PAINT, ALSO KNOWN AS BLOOD: WOMEN, AFFECT, AND DESIRE IN CONTEMPORARY PAINTING – Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw
7 June – 11 August, 2019
It’s the pleasures of painting. The poses of pleasures. The privilege of being looked at. The ploys of seduction. The light of the night. It’s nothing personal. It’s plain delight
Aside from title cards, this poem by Marlene Dumas is the only text present in this exhibition of over 100 works by 50 (women) painters. Taken from a novel by Polish writer Zenon Kruczynski—the coy playfulness of the Dumas text becomes almost comical set against the title of the show. This exhibition swings across the thin line between pleasure and pain. The watched becomes the watcher, the oppressed becomes empowered. Canvas is the skin from which we contemplate the complex and interconnected narrative of female experience.
The museum of modern art is housed in a temporary space along the Vistula river, a large white-cube with a rather interesting history: it’s a transitory pavilion that is the former home of the Kunsthalle in Berlin, which is now on loan to the MSN by the Viennese Thyssen-Bornermisza Art Contemporary foundation. For this exhibition, the gallery has been subdivided into four wedge-shaped spaces by a gigantic X, orienting the work by themes like the performative body, romanticism, surrealism, fragmentation, the hybrid, the landscape, home/domestic life, and trauma.
Pause in front of a work by the Polish artist Paulina Ołowska. The grey-scale canvas depicts a figure that is roughly life-size, hung so that her gaze barely grazes the top of the viewers head, she looks beyond us, somewhat blankly. In this 2013 work Ewa Wawrzoń in a Costume from the Performance The Rhinoceros (1961), Ewa wears a bodysuit with two notable features: breast-like protrusions that sit on top of her chest simulating impossibly perky, contained, and absolutely synthetic, fantasy approximation of the real thing. The second adornment is a loin cloth-esq wrapping with some sort of portal/ornament resting atop her womb space. With a hand on one hip and one leg slightly pitched in front of the other she assumes a statuesque pageant pose, a woman somehow performing the role of ‘woman’, like a body in drag.
Frieda Toranzo Jaeger’s Autoeroticism (2018) takes this notion of performance, machine, and female-ness a step further by introducing the automobile. Car culture, which typically entangles notions of labor, class, desire, and deeply-objectified sexuality, is depicted here in the format of a triptych, exposing the bowels of a nondescript car. Hoses and pumps morph into vines and flowers towards the edges of the panels while three disembodied, fuchsia hands slip fingers into holes. A massive, ultramarine tarp-like tongue hangs down from the central panel and flops onto the floor space of the gallery. The beauty of this piece is its altar-like configuration, forcing us to stand in front of it in adoration, confronted by the nature of the cyborg—somewhere she is human.
Many of the bodies depicted throughout the exhibition are distorted and are counters to popular or contemporary notions of beauty, often bordering on the grotesque. The prostitute, the whore, the sexualized, hybrid, machined body, deformed not only in physicality. Yet somehow, despite the weight of womanhood, these bodies are also full of desire, power, and humanity. We confront this blurred line in three works by Chelsea Culprit. Cheeseburger in Paradise, Double Happiness, and Girl with Pizza (all 2016) depict sex workers while eating, yet another highly politicized and policed act of the female experience—exploring not only external control but self-imposed control, in the exhausting pursuit of presenting the right kind of feminine, female, woman.
When manipulation of bodies can be used for power, when the physical body can be abstracted from the human, emotional body—ogled, lusted-after, possessed, posed, prodded and shaped, one space that cracks open is the biological machine, or, the body as an ecosystem. A stacked diptych by Agnieszka Brzezanska confronts us with the abject. Untitled (2015) it is one of the few works where the body doesn’t feel readily sexualized but rather through abstraction we are faced with deeply textured swirls of paint that recall the traces of a body, as if they were painted directly with fingers. Not identifiable as male or female with a scatalogical, earthen palette, the body is depicted a system, part of a greater organism that shifts the notion of scale in both physical place and time.
