Paulina Ołowska, Seducer, 2020, oil on canvas, 67 × 43 1/4". From “Wages for Housework.”

Paulina Ołowska, Seducer, 2020, oil on canvas, 67 × 43 1/4". From “Wages for Housework.”

“Wages for Housework”

Although the exhibition “Wages for Housework” (featuring works by Paulina Ołowska, Agata Słowak, and Natalia Załuska) took place in an airy pavilion high above Warsaw’s city center with views of the whole metropolis, it turned this cozy space into the stuff of nightmares: a stuffy bourgeois little salon where you started feeling queasy as soon as you walked in. Wages for Housework was a campaign launched in 1972 at the National Women’s Liberation Conference in Manchester, UK, where American activist Selma James collaborated with Italian Marxist feminists Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Silvia Federici to draft a policy that reframed women’s homemaking as labor. Federici was the movement’s theoretician with her 1975 book Wages Against Housework, which began with the famous phrase “They say it is love. We say it is unwaged work.” She identified the toll domestic work took on women as well as its significance for global capitalism. Ołowska and her two younger colleagues focused on various aspects of work, especially the emotional labor women are expected to perform and the frequently devastating effects of the compulsion to please.

Federici compared women to exploited factory workers, deprived of the dignity of labor. Ołowska, who is known for her obsessive analysis of the visual politics of transitional cultural periods such as the 1960s and ’70s, linked this interest with psychology and the emotional consequences of what were touted as new sexual freedoms to suggest that a lack of recognition causes the female psyche to dissolve in depression and madness. Her focus is erotica and sex work, which Federici also saw as part of domestic work. Ołowska dwells on Neue Sachlichkeit types, such as Otto Dix’s Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden, 1926, to evoke an era when sexual emancipation went hand in hand with economic and social decline and the spread of addiction and mental illness. One huge painting showed Sylvia Kristel in a rattan armchair (from the 1974 soft-core porn movie Emmanuelle). Another, based on a fashion ad, depicted a woman sitting with a ruthless stare at a bar table while some hapless man passionately kisses her hand. These are images of women who’ve seen it all and done it all and whose status as sex symbols has not turned to their advantage. Ołowska’s faux-naive realism instills doubts about the honesty of her images or of images per se.

Seemingly quieter is the approach of Załuska, the high modernist here, whose deconstructed large-format paintings might be unusual for a thirtysomething artist today but tell a similar story of exploitation. They are mostly abstract monochromes, with a nearly Constructivist sense of space, as in Tatlin’s and Malevich’s reliefs. Załuska uses cardboards of various textures, colors, and thicknesses, composing them as layered reliefs mostly in white, black, and pastel colors, where what is hidden matters almost more than what’s visible. Perhaps that’s why they played so well as stories about violence. In Untitled, 2020, the blocky geometrical forms could also be seen as a woman’s blonde hair and the head and arms of a man giving her a blow. Załuska’s works are like big puzzles; it takes attention and focus to put the truth back together.

Słowak’s discomfiting large-format oil paintings in turn touch on everything that’s unpleasant, greasy, and perverted in the power relations surrounding sexuality. She’s almost flippant in the way she treats Renaissance and Neoclassical iconography, especially that of Ingres_, _depriving it of its obsessive detailing but giving the raw updated gist. Her imagination is filled with body horror and scatology (her color palette moves almost entirely among excremental browns), mixed with millennial sensitivity as expressed in cartoonish faces. In Women of the Revolution, 2020, we saw the Madonna as a nude temptress; the Child is horrifically disfigured, while a grinning zombie woman lies below.

This little theater of perversities was completed by Słowak’s BDSM-themed stuffed sculptures, styled as children’s toys. A terrible rocking chair featuring a black faux-leather female form sewn into the backrest and various soft sculptures of eviscerated women with dead fetuses hanging on umbilical cords gave an ultimate vision of the female grotesque—a condition full of horror, conveyed by the artist with feisty theatricality.