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Flaunting Szafki: a Dovecot Retrospective

Yusef Szafki’s paintings are brought together at Dovecot Studios for the first time, in part due to the completion of the textile piece The Stones are Whispering, 2018. The rug, created at Dovecot, was commissioned by Szafki’s wife, Sheila Szatkowski based on Szafki’s painting by the same title. The painting is unfortunately not featured in the exhibition. 

Szafki’s work lends itself perfectly to the gun-tufted rug medium; his use of bold, deep colours and the importance he places on complete individual forms works wonderfully in textiles, as textiles absorb rather than reflect light colours appear very intense. The painting which inspired the textile piece was created after a visit to the highlands by Szafki in 2018, and he refreshingly uses a colour palette not classically associated with the highlands, including pinks, oranges and red’s. 

Dovecot studios complement’s Szafki’s paintings; his usage of warm colours and soft lines work beautifully in the natural light of the space. Szafki, born in Glasgow, was the son of a Russian émigré and he was heavily influenced by Eastern European arts, especially the writer Gogol. You can see this influence in his paintings, such as the dreamlike quality of At the Forest’s Edge, 2004 which notably doesn’t contain classically ‘natural’ colours, or the painting Untitled, 2018 which merges panels of various different depths on one plane, creating a fantastical concept of distance.

Szafki’s paintings allow the viewer considerable freedom, and multiple are named ‘Untitled’ which gives liberty of interpretation to the viewer. Many pieces in the exhibition evoke a natural setting, with Untitled, 2021, Untitled, 2018 and Untitled, 2019 suggesting coastal scenes. The circular forms mimic ocean-smoothed stones, the addition of blue/green tones beckons water, the long-stretched lines evoke the ocean and the different sections in the pieces mirror the sky, sand, land, and ocean continuum.

His pieces appear to be landscapes; his masterful use of colour enhances the effect of deep depths and creates various perspectives. There is a lot of space and the possibility of multiple viewpoints in his pieces. I deduced animate forms in his pieces, with Untitled, 2017 suggesting an aggressive scene between people (the people being the black forms). This contrasts with the pink and grey tones of the landscape suggesting an absurdity in the people’s actions and emotions. Untitled A, 2010 and Untitled C, 2010 contain animalistic forms, but again the surrounding landscape seems more alive than the forms, which gives vibrancy and importance to the landscape and classically ‘inanimate’ surroundings. 

The beauty of Szafki’s paintings is the number of ways they can be interpreted; they encourage the viewer to be playful and see what they can find. One I particularly like is Tall Tales, 2019, as it conceptualises this method of viewing his work. This painting seems to hold open a portal for the viewer in the middle of the painting, with white dashes and merging colours on the outskirts showing reality simultaneously merging and crumbling away.

Szafki composed music throughout his life, this influence can be seen in his compositional, musical paintings. His paintings, such as Untitled, 2021 contain a layering of bigger, blocklike complete shapes and smaller more uncertain fleeting forms which mirrors the structure of music. The different colours in his work complement each other and show their different personalities which merge and come apart just as different sounds do in music. You can almost hear the paintings as if they were compositions. 

In the mid-1980’s Szafki was interested in sculpture and in particular ‘non-functional machines’. You can see this influence in his paintings which stand at the threshold between mechanistic shapes and an ephemeral merging of colours and smooth forms. It is on this boundary that the great energy of his work emerges. The lines, squares and marks in his paintings are an attempt at a categorisation of form and colour, however, the vitality and dynamism of how such forms and colours merge and retract make this categorisation fail, showing the mystery in life. The machine as a concept fails to be functional because it cannot explain all we experience in life. Szafki’s work provides a fascinating array of explorations into rationality and the machine vs the human through his use of colour and form, and human perceptions of these things. Where on this threshold does reality lie? 

Yusef Szafki’s retrospective is on show at Dovecot Studios until 29th October 2022.

Image Doors Open Day 2011 – Dovecote Studios 022 by byronv2 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.