Bożena Kowalska: Nostalgia and Mockery (1990)
(The text was published in: “Projekt”, 4/1990, pp. 28-30)
Pinińska-Bereś’s oeuvre has many varied assets both as regards its reflective and emotional message and the impact of its form and colour. Yet the most powerful asset is that her works are unlike anything else done before, a criterion no especially fashionable in post-modernist times but nevertheless effective.
On the surface, she concentrates on her closet surroundings yet thanks to her associative references her work has a considerable degree of universality. There is something wayward in the fact that, in order to convey her comment on things of this world, she employs the symbolism of objects of daily use. The props from kitchen, boudoir and nursery, peculiar to woman since time immemorial and narrowly enclosing her world, all prosaic and basically utilitarian, are the most important tool of her art. She has transformed these objects, patronised or neglected, into an ambiguous poetic spectacle deliberately close to kitsch.
The dominant colours of her works are pink and white, and the most frequent materials wood, plywood, chipboard and textiles, sewn in a special way, stuffed and soft like pillows or quilted like duvets. The forms are arbitrary and do not approach sculptures, which is why classifying her work as sculpture raises controversies. Because of their colour scheme, her works are related to painting; because of their three-dimensionality to sculpture. Like many phenomena which do not imitate anything that has been before, Pinińska’s oeuvre is situated on the borderline of traditional art disciplines.
From her first works until the early 1970s, woman has been the main motif of her art. Though she analysed the condition of woman in society and in relation to man, she was not a bigoted feminist. Yet the discrimination of women, both in the sense of their individual experience in personal life and on the social scale, was one of her major motifs. The’ more so as, apart from other, more general observations, she realised that a woman’s start and career in art are much more difficult that man’s.
At the same time, aware of the exhaustion of media in art, she reached our for the arsenal of until then overlooked or even despised means of expression, which had not been done on that scale before. Femininity, demonstrated in a defiant way through the use of props and colours, has become the distinctive mark of her art.
Though her new visual formula had an intellectual background, in addition to being logical and fully consistent, it was not speculative because the element of emotional, poetic reflection and her gift for almost instinctive metaphors are among the characteristic qualities of her personality. Further into the 1970s, her irony gained in sharpness, her poetry in subtlety, and her refined sad reflection in ambiguity, causing the references of her art to become more universal. This was accompanied by the growing precision of her individual, original visual language.
Her pink and pink-and-white objects, piece of furniture or ones reminding of it and transformed into dramatic and ironical symbols, chests with pulled out drawers, small tables, screens, wings of grand pianos, fences, quilts, beds or kitchen cupboards are characterised by a peculiar kind of beauty, unforgettable in their striking dissimilarity to anything else.
We have, for instance, a girl’s lips afloat on the billows in a wash-basin. and inscription on the wooden planks reads: Cruise across the Seas and Aceans around the Table. Elsewhere, we have a seamstress’s dummy, a woman’s torso with a specification including “the date of production…, valid until…”.
Though the latter work bears the title Is woman a human being ?, we may ponder whether humans are still human. Similarly, dream voyages across high seas may, perhaps, be made in a wash-basin are not only by women. Other works from the same period are evidently ambiguous. The round, Pink Table with an apple stuck with a knife to the tabletop or the big parted bas-relief pink lips on a rounded screen above the triangle of a quilt, though the pink is very boudoir-like and very feminine, evoke associations not necessarily connected with the fair sex. The brutally dissected and nailed apple may signify to an equal degree an act of violence as of vengeance and punishment, and the Whispers of the mouth on the screen do not necessarily hint at femininity and love.
What evidently comes first in Pinińska is the idea. To convey it in the aptly way, the artist seeks the right means of expression. This is why she combines the prosaism of daily life with the poetic quality of fairy tales, the shocking originality of concept with simple solutions, coarse with caustic, pessimistic reflection. The simple, three-winged, pink Screen with a disturbingly undulating cut-out at the top bears the inscription “A screen is good for all occasions.” A small garden of artificial flowers, surrounded by a high railing with a piece of the sky painted on it seems rather pathetic with its inscription saying.
