The Magnificent Seven: Capp Street: Paulina Olowska

Sesum fo L'lab
September 07, 2010 to December 17, 2010

Paulina Olowska is the Wattis Institute's fall 2010 Capp Street Project artist in residence and one of the seven featured artists in the three-year program The Magnificent Seven. The Polish artist's collages, performances, paintings, and signs are influenced by a myriad of seemingly opposing sources, including Modernism, Soviet and U.S. propagandist typography, 1960s Pop, contemporary fashion, affichistes (French poster collage artists) of the 1950s, and contemporary street graffiti. Her art practice is politically and culturally nostalgic, and occasionally ironic. In one project, for instance, she meticulously researched local histories in post-Communist Poland and then invented a new province—Lubelia, "known" for its intellectuals—and depicted it in romantic realist paintings. On another occasion she restored neon lights originally made in 1961, and they are now permanently installed on Constitution Square in Warsaw.

Over the course of the fall 2010 semester, Olowska collaborated with a class of CCA undergraduate and graduate students on the making of "extroverted self-portraits." Thinking about common processes in contemporary art such as visualizing, copying, juxtaposing, collaging, imitating, and mimicking, the class considered how it might be possible to build self-representations based not on internal expressions but rather on exterior objects and ideas: found tales, known personalities, places, stories, and myths. In other words, muses.

Each member of the group began by naming a muse. The group then undertook a collaborative process of discussing and describing the muses, seeking to articulate their intrinsic aspects and deeper implications. Olowska invited five guests to take part in the course, and each brought a unique point of view and approach to what was in the end a kind of collective analysis, during which the qualities of each muse shifted and took on new meanings.

Sesum fo L'lab is the final result. The title is a reversal of "Ball of Muses," which was Olowska's original concept for the culmination of the course. By presenting a kind of self-mirroring, the title gestures to many of the group's discoveries, in particular the idea that through mirroring it is possible to see more clearly who we are on the inside, to reveal more about ourselves.

Through costume, sound, music, performance, and sculptural interventions, Olowska and the students have articulated, abstracted and unwoven, and then rematerialized, their inspirational sources. Taking the form of a one-night-only costume ball, Sesum fo L'lab offers its audience a salon-saloon of self-stylizations, musings devised to amuse.

The Guests

Paulina Olowska invited five guests—artists, curators, and writers—to San Francisco to collaborate with her and the students on this project. Each taking his or her own practice as a starting point, they developed unique approaches to the idea of the muse and how muses might be identified and evoked through artworks, masks, rituals, language, and staging.

For the New York–based artist Sarah Crowner, another artist can serve as a medium—not only in the material sense, but also in the sense of channeling spirits—through which she reaches her muse. Her works bring the tactile, handmade, domestic connotations of craft together with the hard-edged, serious aspects of Modernism. One series, for example, involves sewing angular pieces of monochromatic cloth into geometric compositions that pay homage to painted canvases by mid-20th-century artists such as Lygia Clark and Bridget Riley. In another group of works, Crowner appropriates the works of Beatrice Wood (directly) and Giorgio Morandi (implicitly) in the making of lumpish, unglazed clay pots that are bottomless and therefore functionless. Her process is always fundamentally about abstraction as she attempts to understand, by inhabiting, creative practitioners from the early 20th century whose presence is still palpable in today's aesthetic and intellectual ferment.

Muses: Marcel L'Herbier's film L'Inhumaine (1924); Le Mouvement (1955), filmed by Robert Breer at Galerie Denise Rene; Thais (1916), a film by Anton Giulio Bragaglia

The poetic practice of the Berlin-based artist Susanne M. Winterling is founded on references, both direct and implicit, to literature, music, art, architecture, and film history. Her films, collages, and photographs involve techniques that perhaps seem outdated, even obsolete—dissolves, projectors, black-and-white visuals—and subjects that are rarified and esoteric, such as the film studio MGM's pre-1975 insignia, the little-known early-20th-century writer Annemarie Schwarzenbach, or the Effi Briest character from the film of the same name by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Through these specific cultural references, Winterling assimilates loose narratives to create multifaceted portraits, which, though ungraspable, attempt to elucidate how identity is affected by feminism, nationality, and history. In the context of this project Winterling was interested in examining to what degree we are influenced, obsessed, or bored by well-known figures and personalities, and how these figures can inspire or haunt new works. Examples range from the pervasive presence of Marcel Duchamp in contemporary art to the visual artist Isa Genzken's specific references to Michael Jackson. Winterling extends this idea beyond the visual arts to film, literature, music, and mainstream culture. In her view, the dynamics of identification, differentiation, and obsession always hark back to one's youth. She invokes the artist Tadeusz Kantor, who proposed that all art draws from experiences in the artist's past, especially his or her childhood.

