind, and looking at it we see the reflection of the world he sees outside. This endows the work with a disturbing quality, for the images reflect a vision of the world that we would ordinarily choose not to see, an image filtered through the artists own version of the truth.

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Boiling Businessman

24" x 18", acrylic

Just deserts: emasculated, boiled in a vat of gold

Over the past sixteen years the artist has worked in a singular style, painting imaginary characters and scenes based on political and social imagery. The works have explored recurring themes that form groups or series of paintings based on subject. There is no plan. At times the subjects overlap or are combined. Often, subjects are discarded altogether and then revisited at a later date. The subjects vary and cover a gamut of categories, all inspired by the artist’s internal dialogue. Scenes of American suburbia are common. In Slowinski’s suburbia, large blockheaded businessmen on the way to work travel streets lined with rows of identical cube-like homes. Recently, his suburbs are peopled with creatures half human, half animal taking sunny strolls next to monkey men on bicycles. These works are obviously inspired by the artist’s suburban youth.

The rampant destruction of the environment resulting from industrialization and the quest for corporate profit has inspired a different series of work. In these pieces humanity has been reduced to a single bulbous head suspended in a maze of valves and pipes, levers and gauges stab out of the head like a crown of thorns. Recently, the contemporary psychology which developed following the fall of communism and dominated by the popular obsession with the stock market and investing, has inspired works peopled by money-grubbing investors and deranged corporate icons. In these paintings, pig men race rats down streets of gold, cheered on by crowds of monkey men in suits; coin headed men eat money sandwiches and characters like the Quaker from Quaker Oats and the Pillsbury Dough Boy (in the paintings a deranged, full grown man) perform acts of defilement and desecration.

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Dog Ride

72" x 64", acrylic

The proud humbled, the servant becomes the master

Slowinski’s visions are psychologically dark, yet visually intense and bold, at times even brilliant in coloration and effect. The works are painted in acrylic with painstaking detail, built up slowly in multiple layers using a technique reminiscent of traditional tempera and oil painting. Each element within the painting is outlined in black, enhancing the graphic intensity of the work. The surface is slick, with an almost machine tooled quality. This precise rendering gives a frightening reality to the fantastic imagery, yet the overall effect is tempered with the artist’s warped sense of humor. The bulbous heads encased in steel, boiling businessmen, heads exploding brains in the pressure vats of industrial hell, all come vividly to life in a horrific yet entertaining black comedy.

The black outline motif recurs in almost all of the artist’s paintings from this period, and seems to have a special importance to the artist. Its use was inspired by the artist’s love of medieval stained glass windows. Of its use the artist says, "Every color is affected and altered by the color next to it. By surrounding each color with a border of black, the unique intensity of the individual color is enhanced…The border of black allows me to paint freely without anxiety, as each object in the painting is created individually as a separate component, independent from the whole."

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Carnival of Suburbia

78" x 68", acrylic

A fortune teller guides the insane carnival of life

Although Slowinski’s paintings deal with social and political themes, the motivation behind the work sets it apart from traditional social-political commentary. In true social-political commentary the artist is a critic and a moral teacher. Through the image, ideas are presented to society with the intent of social correction. Contrarily, Slowinski is not teaching morality through his work. If anything there is a certain lack of morality. The paintings are self indulgent, rather than instruct, they seem to mock and laugh out at the viewer. The social issues only exist in the painting in that they inhabit such a prominent place in the artist’s mind. They are presented primarily as part of the artist’s ongoing self-analysis and reaction to the environment, the social commentary, although an important component, is a byproduct of this reaction. His work can best be described as a psycho-self-portrait with sociopolitical undertones.

Slowinski sees his work as an organic whole evolving over the course of his life. He considers his current work a continuing project, which began in 1984. At that time the artist, who previously worked from life, made a decision to work entirely from the imagination, believing that "in painting every style and technique has already been explored, the only remaining frontier is the one inside the mind." The objective was to embark on a lifelong series of paintings that had as its subject the illustration of his mind and its interaction with the environment. On reviewing the hundreds of paintings created during this period, one can only ascertain that the project has been a success. Where it will all lead in the end we can, like the artist, only see in our imagination.

Additional works by Slowinski can be viewed on the artists website at:

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