Faces materialize out of a cloud of inky smudges on white paper, like figures emerging from thick fog. They appear slightly out of focus, like fragments remembered from a dream. An icy stare from one subject, a clamped jaw on another, suggests that these aren’t portraits of your average citizen. Executed in a single night session in 1993, Maciej Toporowicz‘s 42 gouache paintings depict infamous serial killers. Made from his own fingerprints, the chilling portraits interrogate identity and form a deeply personal study of those human monsters who remain subjects of scientific analysis and pop culture fascination.
Though nearly 25 years old, the Serial Killers series feels enduringly electric. Stare at them for a while, and you feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. “The quest for identity is a primal quest of our human kind. We are thrown on this planet without any clue for the very reason of being. We are striving to get some answers for the unanswerable,” Toporowicz tells Creators. “Since we search in the dark, it helps to use intuition rather than rational means. We may realize one day, that we carry all past, present, and future in us already. We are the star dust. In Serial Killers, I channeled identity of killers in order to make a set of portraits.”
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That subversive intrigue is much of the reason why curator Monika Fabijanska chose to, once again, present Serial Killers publicly at the 2017 SPRING/BREAK Art Show, which had the theme, “Black Mirror.” “Choosing 42 portraits of serial murderers, I played with the fact that even if the artist didn’t represent himself, he left his identity marks in the work, made with his fingerprints. But most importantly, I wanted to make an argument that any act of transgression that an artist makes (and this work certainly represents one, especially that all 42 portraits were created during one night, in a single frenzy session), becomes a part of his autobiography, a lived-through moment,” Fabijanska says.
Serial Killers is but one manifestation of Toporowicz’s fascination with popular culture, violence, and death; his oeuvre is filled with work circling similar themes. Also on view at SPRING/BREAK were Fingerprints (1993), enlarged fingerprints silkscreened in glue on paper or plexiglass and covered with human hair, and Disney Targets (2015), which interrogate gun culture using childlike imagery. “The DNA of the human hair in [Fingerprints] doesn’t match the papillary lines: the artist merged several people in each ‘portrait’ pointing at the complexity of identity and its concepts,” Fabijanska says. While Serial Killers is a mix of criticism and fascination, Disney Targets is a more biting critique of society, fueled by mass shootings, police killings of black people, and the role of guns in American family life.
“It must have been the early education in communist Poland that gave me ideas to subvert and question authority,” Toporowicz says. “I was also an escape artist as a child. My mother would send me to winter and summer camps, and I would escape from it because I didn’t like discipline and order. In the end, I escaped to the US for good. Many of my projects like Stamps (1993–1995), Shiseido (1997), Obsession (1993) and others were either illegal or borderline legal. The legal framework built by society to contain its citizens needs to be questioned. I never lost my desire to pursue this path.”
In Car Plates (2015) and Car Crashes (2015–2016), Toporowicz’s subjects are the vehicles and license plates of the cars in which famous figures like James Dean, Jackson Pollock, and Bonnie and Clyde were killed. The process requires painstaking research: most film documentation of these deaths are in black-and-white, and in many cases, the plates aren’t clearly visible in frozen stills. Toporowicz tackles the project almost archaeologically—a reading of American history through car culture. Recently, the series has been augmented with paintings that have nothing to do with death, like that of the license plate from the bus Rosa Parks rode in Montgomery, AL.
“When I painted the license plate of the car in which John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas, I channeled the very moment it occurred. It is a form of transference between me and people, as well as historical events,” Toporowicz says. “Hal Foster created the term of artist as ethnographer. I can add to this mix the role of artist as internet archeologist, forever searching for wrinkles in the web continuum. As an artist, I see myself as a medium and time traveler in the vast realm of being.”