Coincidence had it that I saw the current Paulina Olowska exhibition within thirty hours of attending a talk on Liberation Porn – The Radical Politics of Seventies Gay Male Sex Film, given by scholar Ryan Powell. Besides the pretty patent differences between these events, there were some worthwhile analogies to be drawn in subject matter and ideology between the two.
The extraordinarily insightful talk explored how the loosening of censorship in the late 1960’s in the United States enabled filmmakers to use pornography as a vehicle to explore new possibilities in cinematography. During the 1970’s and 1980’s, gay pornography became a territory where art, sex and politics came together, and in two decades it slowly developed from an experimental and often ingenue genre (with films generally set in fields and forests) to a mature and fairly hardcore one. Uncertainty and insecurity made room for bold self-esteem – which clearly reflected a victory over suppression of the gay community in American society -- something that would have been inconceivable before the sexual revolution of the sixties and the government’s acceptance of progressive sub-cultures.
The early porn movies in particular, in which new boundaries were somewhat hesitantly explored, showed commonalities with the paintings of Olowska.
Paulina Olowska, Untitled (For Ulrike Ottinger), 2012, Oil on canvas, 43 1/4 x 30 3/4 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Simon Lee Gallery, London
Olowska’s works pay homage to feminists and female artists in the artist’s motherland (Poland), where feminism until the fall of communism in 1989 was largely controlled by the state. This type of feminism mainly focussed on getting women on top of tractors, not necessarily on creating emotional equality between the sexes. After the collapse of communism the Polish state and the Roman Catholic Church made feminist progress at best difficult. Abortion has been prohibited since 1993, and women are still often subjugated intellectually, professionally and sexually by their male counterparts.
Olowska’s recent paintings, although aesthetically unchallenging, cover an interesting cross-section of society: a farmer, a wealthy collector, a fashion designer and a grandmother. They show women in their everyday settings, contemplating, smoking and taking their place. None of them look particularly happy; there’s a sense of introspection and also certainly a sense of suffering, but other than that they appear strong-minded, elegantly, sometimes even extravagantly dressed, and above all, independent. There may be suffering in these women, but it’s worn with pride.
Paulina Olowska, Mirrored and Pressed, 2012, Oil on canvas, 70 7/8 x 46 1/2 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Simon Lee Gallery, London
Apart from the obvious fight against oppression shared by the Polish feminists and gay porn actors, there was a more subtle similarity, which I only realised in hindsight. It was found in the basement of Simon Lee Gallery. One oval painting (Rite, 2012) stood out in shape, colour and medium. Depicted in pencil on a background of ochre oil paint is a group of four women, kneeling down on the riverside, holding hands whilst performing a ritual. Even though the sexual reference remains obsolete, it showed this same urge to go back to nature that was referenced in one of the earliest porn movies, where two naked men were running after each other in an outlandish ritual of love and exploration, before giving in to their carnal desires.
It’s this urge to go back to a place where we are all first and foremost natural beings and where societal hierarchy is irrelevant, that seemed important as part of the liberation movement and I am glad that the artist decided to include this painting in an exhibition dedicated to the feminist fight, despite the lack of coherence in colour or tone.
It is just a shame that the artist didn’t deem the image taken at the gallery good enough to be reproduced, so that it’s now Olowska’s own kind of censorship that prohibits us from seeing it here.
(Image on top right: Paulina Olowska, Mother 200 , 2012, Oil on canvas, 78 3/4 x 86 5/8 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Simon Lee Gallery, London)