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Paulina Ołowska

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Paulina Ołowska, Pioneer Alphabet Letters (O), 2005, photo: migros museum für gegenwartskunst
Paulina Ołowska, Pioneer Alphabet
Letters (O), 2005, photo: migros
museum für gegenwartskunst

Painter, photographer and filmmaker. As an artist, she is known for projects that combine artistic means of expressions with elements of functional art.

Paulina Ołowska's work involves murals, and performances that reference Pop art, graffiti, and Soviet propaganda. She frequently applies the procedures of the Western avant-garde, particularly of Dada and Pop art-to the popular iconography of pre-1989 Poland. In her work she creates startling mélanges of East and West. In one series, for example, she used the collage techniques of Robert Rauschenberg and the Nouveaux Réalistes on Polish rock posters and political ephemera from the 1980s. Her works and curatorial projects give back a voice to those who have been excluded or forgotten, in particular women of the socialist era in Poland.

Born on January 27, 1976, in Gdańsk Paulina Ołowska studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) from 1995-1996. Between1997-2000 she studied painting and graphic arts in the painting department of the Fine Arts Academy in Gdańsk. She has received scholarships from prestigious art institutions in The Hague, Lisbon, Kitakyushu and Amsterdam. 

Her work continues to evolve as it is the product of her experiences and interests. However, one common feature in her works is the romantic vision of art as a path toward utopia and the belief that "art can change the world". She is interested in the artistic utopia of modernism, which can be found in the principles of the early Bauhaus (project Bauhaus Yoga, 2001), in the circles of Russian constructivists (Abstract in Process, 2000) and in the creative quest of the European avant-garde at the beginning of the 20th century. Ołowska also finds inspiration for her work in the art of the '60s and '70s (In Spring, 2000). While on a scholarship in Portugal she painted a series of pictures based on fashion photographs from the magazine "Ty i Ja" / "You and Me", a cult magazine for young Polish intellectuals from the 1960s. She thought this magazine promoted an optimistic vision of the future, something definitely lacking in our times. For her, the fashion pictures published in "Ty i Ja" were quite visually attractive. In the series In Spring she painted women and young girls looking nostalgically into the distance, dressed in floaty dresses and wearing headbands. Slim and slender figures appear to be the essence of womanhood, and their hair flying in the wind gives them a certain lightness and freshness.

In 2002 Ołowska created a billboard for the AMS Outside Gallery. The picture on the billboard portrays an idyllic climate, with the artist sitting under a tree on a sunny day and a question written underneath: "Cu vi parolas Esperanton?" / "Do you speak Esperanto?". Esperanto, an international language, is another utopia that Ołowska finds fascinating; for her, it is a dream of a world without borders, free of inequalities, domination and ethnocentrism.


That same year Ołowska completed an individual project, Romance with Avant-garde (State Art Gallery, Sopot), which consisted of works by a number of artists from the gallery's storehouse exhibited along with wall paintings by Ołowska herself. The way she arranged the space was extremely interesting, combining forgotten and hidden-away styles of art with contemporary works.

Ołowska finds her own self-realization in reconstructing and referencing older, "modern" aesthetics. She evokes the spirit of those times in her paintings and collages, going as far as to recreate entire situations from the past.

In 2003 Ołowska worked with Lucy McKenzie, a Scottish artist with whom she regularly cooperates, to organize and run a salon-cafe called "Nova Popularna" / "New Popular" for one month on Chmielna Street in Warsaw. The project was a reference to the sorts of fashionable places where bohemian artists and writers used to meet. Ołowska said:

The whole place looked like a dream scene where barmaids, guests and the design united to evoke the memory of a post-impressionist painting or a place for avant-garde meetings.

This ephemeral cafe was not advertised anywhere. News of it spread through the grapevine, and after four weeks the cafe disappeared as quietly as it had appeared. But in the meantime, it became a centre for artistic events, discussions, exchanges of opinions and social gatherings. Its nostalgic, folk-futuristic design was created by both artists, thus integrating elements of the Scottish Arts and Crafts movement. Its artistic events were organized under the aegis of curators from the Foksal Gallery Foundation.

In 2004 Ołowska and McKenzie presented a project in Kunstverein Braunschweig entitled Sie musste die Idee eines Hauses als Metapher verwerfen, a work intended as a tribute to the modernist woman. Ołowska designed the entire installation around the story Desky Maidens written by McKenzie and recorded as a sound track. It is an ironically tragic story of two women – a painter and an architect – who are trying to combine life with art and turn their utopian ideas into reality. The recording was an integral part of the show and was divided into ten chapters corresponding to the ten areas of the exhibition. In the largest room, Ołowska displayed enormous portraits of famous women: Djuna Barnes, Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Nina Hammett and Charlotta Perriand. She filled the whole Kunstverein with paintings, collages, murals, architectural models and other products of women's creativity, which combined to create complex, meaningful spheres that illustrated the story. In her paintings, collages and larger projects the artist often creates intriguing visions of open utopias, imbued with nostalgia and reflection on art history, culture and morality.