I have a little intimate world of my own.
Similarly, My charming little room is a nook with serpent-like bolsters made of twisted pillows, the walls covered with small pink quilts in the shape of wild boar’s skins, everything steeped in disturbing shades of pink. The mockery is penetrating, and there is nothing funny about it. In those works executed in the mid-1970s, the artist had gone beyond the assemblage technique that she had used until then. Spatial arrangements turned out to be more effective tools with which to encode her message. In turn this language proving ineffective later on when Pinińska was anxious to convey a different message, she went for actions. In the latter half of the 1970s, she broadened the area of observation and comment to include other areas of human life, thinking and emotions. Her pink, cone-shape Tent, crowned with the parody of a chimney, ambiguous in its mockery, restrained drama and unpretentious simple form is one of her best creations. The lifted canvas curtain at the entrance to the tent bore the sad, sympathetic invitation: “If you have stifled your voice for too long, if you feel unhappy. come inside and shout.”
The installation has references both to the tragic life of the individual and the nation. Yet in order to lessen the grim burden of pathos and remind one that practical routine is inevitable both before and after acts of heroism and elevated drama, the invitation had a postscript: “Before entering, take off your shoes.”
With the development of her art, Pinińska’s imagery grew more and more complex and wayward in its ambiguity; her mockery more and more concealed and refined; and means of expression, selected liberally, with the lightness and instinctive inventiveness peculiar to fresh, unhampered imagination. For instance the pink Stream (1979) runs within a bed regulating its course. It is limited by rocks placed on both its sides, thus incapacitating it. Likewise the Stone in the water (Polish saying equivalent, more or less, to “Melt into thin air”), of 1981, may be interpreted in various ways. Circles on the water disappear and nothing is left of an idea, of an action, of a person. Everything becomes painful, mutilated, incomplete, as well as grotesque and meaningless. The Fifth Angle (1983) is reddish and useless; the Wounded Boat (1983) is all constructed of prickly, acute angles; The Last Ray of that same year shows a stick piercing three headlike silhouettes.
One of the most characteristic qualities of Pinińska’s art, observed since the mid-1970s in all her works, is the delicate balance between individual reflection tinted with emotion, and a comment on broader problems. It is very rare that the two, so different points of view should co-exist the way they do in her work. One is the external perspective from which feminine problems, the boudoir and the kitchen, are seen, with the accompanying set of symbolic objects consistently deriving from it. The other, internal perspective permits us to see reflection on universal things in each of these transformed objects. On the borderline of these two areas of the comment concerning both these areas, there is always an element of parody, of mockery (though with an admixture of tears) to counterbalance tragedy, pathos and exaltation. Though Pinińska never refers directly to the current events in Poland, she is by no means indifferent; but here, too, her grotesque approach makes for her detachment. Her art never lapses into journalism. Beyond the context of “here and now”, the reflective content goes beyond time and geographic divisions. For instance, in the extremely nostalgic and lyrical action called Live Pink (1981), rich in implied meaning, her anxiety about the time pregnant with events made her ask the fearful, poetic question: “Will roses blossom pink again in the spring?” As usual with her, the action carried out in Lublin in 1984 was not only linked with the current historic moment. After actions presented by a number of artists and a public debate on art. not without references to politics, Pinińska appeared with a broom and started sweeping the “stage”, the empty circle of the floor round which the chairs of the participants in the meeting were placed. She was so systematic and determined that the public and the participants had to move their chairs further to the walls of the room. The title of the action, The broom only, was open to interpretation as the action itself. Apart from the immediate and literal interpretations one could infer that the most effective broom is time that removes everybody and everything. Pinińska is first and foremost a poet. Her imagery has no parallel in the visual arts. Neither have her sense of parody, her discretion, emotional restraint, feminine self-irony and peculiar, nostalgic mockery.