Saturday, 5 October 2013
Paulina Ołowska - Applied Fantastic
The polish painter Paulina Olowska describes the subject of her work as “anti-fashion, fashion.” Her images depicting Eastern Bloc women wearing chunky sweaters were taken directly from communist-era postcards of DIY knitting patterns. Olowska originally intended to produce the knitwear—which one could imagine might be successfully sold at Opening Ceremony—herself, but stopped short of becoming an artist-slash-designer. Olowska found additional inspirations in photographer Daniele Tamagni’s book Gentlemen of Bacongo, which reveals a glamorous subculture of the Congo through images of dandies dressed in designer duds and bespoke suits.
The show featured paintings primarily, along with small collages and assorted elements from her studio's "inspiration wall"; the show was titled "Applied Fantastic" after the Polish writer Leopold Tyrmand's term, coined in the 1950s, for socialist pastiches of Western fashion. A number of the canvases are based on tasteful Western-style magazines from that period, and feature models posing in stylish attire before rustic backdrops. Jacket Oktawia, for example, shows a woman in a belted sweater, arms akimbo, before a sun-dappled wood fence; the two protagonists of Wool mark stroll in a wintry birch forest in thick overcoats. Ironically, the paintings are nostalgic for an era likewise characterized by an intense pining, but for the glamorous West.
An increased interest is being paid to fashion under the Eastern Block. Chiefly, Djurdja Bartlett’s “FashionEast: The Spectre that Haunted Socialism” was recently published by MIT Press. The repository of over ten years of research by Bartlett—a research fellow at the London College of Fashion—this ground-breaking book is an in-depth and beautifully illustrated study of fashion’s relation to socialism throughout the twentieth century. By employing a vast array of sources, it traces the history of fashion under socialism in the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany, Poland and Yugoslavia.
An interesting parallel to the book was a recent exhibition at Metro Pictures showcasing the recent work of Polish artist Paulina Olowska. Titled “Applied Fantastic,” the exhibition was comprised of paintings as well as actual sweaters based on home-knitted patterns from late communist Poland, which were in turn based on adaptation and re-interpretation of Western fashion, thus showing a protracted engagement with Western fashion in communist Poland.
The title of the show is a reference to Polish writer Leopold Tyrmand, who, “describing the localized re-creations of Western styles,” coined the term ‘Applied Fantastic’ in 1954. Thus, similarly to Bartlett’s book Olowska, in a strikingly different medium, explores the Eastern block’s fascination with Western fashion, or as described in Bartlett’s book fashion’s role as “the spectre that haunted socialism.”
Over the past 10 years, Paulina Olowska's take on pop culture behind the iron curtain has made her a prominent figure within a younger generation of Polish artists. Using collage, performance and painting she reimagines poster and magazine imagery depicting long-legged pin-up girls, or takes vivid promotions for the communist good life and illuminates them with brilliant neon signage. Her most recent series of paintings, Applied Fantastic, showed models striking poses in snazzy 1980s knitwear. Typically for Olowska, this take on consumer mores is shot through with Soviet bloc touches, from a knitted Cossack hat to a male model's copious moustache. Indeed, rather than referencing ads for branded clothing lines, the paintings are based on Polish patterns for fashion-forward home-knitters. With their localised take on western trends, Olowska's paintings present a vision at odds with capitalism's vision of eastern Europe.