Artist’s installations can be startling

NEW BRITAIN — When Adam Niklewicz was making a flute out of a piece of sausage, he purchased many pounds of meat at a local butchery over a period of several weeks. Each time, as he pulled out a measuring tape to check the size of the sausage, the store clerk gave him a strange look.

As he reflected on the shocking aspect of art, Niklewicz debated whether to tell the clerk about the purpose of his purchases. He decided it didn’t really matter either way. His artwork, on display at the New Britain Museum of American Art, invites similar stares and questions.

Niklewicz emigrated from Poland to the United States in 1983, and quickly became a well-respected illustrator, doing covers for Newsweek, Time, and Financial Times. The Newtown resident is a lecturer at Central Connecticut State University, where he teaches “Illustration 1” using his real-life experience. But the Pole’s main interest, which devours most of his time and creative energy, is making installations that defy artistic tradition and human intellect.

His artwork is very physical and earthy. It takes up space. His signature piece, a wall made up of 16,000 yellow vinyl earplugs, installed in one of the doorways of the museum gallery, is a tribute to world-famous installation artist Christo. Three years ago, Niklewicz attended a lecture by Christo, which inspired him to turn the basement of his home into a large studio and begin playing with objects and ideas. It took the artist two months to make the wall of earplugs.

“It was a very Zen-like experience,” Niklewicz recalled. “Earplugs are a sign of our time, a relevant symbol. I use them every night. We’re bombarded with information. It’s too much of a good thing. At a recent museum event someone asked why the museum was blocking my gallery. They were shocked to find the obstruction was the art. But that’s exactly the point of my earplug wall!”

While many visitors report being baffled by such installations, Niklewicz said his work thrives on misunderstanding.

“Art should throw people off, it should confront their customary way of thinking and uproot the perception strengthened by their life routine,” he said. “This confrontation opens people up to the never-ending depth of reality. Art should push us out of the comfortable. The role of the artist is to annoy people in a creative way, to force them to open their eyes.”

True to this philosophy, the giant door outline, which mirrors the gallery doorway, is directly painted onto the New Britain museum’s wall. Appropriately dubbed “Blood Ties,” the evenly red painting was created using juice from wild raspberries gathered by the artist’s mother in Newtown. The painting has a distinctive, sanguine feel, and it emits a mild raspberry scent.

“The piece has a sort of Freudian connotation,” Niklewicz said. “It signifies the complicated relationship between an adult son and his mother. The fact that it’s the shape of a doorway may signify an exit, a desire to become independent of the mother’s control. The bloody accent may also be a reference tobloody Polish history, and to the fact that Poles eat a lot of red meat. Everyone brings their own interpretation to the piece.”

Niklewicz reported that his mother did not want to offer her own impressions about “Blood Ties.” She was, however, upset at the amount of wasted raspberry juice, which she thought was being used to sweeten tea.

According to Niklewicz, works such as “Blood Ties” are justified, because his art is a form of compulsion, a sort of uncontrollable sickness.

“It’s about a gut feeling, it’s about being honest with yourself,” the artist said of his process of creation. “The magic comes from nowhere, and it just feels right at the beginning. Then someone else helps me to explain why it works. I don’t do anything to shock on purpose. I do it because it’s the best material and the best way to say something visually. Making installations is like sailing into the unknown, it gives such space. You can do anything you want, as long as you make art that’s genuine.”

Niklewicz’s exhibition will be on display at the New Britain Museum of American Art through Jan. 19. His work is also featured through Feb. 15 in an exhibit at Real Art Ways in Hartford.

The Herald 2003 By MARGARET WOZNIACKI, Staff Writer