"Find out what it's all really about"
She's one of the internationally most successful artists on the young Polish scene. Paulina Olowska's works combine a wide variety of influences: references to modernist utopias encounter the autobiographical; Pop Art meets the visual residue of Warsaw Pact Socialism. Daniel Völzke talked with the artist, whose work was recently acquired for the Deutsche Bank Collection, about the principle of montage.
||The most striking portrait of the artist was painted by a colleague. Entirely in keeping with Paulina Olowska's nature, in this image she is surrounded by color, style, and modern-day ease: Lucy and Paulina in the Moscow Metro (2005) shows the Polish artist together with Lucy McKenzie, the creator of the work. Like figures from a Tintin comic, the two women stride briskly side by side beneath gigantic vaulted arches. One is whistling a tune, the other is laughing. This is how easy and relaxed things can be when artists descend into the underground, when they carry things long forgotten from the depths of abandoned history to the light.
"My relationship to the past is like a conversation with spirits, with witnesses," Paulina Olowska has said. For the viewer, this dialogue can seem like a tête-à-tête, because her work tends to appear rather casual. Only very few artists have such a sure hand when they reach into the archive of the last 100 years of art, architectural, and design history for their material, and only very few make such independent use from the stores of fashion and advertising imagery. Clearly, the questions this 34-year-old artist poses to the ghosts of Modernism and to today's viewers are on to something: What happened to all the utopias? To the allegedly looser relationship between the sexes, to the belief in progress? What happened to the good life?
Paulina Olowska, born in Gdansk, was 13 when the Iron Curtain fell and with it humanity's idea of socialism. An entire ideological cosmos was junked, together with its complete visual repertoire. The young Pole spent her youth in the US, where she later studied as well. "Of course I have an Eastern European perspective of the world, but I don't worry about drawing borders. I spend my time on things I feel drawn to."
The results of this self-assured maxim are drawings, paintings, collages, architectural models, installations, and videos that combine the oddest things and visualize surprising connections: socialist chic goes hand in hand with rarified moments in western avant-garde, art with handicraft, propaganda with advertising, haute couture with punk rock. But what connects all these works is the principle of montage, confrontation, and re-staging.
Recently, for instance, Olowska juxtaposed her own works with paintings from the museum collection at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich. Thus, a stroll through the museum also offered a new perspective on historical portraits of women and the changes in gender roles throughout time. Here, too, her declared goal is to "call the opinion makers into question. Take things in your hand, put them under a microscope, and find out what it's all really about."
This burning interest in relocation and reevaluation gives new attention especially to great women: the artist had a portrait of Peggy Moffitt-model and muse for Yves Saint Laurent and Rudi Gernreich-woven into a carpet (Peggy Rug, 2005), brought the British Pop Art pioneer Pauline Boty back to the public eye in the painting collage Nashville (2005), and exhibited folk art paintings by Zofia Stryenska, who died in 1974, at the Berlin Biennial. Pioneers-and all of them forgotten. Because they were women?
As complex as the references are, so laborious are the production process and approach to material. Last fall, the artist showed five new works at her New York gallery Metro Pictures that picked up on modern notions of mobility. For the series, the artist reproduced images cut out of newspapers as silkscreen prints, cut up these prints and reassembled them into collages, out of which she made new silkscreens on fabric and paper. And this wasn't the end of it: she worked over these large-scale prints with foil and colored pencil, glue, and tape.
"I wanted to research here how the effect of an image can be reinforced through reproduction and montage. How new meaning can arise through these techniques. We know this already from Pop Art. But as I usually do in my art, I work much more subjectively here than most Pop artists."
Paulina Olowska gladly explains some of the motifs whose selection turns out to derive from personal experience. In the Car Mobile Collage from the Deutsche Bank Collection, for instance, the main work from this series ("If it were an opera, this would be the climax, the fifth act"), we see a young couple in a convertible beneath a huge umbrella, surrounded by pictures, numbers, and letters. "An especially private work: a couple is shown here, instead of a single independent woman, as in many of my works." The artist pauses, because it's easy to imagine what this might mean.
But then she continues: the image stands for emergence, as the car and the decisive expression of the two signalize. They use the umbrella to protect themselves from various outrages. The cryptic "PIT - 53" topples into the image here, an abbreviation for a Polish tax form that no human is capable of filling out, according to Olowska erklärt. At least she isn't. To the right of the image is an allusion to state repression: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's The Drinker (Self-Portrait) from 1915 meets the Polish punk bands Kosmetyki Mrs. Pinki and Brygada Kryzys, which received performance prohibitions in the 1980s-a fate that loosely connects them to the Expressionist painter, who was declared "degenerate" by the Nazis.
"When you begin moving things around in time, they suddenly start talking to us in a different way," says Olowska when describing her approach to the collage technique. The viewer doesn't need the key to the meaning of the different elements in the picture to understand that the sparks of Pop Art and advertising, punk and Expressionism can ignite a small fire.
Paulina Olowska also seeks these dynamic states as a part of her feminist attitude towards art and life. And it's precisely this optimistic energy and versatility in modernist ideas that she likes to tap: "It's paradoxical, but I always love to reference history to give expression to a certain type of belief in progress, this celebration of a completely new kind of thinking in early Modernism-it's almost impossible not to quote it!" And that's why she's glad that young artists share her enthusiasm for the Modernist legacy, that an exchange takes place.
Olowska, finally, transfers the principle of montage into the social realm: the artist, who today lives with her husband in the countryside outside Cracow, organizes bars, engages in discussions with students, works in collectives. Paulina Olowska transformed the Braunschweiger Kunstverein, for instance, into a backdrop for a short story by Lucy McKenzie and showed with the Scottish artist at the Goetz Collection in Munich. She is currently working together with the British artist Bonnie Camplin on a show in London. "It brings so many new possibilities into the game when I work together with other women artists. All of a sudden, doors open and you become free in the way you handle materials and methods." And behind those doors, in the underground, new spirits are already lying in wait to be flirted with.