Museum of Modern Women

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.

Opening of the exhibition
Kamila Bischof, “Showgirls”, 2016. Courtesy of the artist and SANDY BROWN, Berlin

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.’

Paint, Also Known As Blood
Karolina Jabłońska, Aggression, 2018, oil, canvas, 170 x 185 cm. Courtesy of the artist


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.

Kathryn Zazenski

volume 34 no 1 September – October 2019 pp 7-9

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Charles Barton
15/11/2019 7:06 am

Can you imagine the uproar if this exhibition had been of 50 (men) painters instead of 50 (women) painters?

Kathryn Zazenski
16/11/2019 11:02 am
Reply to  Charles Barton

Hi Charles! Well, sure. And I believe the uproar would be just. The reason why we celebrate an exhibition of 50 women painters in 2019 is because it’s still a relatively rare occurrence, and it carves out space for perspectives that have long been silenced/underrepresented. It is not however a rare occurrence to have an exhibition of only male artists. In fact, I just read this morning in The Washington Post that the Baltimore Museum of Art will only acquire works created by women in 2020. From the article: “A recent survey of 26 of America’s top art museums found… Read more »

Isolde Matthews
06/11/2019 12:11 pm

I completely agree with you Kathryn about “the complex and interconnected narrative of female experience”, which by far surpasses the superficial male experience. In that “these bodies are also full of desire, power, and humanity” is what our fundamental core message is here, something all women can well relate to. I find it amazing that 50 women, perhaps also converted women, showed their works.
We need to redefine what is female, especially considering our role in the art world and the importance shown so far. More!

Kathryn Zazenski
13/11/2019 4:41 am

Dear Isolde, thank you for your comment! I agree that the definition of female is one that is currently being reshaped, along with so many other outdated labels and concepts. The female experience has only ever lacked a platform, never validity. Thankfully today we are working towards a new world that doesn’t exist in binaries but rather recognizes and makes space for complexity and variation. I do however disagree that the female experience surpasses the ‘superficial male experience’. Traditional notions of men and women are full of stereotypes and sweeping generalizations that leave no room to acknowledge the depths of… Read more »

Miklos Legrady
16/11/2019 9:23 pm

Kathryn, kudos for your article and also for common sense in your reply above, sweeping away gender stereotypes. Justice is never found in pointing the finger claiming “they are bad, we are good”, but in an empathic response that opens trails all can follow. The world needs people who can lead from an inclusive viewpoint, and who write as well as you.

Kathryn Zazenski
26/11/2019 7:17 pm
Reply to  Miklos Legrady

Miklos, thank you. One ripple at a time, change comes in many forms 😉

Adrian Connard
05/11/2019 1:00 pm

Hi Kathryn,

What is the contemporary notion of beauty in Polish society? Is it different from the contemporary notion of beauty in American society?

Kathryn Zazenski
13/11/2019 4:46 am
Reply to  Adrian Connard

Hi Adrian! The idea of beauty in Poland is just as simultaneously one-noted and complex as it is in any other Western, capitalist country. National adverts largely promote lean, light-skinned bodies which is a reflection of the extremely homogenous demographic, a very standard totem in the contemporary canon of contemporary public, feminine bodies. But, as with other Westernized international cities, there are international brands that promote a broader face. But what I think is perhaps more interesting to consider rather than a Polish/American duality is how beauty is perceived generationally. I stand to believe that there are greater similarities between… Read more »

Eugenia Tattersall
25/10/2019 4:23 am

Hi Kathryn,
I wish you could write more on the “terrifyingly thin skin of shame” you write about in your conclusion. It highlights one of the hidden issues women face today; sometimes it takes a lot of courage to go out there and partake in what’s rightfully ours.
Is the catalog of this exhibition available anywhere? I searched for it online, but didn’t find anything.

Kathryn Zazenski
13/11/2019 4:58 am

Eugenia, unfortunately the catalogue is only available in Polish, I would recommend contacting the museum for purchasing details. And to your comment, you’re spot-on. The courage it takes to stand up to the abuses, being overlooked and undervalued, from the most ‘mundane’ to the most egregious instances, is monumental. Transgressions occur everyday to the point where many of us don’t even notice them anymore. It’s never easy to be the first in any category, but I believe that what makes this ‘skin of shame’ so complicated and palpable is the twisted expectations and perceptions related to contemporary notions of female… Read more »

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