‘The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue’, quipped the American writer Dorothy Parker. I’d like to think that Parker, whose poetry was once dismissed as ‘flapper verse’ in the New York Times, would have appreciated Paulina Ołowska’s ‘Amoresques: An Intellectual Cocktail of Female Erotica’, a solo exhibition that restages and reconsiders the legacies of some of Parker’s contemporaries in an attempt to tease out the female gaze.
At the core of the show is a series of seven new paintings. The canvases, which are spread throughout an entire floor of the gallery, are based on a single motif: two stripped figures. A long-haired female, her face hidden, is embracing a male, his head on her shoulder and his hands on her buttocks, as if poised to remove her underwear. The large canvases, set in pink and violet tones with patches of black, exude a sultry, heavy aura.
Tracing the shifts and changes between the images – each undergoes a different treatment of oil paint, gouache and pastel – it becomes evident that the motif is little more than a single element amongst many. In Silver Foam (2018), the scene rests horizontal and barely legible. In the foreground are lines of poetry, inscribed in white, a black contour drawing of a nude woman and what seems to be an ancient vessel decorated with a quasi-mythological scene. The textual elements are taken from the poems of Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska, referred to as the ‘Polish Sappho’. The nude is a visual quote from – and tribute to – the prolific Maja Berezowska, who never abandoned her fascination with the female body, in spite of tribulations. While in Paris in the 1930s, Berezowska published a series of caricatures of Adolf Hitler, prompting an intervention by the local German Embassy and a symbolic monetary fine. After the Nazi invasion of Poland, Berezowska was hunted down and sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. She survived and embarked upon a successful career as an illustrator, all the while living with an abusive, violent husband.
The words and shapes that populate Ołowska’s canvases act to define her protagonists – the poet and the caricaturist – allowing them to emerge as fully fledged individuals with their own distinct biographies. Such characterization sits in contrast to that of the source material itself, the leitmotif of the couple taken from a shoot in Viva, an ‘adult women’s magazine’ launched in 1973 by American photographer and founder of Penthouse, Bob Guccione, which frequently came under fire as a projection of male fantasy. Less riddles than palimpsests, Ołowska’s canvases play host to different moments in time in the hope of creating new, productive readings. As #MeToo and #NotSurprised send a wave of reckoning through the culture industry, this act of ‘retro-feminism’ asks questions about the authorship of, and the power over, the gaze.
The second floor of this ‘intellectual cocktail’ is visually and emotionally pared-down. One wall is hung with a series of drawings by Berezowska, which feature figures and, in the case of Poppies: Overblown Tulips (before 1978), austerely depicted plants, while the floor is strewn with a number of Ołowska’s small ceramic sculptures that transform the caricaturist’s scenes into three-dimensional compositions. In the centre of the room, water gushes into the silver-plated bowl of a massive, chalice-shaped fountain, Amoresques (2018), composed of black ceramic and odd pockets of opalescent blueish-white that resemble spit or some other organic substance. A fascinating piece in the constellation, the work aptly connects the metaphorical and the literal, the beautified and the abject – a fitting vessel from which to drink the eponymous cocktail.
'Paulina Ołowska: Amoresques: An Intellectual Cocktail of Female Erotica' is on view at Foskal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw until 30 March.
Paulina Ołowska, 'Amoresques - An Intellectual Cocktail of Female Erotica’, installation view, Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw. Courtesy: the artist and Foskal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw; photograph: Justyna Gryglewicz
First published in Issue 194