Head-Wig (Portrait of an exhibition)
25 September–29 November, 2009, Camden Arts Centre, London
With a practice that frequently involves collaboration it’s hardly surprising that in curating this exhibition, Polish artist Paulina Olowska has chosen not to locate her work within a top-down genealogical trajectory, but rather has opted for an exhibition of lateral (and equilateral) dialogues.
This is not to say that the show is without a historical gaze. A touchstone of Head-Wig (Portrait of an exhibition)is Józef Mehoffer’s ‘Portait of the Artist’s Wife on Yellow Background’, 1907, a work that although not included, is seen through Olowska’s variously painted reconstructions. And while Olowska’s canvases may be understood as sketches to the rubric, offering clues towards the precise (or rather imprecise) meaning of the term ‘perceptual ambiguity’ that she applies to her curatorial rationale, it appears as if her work has been made after her selection of other artists. In situ, Olowska’s paintings balance, replicate and highlight the textures and motifs of their neighbours. They behave much like her installation of worn-out chairs that run down the centre of the largest space, where the furniture’s colours replicate the muted palates of the paintings around them. This reflexivity appears to recast the space on second glance.
As a viewer’s experiment, one can draw imaginary lines around this show, matching authors, textures, motifs and colours. Look for pairings, repetitions and semblances. There is a certain ‘bed-hopping’ that is evident between elements and works, such that the edge of each work doesn’t necessarily become porous, but rather each work becomes a polyamorous entity, this thing which is not one: it is coupled, it is duplicated and now multiplied. Dominated by portraiture, the show contains two recent photographs by Cindy Sherman; some abstract and romantic (yet earnest) portraits by Jarosław Bauc and two non-pictorial portraits by Jakub Julian Ziółkowski, among other canvas works by Simon Ling and Katharina Wulff. There are videos from Elka Krajewska, Nina Könnemann, Ken Okiishi and Mathilde Rosier. Rosier also contributes a sculpture in cardboard. A photograph by Catherine Sullivan collects and layers frames from her film ‘The Chittendens’, 2005, repeating faces and shapes in the same manner as the exhibition.
Most significant is a collaboration between Cathy Wilkes and Olowska, within which two paintings by the latter artist appear to have been willingly offered up to this sculptural installation. Her canvasses lie partially obscured by various objects on the floor, like a supine foundation for this ensemble; a gesture that perhaps reflects the curatorial conceit that Olowska finds herself under as the artist-curator of this project. Adjacent to these paintings is a steel tray holding an arrangement of hammers and a saucer that cowers facedown under the stare of these tools. Bearing over this assemblage, meanwhile, is a large electric stand-drill, the colour of cobalt blue, that is echoed in two hanging paintings by Olowska. While the assemblage coheres, it is also full of threats indicated, for example, by a telephone handset that rests on the drill-plate.
Head-Wig is an exhibition of polyamorous trysts, and is characterised by repetition, disguise, multiplication and resemblance. Pay attention to the role of observation in this exhibition, or to what Olowska calls the ‘infection of staring’. Watching Ken Okiishi’s ‘E.llioT.: Children of the New Age’, 2004, a film that abounds with signs and allusions, the viewer may wonder whether they have created more references than were intended. It is like seeing faces in the clouds—faces that only the individual can find for themselves: this is Olowska’s perceptual ambiguity.
Gemma Sharpe is a writer based in London