Paulina Olowska

Cabinet Gallery

“Hello to You Too” seemed an appropriately coy title for an exhibition that knowingly offered a come-on while making it seem as though the advance had been on the part of the viewer. Paulina Olowska’s chic, tightly constructed show consisted of nine paintings, all of which prominently foregrounded a female figure, in many cases a variation on an archetypal attractive European female artist. In one, her trim silhouette, right shoulder forward, looms out of a ripped-up mess of old advertising posters (Mieszkanie 629-83-36, 2006); in another, a woman looks out of the painting from under arched eyebrows and a jauntily cocked hat (About Her, 2006). In a third, Olowska presents the European’s blond singing-and-dancing Australian counterpart (Olivia Newton John, 2005) who, turned away, assumes a more diffident stance. Hung next to ONJ is the genuinely creepy Nashville, 2005, based on a scene from Robert Altman’s 1975 film of the same name; the canvas depicts the front of what could be the same woman as she takes off her clothes in front of an assembly of gleeful businessmen.

Olowska’s conceptual linchpin here is the British Pop artist Pauline Boty, who, as the legend goes, refused to downplay her own sexiness (she was even heralded as “the Wimbledon Bardot”—ugh), but died of cancer in 1966 at the age of twenty-eight, before she could properly bask in the critical attention subsequently accorded to her mostly male contemporaries. Olowska appropriates Boty’s collaged Pop style for the works here, and also takes on the problem of how, as a (sexy) female artist, one might ever receive straightforward appraisal of one’s artistic merits. In Pauline Boty Acts Out One Of Her Paintings For A Popular Newspaper, 2006, the European painter archetype stands, palette and brush at the ready, in a suitably painterly stance. To the side Boty smiles as she lifts her shirt up over her head. The Manhattan night skyline twinkles in the lower ground.

Olowska’s references fit neatly into place: Nashville, for example, obviously stages a situation common to women in art throughout the ages (Albuquerque, the uneasy stripper, could equally be Susannah watched by the Elders, or any of a number of other art-historical nudes), whilst Pauline Boty shows that dilemma from behind the easel and Mieszkanie brings Communist propaganda chic and capitalist advertising imagery into the picture. In the brilliant Black Cheerleader, 2005, however, Olowska allows her references to get messy. This female figure, supported by an anonymous sportsman, has her arms enthusiastically outstretched—she’s not disrobing, but almost toppling over against a blue sky and a faceless crowd. Her arms look strangely short, and her legs are locked. Her gaucheness stands in direct contrast to the slim hipness and chic desirability of Olowska’s other women.

Black Cheerleader throws the otherwise neat and tidy exhibition off course, one hopes intentionally. By comparison, the other works here seem little more than stylistic gestures, tidy appropriations that might not look out of place in a style magazine. Yve-Alain Bois wrote in these pages about the elusiveness of the references in Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines unnerving critics “frustrated at not being able to dig for the ‘woman underneath.’” The funny thing is that this excavated—stripped—woman is exactly what Olowska tries to reveal.

Emily Speers Mears