The hybrid or fantastical body in many ways can be seen metaphorically as the non-heteronormative body, manifesting a collapsing of truth and fiction, of clear boundaries and borders. This fractured, fantastical form, framing the potential for both pleasure and/or violence, is what we see in Now Now by Ambera Wellmann. The palette is soft, pastels with a posey-like pattern offset by stark black, for both depth and respite from the chaos of the body-plane. Wellmann’s technique is taken from 18th c European porcelain painting, further conflating notions of the female body as decoration, as prop, as a mass rather than individual, as well as a direct engagement with domestic life. When bodies spill out of their boundaries they become something unsettlingly other, forcing viewers to renegotiate the borders between inside and outside, themselves and the source of the discomfort, all the while assessing the potential for threat. This is something that cultural writer Tess Thackara addresses in her recent text ‘Why Contemporary Women Artists Are Obsessed with the Grotesque’ 2019”. The long, black lines running down the arm echo the raking or clawing of a hand, a record of a touch, of contact. Ambiguous, fluid, slippery, it is powerful and terrifying in it’s refusal to be contained and known.
This work also brings to mind the notion of consent and voyeurism. Sandwiched between a rendering of a grotesque, baroque bust by Ewa Juszkiewicz and an almost entirely black canvas by Lena Achtelik, Diva by Sasa Lubinska provides a pivot, a moment of surprise and connection back to the bourgeois, back to this notion of looking. Depicting a 3/4 portrait of an androgynous figure with large lashes adorning the lower brim of the eyes, red triangles of ‘blush’, and pouty, red, feminine lips. A neon-pink beard made from a wig of cheap synthetic hair is attached to the chin line creating an early 20th century circus/‘bearded woman’ vibe. Made as part of a series for ‘decorations prepared for a queer party’, in both form and scale, this work strongly echoes banners hung from windows and terraces during protest. Lubinska’s statement, connecting the work to a play on gender expectations, feels heavy-handed. None the less the work itself as an object, as a prop in the contemporary theater of life, feels apt. Similarly relevant is Kiev 19.02.2014 by Belarusian painter Celina Kanunnikava. A public building is being overtaken by a surveilling periscope-like camera eye that rises out of and drips down from the roof. The actual building is located in Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Kiev’s Independence Square, and refers directly to the 2014 Ukranian revolution. The inclusion of this work in the exhibition on the surface feels out of synch as it is one of the few works that is not located squarely in the body but rather confronts the notion of the gaze from the systemic, political perspective— the authoritarian or surveilling gaze, and relates this dynamic to institutional rather than individual power. The Belarusian artist reflects on totalitarian systems, nostalgia, greatness…the red baseball cap is not symbolic of a solely American tragedy. Protest, power, watching, watched: compelling, relevant, bold, providing a moment of rest and perhaps context, pulling us out of our own bodies for a moment to recognize other systems of power and oppression within which we are engaged.
Approaching transgression, fantasy, and power from yet another angle is Reba Maybury’s POLICEWOMAN ‘HANDSUP!’. An ‘exquisite corpse’ 1 made by a few of her white-collar, white, male clients. Mistress Rebecca is a political dominatrix, working to prolong the shifted power dynamics explored during sessions with her clients. By having them make her artwork, she renegotiates value systems of gender, art, and time. Through her, the fantasy of the powerful woman begins to bleed into lived reality; a radical, revolutionary, redistribution of wealth and power, staged behind closed doors. Curator Natalia Sielewicz sat in conversation with the artist to discuss the shame and chic of sex work, power, politics, fantasy, and transgression, during which Maybury noted, ‘nostalgia is a luxury.’
I am stirred and overwhelmed by this exhibition. It has taken several visits and conversations to fully comprehend this impressive collection, and because of this I am frustrated for its demands over me. But what this frustration smartly and subtly reveals is the weight and nuance of the female experience, and how it unfolds in time and context. It’s important to note that Poland is the country that gave birth to the czarny (black) protests in 2016 which provoked a series of women-led demonstrations internationally. Abortion, sex-work, abuse, feminism, #metoo: its Polish, it’s world-wide. Its female, it’s queer, it’s other, it’s here and now, yesterday and tomorrow. Bodies are political and complicated. Bodies hold pain, bodies are messy, and yet somehow simultaneously powerful, resilient, beautiful, and knowing. But, it’s not only about the power dynamics or struggles between men and women, individuals and governments, but rather the struggles within our own bodies. The power plays between what we want and what we need, between what we want and what we’re taught to want. It’s a deeply intimate struggle that is played out through every choice we make, in public or in private, in every drop of blood, every deeply held emotional experience, and every note of desire coated in a terrifyingly thin skin of shame.
volume 34 no 1 September – October 2019 pp 7-9