Mariola Przyjemska, Little Cannons (One-Niners), 2005, gouache on cardboard, 27 1⁄2 × 19 5⁄8". From the series “Cosmetics,” 1997–2005.

Mariola Przyjemska, Little Cannons (One-Niners), 2005, gouache on cardboard, 27 1⁄2 × 19 5⁄8". From the series “Cosmetics,” 1997–2005.

Mariola Przyjemska

In the gouache-on-cardboard Little Cannons (One-Niners), 2005, Mariola Przyjemska painted tubes of lipstick that look like bullets, their pink points sharpened such that they recall both makeup and ammunition. The work is part of the artist’s 1997–2005 “Cosmetics” series, which was the focus of her recent exhibition “Avenue of the Winners.” The painting’s tilted tubes also form a bridge with her “Pistols” series, 2014–16, two works from which—Bolo and Čezetka, both 2014—punctuated the show. The first of these paintings depicts an early-twentieth-century Mauser, the second a Modern Czech gun, weapons the artist associates with the October Revolution (the nickname Bolo deriving from Bolshevik) and the Baader-Meinhof group, respectively. Like guns, beauty products are proffered as liberatory tools. In her works, Przyjemska considers the seductiveness of their promises of emancipation.

The onslaught of consumer products in post-Communist Poland prompted Przyjemska’s neo-Pop response, an approach that differs significantly from the Conceptual practices that presided in Warsaw in the 1990s and 2000s among her peers. She picked up on a parallel between Poland’s era of transformation and the kinds of personal metamorphosis promised by cosmetics in order to address this sociopolitical shift. The connection comes to the fore in Prada, 2005, with a towering black rectangle resembling both a perfume bottle and a monumental building. It is emblazoned with the letters PRA A in the luxury brand’s signature typeface, as if the D had been forgotten in the tumult of the city’s speedily changing landscape.

The question of design—not only of built spaces but also of consumer products—was central to Przyjemska’s “Cosmetics” series from its beginning. While Sylvie Fleury had started working with makeup a few years earlier by focusing on its destruction, Przyjemska began with proposals for its production. For one of her first “Cosmetics” works, the crayon-and-gouache Little Boxes Project, 1998, she sketched prototypes for eye shadow boxes shaped like other products that capitalism had ushered in, such as brightly colored television sets or disposable razors. Consumerism and its promises to the lipstick feminist, the artist seemed to say, appear to offer opportunities for empowerment and self-reinvention, but that sense of freedom is only an illusion. The joke grows darker still in Project of Little Boxes (Little Coffins), 1998, a single sheet comprising eighteen graphite drawings of eye shadow boxes, some resembling caskets.

From these drawings, Przyjemska developed works depicting enlarged beauty products against monochromatic grounds. She abstracted the shapes prescribed for the modern woman’s self-definition—a tricolor spherical Lip Gloss, 2005, is only discernible as such by the line of a clasp, while a capital H against an orange concentric circle in Helios (Hermès), 2005, locates the shape as a compact mirror. The push and pull between the abstract and the concrete also mirrors the way in which the influx of commodities concretized modern Poland’s economic transformation (money, as Marxist economist Alfred Sohn-Rethel put it, is a “real abstraction”). The “Cosmetics” series draws attention to this process by inverting it, abstracting these shiny things on the shelf in turn. Przyjemska deploys the vacuous quality of product displays to keep her tone opaque; you catch a wisp of melancholia, a hint of Material Girl delight. This emptiness welcomes our projection, whether that is the presumption of feminist or of capitalist critique.

Opening in the midst of the women’s strike galvanized by a court’s near ban on abortion, the exhibition reverberated with the nationwide uprising. The pair of red lipsticks arranged in the shape of a cross in Cruxifiction, 2004, appeared especially charged, as Przyjemska seems to question the viability of third-wave feminism in the context of a conservative Catholic country. “Avenue of the Winners” was a reminder to pay attention to the ways in which liberation is packaged—to cultivate the ability to see past its sheen—so we can reimagine the tools of the revolution to suit the freedoms they are meant to secure.