Victor and Joan Ashe Bring 'Art of Poland' to Knoxville

Of the people visiting the University of Tennessee's Downtown Gallery this month, some possibly could come away from the Art of Poland exhibition with opinions about what distinguishes contemporary Polish art from art created elsewhere. Conversely, these varied and colorful pieces from the collection of Joan and Victor Ashe—Knoxville's former mayor, who served five years as U.S. ambassador to Poland beginning in 2004—might not inspire other gallery-goers with the slightest clue about what, if anything, is particularly Polish about them. Either way, approximately 20 paintings, one pastel drawing, a mixed-media marvel, and 14 three-dimensional pieces have been added to the Dogwood Arts Festival's mix, lending it a dash of international flair.

Occupying a window fronting Gay Street is Borowski Studios' "Chameleon," a glass-and-metal sculpture with saucer-like eyes and a half-open mouth unfurling a rusty tongue. Fittingly situated within the gallery, "Chameleon" might allude to the transformation of Eastern European art following the lifting of the Iron Curtain more than two decades ago. This interpretation could sound like a stretch, but Polish artists are no slouches when it comes to recognizing the complexity of visual communication and its power to influence thinking—an awareness shared by many artists in formerly Soviet-dominated countries.

The show's only glass not produced by Borowski Studios, "Untitled," by Mariusz Labinski, is a welcome departure from frosty balloon-like figures with exaggerated features. Although Borowski's "Teller Plate - Fruit" features astonishing detail and Chagall-like imagery somehow embedded within the outer portion of a 21-inch platter, again there's the pumped-up gummy bear version of blown glass—the gilding of an otherwise gorgeous lily. In contrast, Labinski's piece, despite its carved-stone appearance, is about the glass itself, the essence of abstraction.

Paintings on view, almost one-third of which are by Edward Dwurnik, reflect the overall light-hearted and whimsical thread running through Art of Poland—perhaps a habitual bent for artists previously concerned with fending off censorship. Or whimsy could simply be what appeals to Ashe and his wife. After all, there is a variety of factors motivating people to amass works—everything from a desire to invest in pieces that could increase in value to a commitment to patronizing lesser-known artists. Then there's an attraction to stuff simply because one just likes it and wants to bring it home.

No matter what the collector's aspirations are, finding fault with a personal collection is awkward. Yet it's the reviewer's responsibility to assess works and acknowledge questions they provoke. With Art of Poland, it's presumably an affinity for specific pieces (and for the Ashes, the memories they evoke) that has determined what is exhibited, but we can't be sure if that affinity is primarily the collectors', or the gallery's, or both.

As for non-glass 3-D works on display, I'll sound like the most jaded critic ever when suggesting that examples of "folk art" in Art of Poland aren't all that folk. In fact, I suspect that only one piece attributed to an "unknown artist" is by an untrained hand (the three-tiered "Roadside Shrine"). Objects like "Last Supper," with its sophisticated handling of paint, are too perfect to qualify as naive art. Also a bit slick, if not lacking originality, are Katarzyna Nowak's sculpted stone "Eva" and Stanislaw Wysocki's bronze female figure. On the other hand, we have Michal Puszczynski's unusual ceramic vessel and Maria Wojtivk's untitled bell-like figure with suspended metal legs, both of which are distinctive.

Utterly unique and in a category all its own is Magadena Kucharska's untitled mixed-media work composed of glass and ink. With its incredible number of amazingly small figures (like those carved into Peruvian gourds but gracefully rendered, reminiscent of Greek amphora painting) and its flat but vibrant use of glass, no description can do it justice.

In addition to being whimsical at times, paintings dominating Art of Poland reveal a confidence in the validity of traditional mediums that's refreshing—especially after probable pressure on Eastern European artists to pursue "cutting edge" forms of expression symbolic of their emergence from oppression (and the past in general). Furthermore, images that at first seem straightforward often make us look twice. For example, the Venetian couple in Leszek Sokol's "Wenecja" holds what look like flags of surrender rather than the expected ornate masks. Surrender to the West, maybe?

Unfortunately, some Art of Poland works have a commercial feel and are almost indistinguishable from gallery fare in places like Scottsdale, Ariz., or Provincetown, Mass. There's nothing inherently wrong with art made to sell, but it tends to be safe. And there are numbers in safety, so to speak. When I think of Poland, I picture gutsy iconoclasts like Lech Walesa, not conformists out to make a zlotny. Says Ashe, "With the fall of Communism in 1989, artists were free again to express themselves. The art speaks to the culture, the thoughts, and the way of life of Poland."

The thing is, pre-'90s artists in Poland were not unable to express themselves, they simply couldn't do so publicly or in a commercially viable manner. And as a U.S. citizen who objects to the cutting of arts funding to avoid taxing the wealthy, I'll venture to say that free expression can be suppressed or corrupted by forces other than Communism. But it can blossom, as well. Maybe in one perfect spring afternoon.