PAULINA OLOWSKA IS UNIQUE : she’s the only artist in this year’s Future Great’s list to have appeared in this magazine last year. That’s not because we’ve forgotten, or because she didn’t become as great as last year’s writers thought she might; rather it’s because we’re expecting big things over the next 12 months. In a prolific practice, Olowska locates images of women as they have been represented in the past: as props for Pollocks and Calders; as advertisements for cigarettes, cars and cocktails; as ingénues and odalisques. She reproduces these beleaguered women in the cool stylisations of a number of periods – in jazzy, modernist collages; moody, deskilled paintings; and glowing, seedy neon. Her paintings and collages bear evidence of destruction and reconstitution – rips, tears, charred edges – and her exhibitions are fi lled to excess. Taking as her subject the history of art, she refi nes this as the history of women in art, and her schizophrenic appropriation from different eras and styles maps out an incomplete but collective project: it is a fi ctional history in the making. Iconic buildings appear in washed-out, nervy reproductions; Modernism is no longer new but it still holds potential. A faux salon at the Kunstverein Braunschweig in 2004 brought together female members of the Bloomsbury Group – Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell and Charlotte Perriand – in painted form. The notion of animation is taken literally: in a 2003 performance, Nova Popularna, with her frequent collaborator Lucy McKenzie, the pair constructed a bar in Warsaw, and stood serving drinks to patrons – living incarnations of Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882).
Though she dabbles in different periods, Olowska is best known for her reinterpretation of Modernism, which she mines as much for its expressive potential as for its historical coincidence with the beginning of the Soviet empire. The dissolution of the latter and the tendency to treat communist paraphernalia as kitsch recur throughout her work and are treated with ambivalence: as sites of loss, as objects of satire, as familiar history. Importantly, Olowska’s work reinvigorates the idea of art as agitprop; enlivening the notion that popular graphic art, like billboard posters and murals, can carry a positive social message, available and pertinent to all.
This article was first published in the March 2007 issue.