Weisman Art Museum (WAM) is pleased to present Piotr Szyhalski: We Are Working All the Time!, on view August 20 — December 29, 2022. This major survey exhibition, curated by WAM Senior Curator Diane Mullin, features works in a variety of media across three decades of Szyhalski’s prolific and pioneering practice, including poster design, web projects, mail art, painting, installation, and public performance. Working with WAM, the artist guided the exhibition’s design, creating, in effect, a new installation work that reflects not only a record of his body of work to date, but also serves as a self-reflection on his overall practice. The exhibition will include a number of artist-led “activations” in and around WAM, with moments of performance, printmaking, and in-gallery “office hours” by Szyhalski on select Fridays throughout the show’s run.
WAM has also published an accompanying exhibition catalog, edited by exhibition curator Diane Mullin, which includes long overdue new scholarship on Szyhalski’s career and close to a hundred images, placing the artist’s work in the larger, international context of contemporary art, from the 1980s to today.
A Polish-born and -trained, American multimedia artist, Szyhalski has built a dynamic, richly varied body of work over the last thirty years. He has been a professor of design and media arts at Minneapolis College of Art and Design since 1994; his work as an educator is deeply intertwined with his artistic practice. This survey is the first exhibition to feature artworks spanning the breadth of his extraordinary career, critically considering them together.
Most recently, Szyhalski is best known for his daily chronicle of life in America during the height of the pandemic, in the waning months of the Trump Administration: COVID 19: Labor Camp Report (2021), for which he created a new, hand-drawn poster each day for 225 days—a vivid visual digest of current “news shrapnel”—shared via the Labor Camp Instagram feed. The COVID Report posters, which received national and international press attention, will be on view as part of the exhibition at WAM—all the more compelling when experienced in the context of ideas threaded through his larger body of work.
After earning MFAs in drawing and poster design from Państwowej Wyższej Szkola Sztuk Plastycznych (PWSSP), Poznań, Poland, in 1989, Szyhalski participated in various exhibitions and festivals in Poland and abroad. In 1991, he emigrated to the United States, where he established himself as an artist and teacher concentrating in design and what at the time was broadly and vaguely called new media art. Over his career, his work has manifested as poster design, mail art, public murals, printmaking, interactive web-based digital art, sound art, and large-scale installation and performance work. Szyhalski started his training in a country under martial law, at the time of a rising tide of sweeping change, known as Solidarność (Solidarity); his early career was steeped in the artistic milieu of the postwar generation of Polish conceptual artists, whose politics both before and after the worker’s revolution were marked by a persistent skepticism about totalizing views of any kind.
Szyhalski’s work is deeply concerned with the conundrums of communication, human agency, and labor—both physical and intellectual—and the recording and telling of history. As part of his ongoing Labor Camp project, he addresses specific issues using a broad array of media and working styles. Hyper-aware of the potentially manipulative use of media, including artwork, Szyhalski’s consistent attentiveness and inventiveness recasts ordinary experience in ways that illuminate not only nefarious employment of media but also to open a door to resistance and alternative action.
As a cross-media, conceptual artist working deliberately in resistance to the unique, precious object, Szyhalski’s work is difficult to present, catalog, and reproduce. His work is ephemeral and insistently of the moment, including time-based, multimedia performative works and unique interactive pieces not made to be collected at all. He imagines the work, once produced, as let go and given to others in the way it is used, contemplated, remembered. Whenever Szyhalski has been asked to show a work for a second time he declines or commits to recreating that work as a new, site- and time-appropriate iteration of the complex of ideas that animated the now vanished earlier work.
Given the dynamic nature of his artistic practice, the work of producing a survey exhibition was especially difficult. To honor his practice and core beliefs, WAM engaged with the artist in the production of Piotr Szyhalski: We Are Working All The Time! to determine which objects, remnants, and reiterations would be included in the galleries and accompanying book. This exhibition and catalog offer a new, more comprehensive view of Szyhalski’s Labor Camp, physically and theoretically, than ever before compiled.
Image credits (Second from top): Piotr Szyhalski, You Work You Eat (Labor Camp Souvenirs A-Z), 2018-19. Repurposed vintage china plates enamel paint, dimensions variable. Photo: Rik Sferra. (Third down) Piotr Szyhalski, Paintings for the Blind, 2001-04. Latex paint on surgical drapes using hand-cut paper stencils, 23 x 23 in. Photo: Rik Sferra.
Piotr Szyhalski’s work has been exhibited worldwide at such venues as the International Center of Photography, the New York Expo Film Festival, Siggraph, ISEA Paris, the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, the San Jose Museum of Art, and Experimenta Design in Lisbon, Portugal, and featured in a variety of catalogs and publications. His pieces are in the collections of the Walker Art Center, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and others.
In addition to his own performance-based projects, he was commissioned to develop large-scale, interactive, live projections for Wim Mertens quartet in Brussels (1998), the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (2001), and VocalEssence (2004). He released two CDs as Labor Camp Orchestra for the multimedia installations Theater of Operations (2007, 2009).