Sarah Crowner and Paulina Olowska

Paulina Olowska has made it her business to address hidden historical currents within modernism, pop culture, and arts and crafts—whether responding to Polish metalworking of the 1960s, exhibiting an archive documenting the punk and New Wave scenes in Poland with almost no commentary, or devoting herself exclusively to the work of painter Zofia Stryjeńska 1891–1974) in her contribution to the Fifth Berlin Biennial. For her show at the Berlin gallery of DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service), as so often before, she invited a second artist to show with her, working with New York–based Sarah Crowner to revisit a marginal medium in the contemporary art world: ceramics.

The common denominator in the work of the two artists, exhibited jointly under the title “Ceramics and Other Things,” seems to be the use of flat, two-dimensional tiles. Where Olowska generally uses found tiles, which she then paints or spray-paints with abstract and figurative designs, Crowner fires her pieces herself, using white or brown clay, and leaves them completely unadorned. And whereas Olowska, embracing the ugliness of industry-standard bathroom tiles, concentrates on individual surface and painterly design, Crowner makes use of a significantly more graphic, geometric approach by assembling the tiles into a wide range of shapes—semicircles, rings, triangles, irregular trapezoids, and the like.

Both artists’ works were presented on six low platforms in the middle of the gallery, illuminated from either end by two freestanding industrial spotlights mounted on tripods, which evoked a craft show or fashion runway. The artists further emphasized the space’s showroom character by opening an ordinarily curtained section of its window facade, revealing the exhibition space to the street. In contrast to this “boutique presentation,” underlining the craftsmanship of these objects, the press release offered a second reading of the show: as an archaeological site where artifacts from an obscure past were put on display, the fragments meticulously arranged to form coherent ensembles.

The exhibition as a whole seemed to be based on a dialectic of “flat” and “deep”: two-dimensional tiles presented as objects extended in space; superficial craftsmanship and high art; the exteriority of commercial display and the historical depths unearthed by archaeology. Olowska has tried again and again to produce conceptual meaning by bringing in a historical reference, reactivating a utopian potential buried in the depths of the past, or reclaiming elements formerly excluded from a hegemonic, Western, male-dominated discourse; now she has departed from this path. Even though she has often turned to handicraft, folk art, or DIY approaches in her past work, with this exhibition the contrast these categories offer to traditional artistic discourse came into sharper focus. And the principle of collaboration here had less to do with the questioning of a productive artistic ego—as one might assume—than with the parallelism between two distinct approaches to the same theme. The strange “flatness” of this show seemed above all to be communicating that the production of meaning is perhaps less a question of delving deep into historical strata than of doing it yourself.

Dominikus Müller

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.