An artist who brushes aside convention
David Szafranski's abstract works convey wit while confronting barriers

Janet Kutner Art Critic of The Dallas Morning News  
Published: June 15, 1993

David Szafranski is an abstract painter of sorts, but he seldom touches a paintbrush and pigments are foreign to his vocabulary.

Instead of using traditional materials to apply color and texture, he relies on an idiosyncratic assortment of things like lawn-chair webbing, chenille fabric, bang caps, theater tickets and videotape from old porno films he has collected.

Given the hodgepodge character of his materials, one might expect his work to look crude or messy. On the contrary, everything is seamlessly woven together.

Mr. Szafranski comes by his orderly approach naturally. Although he has been an active member of the local art community for almost 10 years, he also holds down a regular job as a chemical engineer. His irreverent artworks have provided him an escape from the tyranny of middle-class life, but they're more an expression of gentle reproof than outright disdain. Ms. Szafranski grew up in a suburban area of Minnesota, so the world he parodies is one he knows well.

His commentary extends beyond suburbia into the realm of art itself. The pristine square formats he prefers are a direct takeoff on minimalist grids, and the repetitious use of elements like tickets and computer tape harkens to serial imagery and multiples.

                    Matters Installation 1993Simplistic as the work might seem, it's extremely sophisticated on some levels. Some pieces fit flush against the wall, but others jut out at right angles, thus "invading' the viewers' space and forcing them to become participants by walking around the work.

Despite the decidedly commonplace character of their components, his works also can be quite beautiful in their way. The porno piece 24,000 Inches of Adult Videos is positively elegant, because the light plays across its woven surface, creating a wonderful shimmering effect.

Mr. Szafranski has succeeded in transforming tangible symbols of the everyday world into illusory wall pieces that represent the formalist value system on which modern art is based. He is adhering to his own set of rules—square compositions, meticulous craftsmanship, an emphasis on form over content—as rigidly as the abstract schools that have prevailed throughout much of this century.

At the same time, by locking things into a context for which they were never intended, Mr. Szafranski has robbed his materials of their true character. The tickets have no admission value; the porno tapes are no longer titillating; the chenille can't keep a body warm; the bang caps are rendered mute.

He carries the fiction a step further with deadpan titles, making ponderous tongue-in-cheek references to stylistic pretensions. The distinctions between Normal Small White Chenille and Sideways Small White Chenille relate only to the way the warp of the fabric is turned.

Humorous as Mr. Szafranski's works can be—and there's no way not to smile at what he does—an underlying sense of social unrest comes across in certain instances. One piece consists of row after row of wallboard tape on which the warning "Police Line Do Not Cross' repeatedly appears. Another serial-image weaving simulates a classified ad for a jailer, complete with job description.

These particular works are perhaps the most blatant examples, but much of Mr. Szafranski's art addresses the issue of barriers within our society and the price exacted when they are crossed. This has been an ongoing concern of the artist, as reflected in last year's exhibit, to which he charged a $2 admission fee.

Mr. Szafranski also makes intriguing mixed-media sculptures, two of which are part of the current exhibit. Again, there's a sense of the ridiculous involved.

                    Matters Gallery 1993By being most closely related to the art style in which the method of production becomes the subject, his Extended Heat Lamp Device and Tall Illumination Device have a raw presence. The latter, which is one of a series he has done using electric lightbulbs, also is quite elegant, its tall cluster of light resembling a huge floral bouquet. But like the Heat Lamp piece—in which ceramic heat coils emit a fiery warmth in the observer's direction—it also alludes to the machine age in which we live.

Mr. Szafranski is one of the most consistently imaginative talents to come out of our area in recent years, and his recent works build on past strengths. A continuity exists between the woven grids he is showing here and the monumental dice constructions that first earned him notoriety during the mid-1980s. But the work has matured significantly since the days when he was using dice to satirize the uncertain politics of Ronald Reagan or the standardization of suburban tract houses.

What happens next is subject to conjecture, but any artist with the grit to title his current exhibit "Mister Szafranski and His Show of 1001 Illusions' is sure to come up with something.

EXHIBITION INFORMATION "Mister Szafranski and His Show of 1001 Illusions' will be on view through June 26 at Gray Matters Gallery, 113 N. Haskell between Elm and Main. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday and by appointment. Admission is free. For more information call 824-7108.