Elizabeth Malaska’s post-apocalyptic protest

The women in “When We Dead Awaken” are armed and dangerous


A girl holding a sniper’s rifle in a basement with fake wood paneling. A woman wrapped in an American flag. A woman wearing mesh and holding a machine gun. For her newest show at Nationale, “When We Dead Awaken,” Elizabeth Malaska imagines the aftermath of a catastrophe–and presents the viewer with urgent, mysterious paintings that are unlike any post-apocalyptic images I’ve seen before.

My favorite moments in Malaska’s “When We Dead Awaken” are sites of rupture.

In the basement room of You Will Become Me, there is a naked girl in sunglasses whose body is disappearing into the wood-paneling behind her. One of the girl’s legs dissolves into the wall and then reemerges with skin that has taken on the pattern of the wood. She holds a rifle, and it, too, disappears and reappears. You can see traces of where the gun used to be to the figure’s left, as if it has recently been in motion. In Seer, a woman with an American flag draped over her body and framing her face sits at a table that appears to be see-through. You cannot tell if her arm has disappeared into the table, or if the table has disappeared into her arm. In Pause and Give Thanks that We Rise Again from Death and Live, one of the legs of the central figure is obscured by a splash of pink paint.

Elizabeth Malaska's "You Will Become Me"/Courtesy Nationale

Elizabeth Malaska’s “You Will Become Me”/Courtesy Nationale

In an artist talk on December 3 at Nationale, Malaska called such moments evidence of the uncontrollable breaking through, of leakage, and I could not help but think of philosopher and critical theorist Judith Butler and her insistence in Precarious Life that for representation “to convey the human,” it must not only fail, “but must show its failure.” Malaska’s figures won’t stay put. They exceed the viewer’s gaze, trouble it, evade it.

I also read these moments of rupture–of intentional failure–in Malaska’s paintings as a kind of resistance.

“Protest is a fundamental reason I paint,” Malaska states on the Nationale website. “Protest against sexism, against the status quo, against what I should be doing.” Her work raises critical questions about art history, the history of painting, and the figure itself.

What do you see when you go to a museum or open an art history textbook? Malaska asked her audience during her talk: the naked bodies of women. Malaska has painted bodies that push back against the people looking at them. They can defend themselves. They have guns. They can disappear into their surroundings. They are, perhaps, more in charge of your gaze than you are.

Elizabeth Malaska's "Pause to Give Thanks That We Rise Again From Death and Live"/Courtesy Nationale

Elizabeth Malaska’s “Pause to Give Thanks That We Rise Again From Death and Live”/Courtesy Nationale

Malaska has mastered classical technique and shows a range of painting styles and aesthetic approaches in this exhibit, as well as continual shifts in depiction. Sometimes her style is painterly, sometimes highly detailed and exact, sometimes like folk art. There are carefully constructed fields of perspective in some paintings and in others the floors seem to lean against the walls that lean against ceilings, evidence of Malaska skillfully facing the challenge all painters face–how (and whether) to represent a three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface–and having fun while she does it.

A painting in Malaska’s previous show, “Only the Marvelous Is Beautiful,” investigates surrealism, and during her talk, Malaska noted that part of what draws her to surrealism is its role as political protest–artists reacting against the surrounding chaos and violence of World War I. Malaska continues that important work in “When We Dead Awaken.” So much art being made now ignores the years-long wars in which the United States is engaged. Not Malaska’s. She faces the violence all around us and dares to imagine what kind of world might follow. Looking at her work, I can almost hear the sound of helicopters, explosions, drones and the missiles they release. Though the scenes she paints are more dystopic than utopic, there is, I think, relief, even hope, that comes when violence is acknowledged rather than ignored, explained away, or denied.

Elizabeth Malaska's "Seer"/Courtesy of Nationale

Elizabeth Malaska’s “Seer”/Courtesy of Nationale

I have long insisted that if anyone is going to get us out of the situation we have created on this planet (wars, environmental collapse, racism, etc.),  if anyone can help forge a new way forward, it will be artists. And ultimately Malaska’s show points to just that possibility: that we dead might indeed awaken.

Elizabeth Malaska’s “When We Dead Awaken” is on view through December 31, 2014, at Nationale, 3360 SE Division, Portland, OR 97202.

Sarah Sentilles is the author of three books, including her recent memoir Breaking Up with God: A Love Story. She is currently writing a book about war, the history of photography, and a violin. She teaches at Pacific Northwest College of Art.  

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