Muses: Arthur Rimbaud's expression The I is another; Eileen Gray; Lewis Carroll's book Through the Looking Glass (1871)

Mathilde Rosier's practice is in many ways out of time. Resolutely non-contemporary, though difficult to place in a particular historical moment, her films, performances, paintings, and sculptures occupy a hazy, even opaque territory between the imagined or suggested and the actual. The ambiguity and duplicity inherent in her works distorts the boundary between exhibition and real life. In Find Circumstances in the Antechamber (2010), for instance, she documents her family's house in Burgundy through both a film and a reconstruction of one of its rooms in the gallery space. In the film, the home looks like a stage set full of props even though it is the actual house that has been occupied for four generations by her family. The gallery installation is obviously a stage set, but it is partly "real"—full of furnishings from the house, including watercolors by Rosier that usually line the house's walls. The artist thus leads her audience to a place of beauty, but one that is precarious, on the edge of confusion and disorientation. Her focus for this project was on the idea of the mask. Masks cover the expression of the individual with an identification with a symbol. The wearer becomes the incarnation of the symbol, and the effect is especially powerful when the person is singing or dancing. Rosier proposes that an individual's representation in society is a kind of mask, and that our social roles alienate us from knowledge of who we really are. By wearing a physical mask over this mask of social convention while engaging in ceremonials, we can go deeper into our own reality and gain true self-knowledge.

Muses: The films Mask (1985) by Peter Bogdanovich, Les Maîtres Fous (1955) by Jean Rouch, Les statues meurent aussi (1950) by Alain Resnais and Chris Marker, and Persona (1966) by Ingmar Bergman

For this project the Berlin-based writer Jan Verwoert began by probing the ideas behind relationships, specifically the duality between who we are and who we pretend to be. He asked such questions as: What if we understood each other? What if we were forced to admit that we had done so all along? What if we ran out of the lies that enable us to pretend that we could be each other's fantasy—That you were mysteriously different? That I could give you something you didn't already have? As if to assume such roles is the only means by which to assure ourselves of our power to be someone! In the end, Verwoert concluded, it's a stupid game. And I won't play it if you won't. Verwoert does not claim that there are no differences between us, but rather that such differences are never simply a given. We create them in the process of building our relationships. This is why differences do not delimit the possibility of communication; on the contrary, they are the product of how we choose to communicate. We establish them to negotiate positions. The ultimate question becomes: What kinds of differences do we want to produce, now that we are talking? Verwoert also evoked his vision of a world where people share their dreams, without reservations or regrets. This notion, he proposes, is what sharing feelings and ideas through art and writing has always been about: the tacit hope that each artwork or text might be a step toward creating a society in which we are free to be each other's witnesses, where lies no longer poison us. There is in this a radical ethical demand: that we must all work to achieve a collective state in which we unconditionally share the joys and pains of others. A republic of liberated witnesses, in the shape of our ball of muses.

Muses: Virginia Woolf's book Women and Writing (1942); Orpheus, the Greek god of music and poetry; Maurice Merleau-Ponty

For her participation in this project, the European curator, writer, and editor Monika Szewczyk explored the uses of abstraction, specifically the ways in which it can bolster an already-developing persona. She focused on how traditional identity politics fall to the background or are kept quiet in pieces that she refers to as "situated abstractions" (situated in urban forms, murals, clothing, or craft patterns): for instance Tomma Abts's strange anthropomorphisms, whose esoteric titles are taken from ancient Germanic names, or Adrian Piper's mandalas, which are better understood when we consider Piper's earlier Mystical Being series, in which the female goes in drag. On the one hand, abstraction can be used as a cipher for a complex but iconic identity. On the other hand, abstraction can serve as a backdrop that places the persona in sharper relief.
Szewczyk invited the students to shape their muses into tangible forms, for instance (as she put it): a backdrop that makes the individual stand out more distinctly, a costume that is iconic and like no other, a painting that stands in for you when you are not there and creates an aura of mystery (a visiting card), a mandala for meditation to get a hold of your ego.

Muses: Adrian Piper, Tomma Abts, Jutta Koether, Elizabeth McIntosh, Mina Totino, Bitsy Knox, and David Hammons's 2002 exhibition Quiet as It Is Kept at Christine König Galerie, Vienna

The Hosts

Melissa Dickenson: Bar
William Emmert: Poster
Matthew Endler: Lighting
Michele Fiedler: Conductress
Rebekah Goldstein: Drinks
Kevin Krueger: Program
Blaz Pirnat: Music
Denise Silver: Performance
Paulina Olowska: Performance

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