The desire to express a deep appreciation for an artist’s work while knowing that when it comes to writing about that work one feels somewhat out of one’s league… This may be the highest praise an arts writer can give an artist. And while attempting an essay may not do the artist any favors, such it is for me with painter Elizabeth Malaska’s When We Dead Awaken II at Nationale.
First of all, the title has a curious phrasing and demands extra effort to decipher its meaning. It has the flavor of an echo, as if it could be attributed to some older text, a poem perhaps. Sure enough, a quick check of Google brings me to Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. It’s the title of his last play, which is about a male sculptor and his long-lost, female model/muse. One day she reappears and, as it turns out, she has been driven mad by his fame and the loss of her role as his dedicated model. Furthermore, she feels as though her soul has been taken in the experience, and from that moment on she has considered herself dead. Somewhat paralleling her disposition, the artist considers her largely responsible for his masterpiece, the work that put him in the spotlight, yet he has felt empty ever since. No surprise (this is Ibsen, after all) they both die tragically in the end.
Having found a context for the title by reading the play, I could have let my research end there had I not then had a similar intuition about the title of one painting in the exhibit, “Not to Pass on Tradition, but to Break Its Hold over Us (the Archive and Its Shadow).” The phrase cannot be random, and in fact, the non-parenthetical part comes from a 1972 essay by Adrienne Rich, the title of which is “When We Dead Awaken – Writing as Re-vision.” I believe it is from here Malaska draws her most direct reference. In short, Rich makes the argument that women need to find a way to write with their own voices, unburdened by the male-dominant narrative that is embedded in the canon. If we consider that this is also Malaska’s goal in painting, then we might do well to take a closer look at this particular painting as perhaps being most directly related to this effort.
Here my feeling of ineptitude arises. First of all, as with many of Malaska’s paintings, I find myself wishing I had a deeper knowledge of art history, for the references in her pictorials are many, and presumably full of meanings I will likely fail to grasp. I can, however, hope to provide the reader with a descriptive gist of it all, and in the doing, perhaps come upon some insights.
But I am quickly pulled up short. The female in the right foreground of “Not to Pass on Tradition” both physically and visually commands, and therefore slows access to the rest of the painting. The only way around her is to the left, yet that way is blocked by a large urn filled with what appear to be philodendron stems. And behind that, a ghostly but nevertheless fierce-looking feline lurks. I have no other choice but to deal with the woman first.
There are three, maybe four prominent features to this woman. Her face is not unattractive, painted in a style reminiscent of Picasso. She is bare-chested, and her gray torso suggests she is not young. She has four arms, two of which appear to be normal, although the one with a rather dainty hand (and armpit hair) holds a cudgel; of the other two arms, one ends in the claw of some predatory animal while the other appears to be in some state of transformation, either becoming a claw or transitioning back into a normal hand. (Nevermind that to the immediate right of the figure there are at least three more forms that could be seen as mechanical abstractions of arms, one of which may be reaching for a bong.) Lastly, she is wearing fishnet stockings and vintage 1970s high-heeled shoes.
Where to begin with an interpretation of the symbolism? More a feeling: a sense of unease.
And then there is a matter of the brown thing on the floor near her feet. It immediately reminds me of a rodent, and a large one at that. In actuality, I think it is meant to be a dead philodendron leaf. Still, it appears threatening. Indeed, the leaf is positioned to point directly at the female’s crotch, which then requires an examination of the amorphous way that part of the woman is painted. The woman’s worried face is turned away, but her eyes are turned toward the creature, club and claw at the ready.
The woman is posed in a manner we are accustomed to seeing in paintings of nudes, but this no longer seems to matter as it would have in the past. Her positioning is reinforced by yet another, smaller, sculpture-like female form, also traditionally posed, sitting on the floor behind her. The smaller figure has a hand raised to the side of its face. Signifying alarm? We can see no face to make sure, but at least we have made a path past the reclining woman.
The room, or rather, the hall appears to be made of brick. It is sparsely furnished. There are a number of tapestries, some more detailed than others. There is another large urn, more angular and dimensional than the one in the foreground, and again another sculpted figure that may be of a man, not because we can clearly see its gender but because Malaska has painted a faint outline of a penis and scrotum (in the style one might see in a bathroom stall) in front of where such things reside on a body. The statue is missing half of its right arm while the hand of the left arm sports what looks to be a latex glove with its middle finger extended.
A foreboding mask floats above this statue.
I have not begun to describe the myriad smaller details in this painting. Key are the erasures and over-painted areas that undo the fortress-like feeling and some contents/symbols of the interior space. At the back of the hall and up a flight of stairs is an entryway with a stained glass transom. A bright light shines from outside. As a promise? Should one stand in front of this painting for a good stretch, despite a lack of confidence that it can be wholly absorbed, will some, if not all, questions will be answered?
And that’s just one painting among seven, all similarly complex, perhaps even interrelated.
When We Dead Awaken II is the followup to Malaska’s 2014 exhibit at Nationale, When We Dead Awaken I. That means it is impossible to consider the current body of work as anything but a continuation of the series and theme. In fact, there are similarities: women with guns, a German Shepherd, an excessive amount of grid patterning, and the diverse ways Malaska handles paint to reference art of the past, all have returned in the second part of the series.
In the press release, we are told Malaska’s work is political: “While often mimicking the suggestive poses of classic female nudes, Malaska’s women are anything but agreeable objects. Sustaining the hyperawareness of Manet’s shocking “Olympia,” they stare boldly from the canvas, catching the viewer’s gaze and intimidating any unsavory intentions.”
Malaska’s intention is to stand a traditional relationship on its head. In his “Olympia,” Manet referenced Titian’s “Venus of Urbino,” yet his own subject matter, plus the manner in which he painted it, caused a stir among the tastemakers of his time, as well with the patrons of courtesans. Malaska disturbs the canon by the way she references the Olympias of art, fighting back with a skewed familiarity that jumbles, dismembers and unhinges a symbolism that has often had its way with the story of woman, all towards an awakening.
Adrienne Rich speaks of this awakening as it appears in the lives of women today, and how it must come about as “re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction—is for us more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival.” She adds, “Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched, we cannot know ourselves.”
Rich doesn’t throw out the canon as archive, but re-evaluates it in order to “know it differently than we have ever known it; not to pass on a tradition but to break its hold over us.” Even so, it remains in relation to tradition—for that aspect is inescapable—used for its own unraveling in order “to see—and therefore live—afresh.”
It is important to note that while Rich’s essay has a dialectical underpinning, she does not take a hardline ideological stance. That which has gone before continues to inform even though it remains as that which must be undone, a point of reference to be refuted. Similarly, Malaska does not avoid vestiges of the classical or the erotic, for how else could commentary be made? The change-ups in her painting style both deflect and refract. The radical gestures of armed female figures (unlike the statues of male counterparts) both attract and repulse. This push-and-pull and back-and-forth is what keeps the erotic from being wholly nullified, and may even intensify it.
I am reminded of Joanna Newsom’s early songs: there is a story being told, a wondrous tale, yet our expectations are thwarted, interrupted and redirected, so we’re never quite certain of the arc—yet we want to hear more. Employing a similar, if darker, approach, Malaska weaves imaginative virtuosity with a didactic that manages to keep me squirming—a fine measure of their success as paintings.