Paulina Olowska, On the Bridge, 2020, oil and acrylic on canvas, 78 3⁄4 × 39 3⁄8".

Paulina Olowska, On the Bridge, 2020, oil and acrylic on canvas, 78 3⁄4 × 39 3⁄8".

Paulina Olowska

A painting shows a close-up shot of a woman’s face: Dark makeup rings her staring eyes. She wears multiple necklaces and a dark-pink shirt, 1960s boho style, and her hair is a shower of red curls. Around her mouth, faint inked lines compose a stylized mustache and goatee. She clutches a small barn owl to her face. Another work depicts a woman on a broken bridge. In the surrounding area, we see what looks like a decrepit manor house and a torn flag hanging from a pole. The woman has feathers in her hair and wears 1980s-style high-heeled boots and a long white scarf. She looks down; her lips are pursed and red. In a different canvas, a woman wearing a black slitted pencil skirt balances on a ladder in front of a wall of flat file boxes with printed and handwritten titles: ANNÉES 1960, RESIDENCE, NÉON. She wears low-heeled boots and her hair is held in a high coiffure. She reaches out precariously with both arms to pull a box labeled PROPAGANDE.

Those are, respectively, Vali, the Witch of Positano, 2021; On the Bridge, 2020; and À la Galcante (At La Galcante), 2015, three of the more than thirty works in Paulina Olowska’s show “Her Hauntology” at Kistefos, a sculpture park and museum complex near Oslo. The exhibition occupies the Twist, a building by architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group that torques around its own axis over a rushing river in a mountainous terrain. All of the paintings in the exhibition feature a bold yet somber palette and are figurative, with occasional brushy sections. All feature women: posing, weeping, strutting, staring, mostly not smiling. The show renders Jacques Derrida’s concept of “hauntology”—a portmanteau of “haunting” and “ontology”—feminine. Pasts are primarily summoned through decade-specific markers of women’s fashion: an array of hats seemingly plucked from the 1920s through the 1940s, silver platform heels typical of the 1970s, shimmering leggings of the late 1980s. But these times are out of joint. In The Pointer Sisters Convention, 2016, for example, three women wear clothes that seem to sample fashion from the 1920s through the 1940s. The women surround a table topped with an ornate tablecloth and a multicolored sphere that suggests a fortune-teller’s crystal ball. Only the title of the painting suggests that this must be the 1970s. The rendition via loose paint strokes produces a further remove from the temporal specificity of a printed source. Olowska’s brush seems to knowingly play with the contradictory political attachments of realism in painting. Though many of the artist’s tableaux—reminiscent of fashion spreads, movie stills, and promo shots—constitute a capitalist realism, the women in them, realistically rendered and center frame, also inevitably conjure ghosts of socialist realism, where worker subjects inhabit a factual yet symbolic space to telegraph a collective future. While the contemporary vogue for figurative painting in the West often represses any connection with socialist realism, Olowska’s paintings pick at the relation, going further to suggest that playing the part of a virgin, a whore, or a diva is also work. They may even leave viewers wondering if all those forward stares and pursed lips that populate our culture are just projections of a feigned interiority or are in fact some collective aspiration for a better tomorrow.

One section of the exhibition, comprising the video installation Squelchy Garden Mules and Mamunas, 2022, is filled with floor-to-ceiling modeled tree trunks. Some contain eye-level cavities into which small screens have been inserted, and each shows a lone elf- or faun-like creature (with the likes of animal ears, fur pelts, wooly clothing) engaged in some solitary action: coddling painted eggs, playing a flute, rubbing twigs together. In contrast to the painted subjects, these figures are androgynous and more aligned with the landscape outside. While the contorted white interior of the Twist can seem inhospitable to the artworks it contains, for this show it feels fitting: a sci-fi container that accommodates multiple historical trajectories and their surrounding ecosystem. So many resting bitch faces of the past are provided a place in the future.