Lidia Syroka was born in Poland in 1956 and moved to Paris in her mid-twenties, where she lived for more than four decades before returning home to continue her practice. Syroka’s visionary output is the result of an extensive exploration of the concept of metamorphosis. Referencing the some of her mystical influences, she defines it as the “alchemy” that takes place when spiritual activity causes physical transformation. Thus, the artist’s own body becomes a symbolic conduit for growth and decay, construction, and deconstruction.
In the progressive series leading up to Series 7 (presented by Ricco/Maresca at Independent this year), Syroka conceived a different technique to match a particular stage in her profoundly personal investigations of corporeality. Notable for its austerity and nuance, the project is the latest and most intimately scaled in her most singular progression. Texture interacts with form in subtle and intricate rhythms, marking the artist’s consistent exploration of both anthropomorphic themes and cogently abstract executions. Balance is achieved through visual dichotomy: transparency and opacity, the busy entanglement of paper strips and the clean space surrounding it. The choice and juxtapositions are expressive and charged with cosmic meaning.
This interview took place on July 24, 2021 and was translated from French by the author.
You have pointed to naïve art, art brut, folk art and archaeology as influences in your work. Where do you think this affinity comes from?
I went to art school when I was 14, then studied History of Art at the University of Kraków for five years and continued at the Beaux-Arts in Paris. I had the fortune in life of having had a husband who was also a painter and art connoisseur. Together, we sought out anonymous works at flea markets and collected naïve art. Folk and Art Brut touch on the same sensibilities and our passion expands even further.
I’ve pointed to Art Brut and Folk Art as I appreciate their creative richness. It is in these artistic expressions—where matter meets the spirit, where I conceive universal, archetypal forms.
In my work, I refer to presence. To find it, requires patiently polishing the mirror of the heart.
Are there other artists who you could point to as influences in your work or general inspiration in your creative process?
They are artists I refer to as “profound artists”. Those for whom coming into contact with their work, opens a door for us to walk through on art’s [true] meaning and our inner selves. These artists, that range from the ubiquitous and admirable, like Picasso, to the totally anonymous and feed our understanding of life. In addition to artists that inspire me, I find myself equally enriched by found objects I pick up at flea markets or travelling.
I also visit select exhibitions to constantly rediscover and renew my contact with art from all sources, it feeds my energy.
We know that you have a deep knowledge of different types of paper, which comes from your extensive travels throughout Asia. Can you tell us more about that and about your passion for working with such a fragile medium?
I returned from my travels to Asia with artisanal paper; laced with minced straw from Tibet, made of bark from trees that grow at 3 thousand meters in altitude in Nepal and rag paper from China.
Upon returning to my studio in Paris, I observed its structure, thickness or fragility and made my selection according to the projects I was working on at the time.
I discovered that each sheet of paper has a secret, and if you don't respect that secret you damage the paper. I respect and patiently listen to the stories that paper has to tell. I want to expose its inherent beauty through observing it sip my ink and adapt.
I have always found the greatest freedom through working with paper.
Can you tell us about your Body Alchemy project; what prompted it and what it consists of?
To begin with, I wanted to work on the notion of genesis: the structure of plants and crystallization of minerals. It was a struggle at first. Fruitless efforts led me to confide in a friend who retorted: "your body also is made of minerals!"
This triggered something that pushed me toward my exploration of the body. I focused on my own self to listen within. I sensed metal in my being, and with my led pencil, drew on surfaces to render the sheet’s metallic aspect. That was how Series 1 was born.
Body alchemy is a travel to the source, from the bark to the core. I see it as mingling the inner self with what affects us externally to make sense of the world.
Or the alchemical motto: Visita Interiora Terrae, Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem, which roughly translates to: “Visit the interior of the earth and [by] purifying [yourself] you will find the hidden stone.”
Series 7, which will be presented by Ricco/Maresca Gallery in a one-person booth at the upcoming Independent Art Fair, is the lastest series in the project you call Body Alchemy... Do you see it as a culmination, or is it part of the progression to another series?
Definitely a progression! I am already working on the next! I will continue on this path as long as my creative energy (and health) allow me to.
Body Alchemy was a fabulous adventure, though at times difficult and painful. It required a great amount of rigor, but I have been rewarded with openness and strength.
How many layers can we discover between what is opaque and crystal, perceptible and secret? Between the loss of self and presence? Our strength stems from our seed, our germ. The closer we get to the core, the stronger we become.
Could you tell us more about the technique that you utilized to create the works in Series 7 and how it came about? The works in this series have been described as the "quietest" and the most subtle of the lot.
At a series’ inception, I visualize matter and seek out the form within. I then invent the technique that will enable its materialization.
To define the form for Series 7, I used strips of paper of equal lengths, soaked my paintbrush in black paint and began tracing lines. I separated the strips before the ink had time to dry and obtained a sort of vibration on their edges. Folding these long strips of was as is if I was drawing with a pencil.
How do you navigate the line between abstraction and figuration in Body Alchemy... is this connected to your choice of working with mixed media (drawing and collage)?
To grow, you must enter the matrix; define a limit. The form is this matrix. In my work, form is not the result of technique, it is the technique that gets adapted to get the form. The form is only a reflection of the image in the heart of the artist.
What we see is changeable on the Presence scale. What is reflected in my heart depends on the quality of the mirror I am, on my prospect of freeing myself from time.
The form is different in each series. This form “sleeps” within matter. When the moment arrives and I feel this matter, I can “awaken " this form. These transitions between figuration and abstraction help me shape it. Art allows us to interpret reality in its deepest sense… The different techniques I use help me along in this journey.
You lived in Paris from your mid-20s and until very recently—when you moved back to your native Poland. What prompted this decision and how do you think it will affect your practice?
I needed to return to something ancient to nourish my practice. I believe Poland will help me. Krakow is a treasure-city. In the south of Krakow there are plenty of small museums containing ancient and magnificent paintings. This journey toward Silence, to recalibrate and deepen my practice.
I found an old stable, not far from Krakow, where I’ll have more space to work than in Paris. A new adventure begins!
What does it mean to you that your work is being presented at a venue like the Independent Art Fair in New York?
In 2018, I fell very ill and had to stop working (I luckily recovered). Speaking with my doctor, I asked what would be the hardest part of my recovery and he replied: "your return to life.”
Last year, as I was in recovery, my gallerist Frank Maresca invited me to show my Series 7 at Independent. I am incredibly grateful to him for facilitating my return to life.
This symbolizes a return to my practice and life’s work. I am grateful to Frank and his generous invitation, Alejandra Russi, Kylie Ryu and everyone at the gallery for facilitating this exhibition.