Speaking with the curator of a recent exhibition which showcased 50 women artists working against the traditions of painting
Submission and domination might be on different ends of the spectrum but in the recently-closed show, Paint, Also Known As Blood, at The Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, these binaries were brought together under one roof.
The reference to blood in the show’s title, taken from a book written by a former hunter named Zenon Krucyński, flips its original intentions and elevates the autonomy and agency the women in the exhibition hold over their own bodies – and the way those bodies are painted.
Featuring both Polish artists alongside international names, the now-finished show was the first large-scale international exhibition entirely committed to showcasing the work of women who re-evaluate the assumptions surrounding domination and submission. As curator Natalia Sielewicz puts it herself: “The invited painters demonstrate how throughout history the female body and sexuality were subject to fetishist fragmentation and erotisation of violence.”
At the culmination of the show, we sat down with Natalia to talk about the exhibition, the role of feminism today, and how art can react to cultural and political shifts.
“How can painting subvert the binary positions of sameness/difference, nature/technology, domination/passivity, and visibility/camouflage?” – Natalia Sielewicz
You said in the press release that ‘this is not the kind of painting that seeks to forcibly instruct, provide current affairs commentary, or to admonish’. Can you expand on what you mean by this?
Natalia Sielewicz: While many artworks in the show are informed by the current social transformations like the postulates of equal access to reproductive and sexual rights and the race and class struggles, I wasn’t interested in paintings that would simply illustrate and incorporate these themes onto the canvas. I was more keen on exploring the above problems and phenomena through deconstruction and ambiguity.
I asked myself a question: how can painting – a medium allegedly so outdated and conservative – subvert the binary positions of sameness/difference, nature/technology, domination/passivity, and visibility/camouflage? Painting is never a mimetic representation of reality, it’s a performative and laborious act of a body that mediates something pre-verbal and gutsy onto the canvas. But not unlike the constant flow of images which we encounter online, the painting is subject to the constant tension and dialectic between womanhood as a spectacle, on the one hand, and self-expression that can lead to resistance on the other. This is compellingly explored through the permeating interjection of abstraction and figuration while discussing the politics of visibility, especially in the works of women of colour and in queer politics. To put it in the words of painter Christina Quarles: ‘Every classification is a form of violence, yet the bodies want to be named, because only as such can they be recognised by the collective.’
Can you describe the process of putting the show together – especially that of 50 artists?
Natalia Sielewicz: I was interested in particular works and methodologies rather than in ticking off the ‘trending’ names in contemporary painting, alas the number 50 is a pure coincidence. In Poland, there is a new wave of a very affective and visceral type of feminist painting. To a certain extent, it is paradoxical – while 80 per cent of students in the art schools are women, there are almost no women leading the painting departments. Women in my country are subject to various forms of structural violence, and yet they constitute one of the strongest driving forces of resistance against populism in contemporary politics.
There certainly are recurring themes around which I built the entire exhibition. The invited artists deploy various subversive strategies. They appropriate and rewrite the overtly masculinised, white, and often misogynist tradition of painting. For example, the invited painters demonstrate how throughout history the female body and sexuality were subject to fetishist fragmentation and erotisation of violence, even in seemingly transgressive movements like surrealism. We see this in Lee Miller’s fragmented body parts, in Man Ray’s depictions, Bellmer’s decapitated women, and others.
This fragmented body returns in contemporary feminist painting as a new hybrid. A body that, through a gesture of healing and resistance must put itself together to create a new, reassembled and desiring body. I am thinking, for example, of representations of queer desire in the work of Ambera Wellmann and Christina Quarles, or radical rewriting of historical painting styles by Ewa Juszkiewicz and Caitlin Keogh. Artist, activist, and dominatrix Reba Maybury turns the surrealist technique of ‘exquisite corpse’ inside out and delegates her portrait to three submissives. On top of that, I tried to unveil how female sexuality was historically fetishised as either dangerous or threatening and hence subject to various mechanisms of Othering. Again, the invited artists hijack such ways of looking and propose instead autonomous scenarios of desire and visibility.
Is there a fine line between art celebrating the social and cultural shift around women's rights and what needs to be done looking forward? How do you think the art world can find a balance between these two aspects?
Natalia Sielewicz: I think that artistic practice is always dependent on transformations in the social, economic and political field. Art institutions need to radically rethink the emotional and political stalemate of the system they create. The art world constantly conceals the inherent commodification of ideas under the cover of ‘critical art celebrating the social’. The real change will only occur through the systemic changes – through the redistribution of power and visibility.
You also mention in the show’s release that there’s the intention to ‘blur the categories of power and objectification’. Can you expand on this too?
Natalia Sielewicz: This statement comes from a personal and collective need to act beyond the power dynamic inscribed in a binary position of violence/trauma and domination/submission. I was interested in artistic practices which, in an attempt to assume control over representations of the female experience, abandon the approach of directly confronting patriarchal rhetoric. On another note, in its passivity, the so-called weak object compels the voyeuristic consumer to react, unmasking their susceptibility, and submission to the very object they long to dominate. I think this can be atomised against oppression in many unexpected ways.
You reference the art of the third-wave feminist movement. What do you think is the responsibility of the feminist movement in the current political and cultural climate?
Natalia Sielewicz: Third-wave and fourth-wave feminist movements turned personal into political. It’s amazing how the new shift towards affects, emotions, and personal experience in contemporary culture revitalised art practices and discourse alike. But a lot of the work that I am seeing online and institutionally, celebrates individual performances of white heteronormative womanhood. I think the contemporary feminist movement needs to fully incorporate the ideals of intersectionality to take responsibility for the oppressed and the marginalised. This requires moving beyond the individual experience and attending to complex and intersecting oppressions, as well as multiple forms of resistance and collective solidarity.