Another of her "reconstructions" was a project at the 2003 exhibition "Architectures of Gender" in New York, for which the artist created a modernist artistic salon whose main heroine was Charlotte Perriand, partner and collaborator of Le Corbusier. Later, with the installation Metamorphoses in the Museum Abteiberg in 2005, she reconstructed a New York hairdressing salon from the 1920s.

In 2006 the Centre for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle invited Ołowska to reconstruct a ball known as "Farewell to Spring", which was a social-artistic event that took place in Zalesie in 1968. The ball was organized by Anka Ptaszkowska and Edward Krasiński, who were then connected with the Foksal Gallery, and it was photographed by Jacek M. Stokłosa. In a sense the event was an attempt to escape from the stress of modern times into the realm of artistic fantasy. Ołowska prepared the project together with Joanna Zielińska, who presented documentary materials from "Farewell to Spring."

Not long ago, one of the most characteristic elements of Warsaw's streets was the neon signs from the 50s, 60s and 70s. However, the capitalist system and the aggressive advertising that poured into Poland after 1989 gradually eliminated these old, original neon signs, which had created such a unique atmosphere in Warsaw. One of the few neon signs that had been preserved at Plac Konstytucji once advertised a shop called "Sports House". The sign, which no longer worked, was called Volleyball Player and was designed in 1961 by the well-known Warsaw graphic artist Jan Mucharski. Ołowska worked with together with the Foksal Gallery Foundation to find a way to return the neon sign to its former glory. She used the profit from selling her works, which were exhibited at the Foksal Gallery Foundation, to finance the sign's restoration, and it started up again on May 19th, 2006.

Ołowska presented Rainbow Brite that same year as part of the project "At the Centre of Attention", in the Centre for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle. It consisted of a film installation constructed around the cult film Neverending Story. Five versions of the film in different languages were shown on five screens over a period of 24 hours, and the inside of the gallery was entirely white (white curtains, drapes and seats). The videos were accompanied by promotional posters from different countries and white screen prints by Ołowska that had been inspired by the story. The key to the installation was the legal ruling defending the "illegal" use of the film (since Ołowska did not ask the owners of the film's rights for permission), and pleading for more liberal treatment of copyright for the purposes of art.

In 2006 Ołowska presented a series of nine paintings in the Cabinet Gallery entitled Hello to You Too, in praise of women's sensuality. One of the paintings – Pauline Body Acts Out One of Her Paintings for a Popular Newspaper -- pays tribute to a British pop artist who was criticized for making explicit sexual references in her work. That same year she created Attention Painting, a project about 1920s fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli. It consisted of eight pictures (some very large) showing the women's clothes Schiaparelli designed along with separate sculpture-clothes. 

In 2008 Ołowska presented her works in the New York gallery Metro as part of an exhibition titled New Scene. It consisted of twenty large collages inspired by the Polish punk scene of the 1980s. In creating them, the artist collaborated with Robert Jarosz who granted her access to his rich archives. The background of the punk posters is made up of elements from life in Poland in the '80s, including newspaper cuttings, magazine covers and pictures of fashion models. In terms of things like font and colours, the style of Ołowska's collages is similar to both the work of Russian constructivists and fanzines from those times. 

She returned to New York in 2011 for a group show at the New Museum, titled Ostalgia, aimed at offering personal reportages on aspects of life under Communism and in the new post-Soviet countries. For her project, she transported the decorations of an old Polish puppet theatre to New York, creating an installation that stretches along the lobby walls and windows of the New Museum. Based on a public mural project she painted in 2010 in Mszana Dolna, a small rural town. A local spa for children was recently restored and re-opened with the assistance of members of the local community. The public murals in Mszana Dolna consist of reproductions of decorative images from the children's puppet theatre at the spa.

In her efforts to bring back forgotten histories and personalities, at the 5th Berlin Biennial (2008) she presented an installation inspired by painter Zofia Stryjeńska's work. She copied in black-and-white five of Stryjeńska's paintings from her early period, when Stryjeńska was fascinated by Slavism and folklore, and enlarged them to monumental size. The paintings were accompanied by a selection of factory-made objects decorated with Stryjeńska's own motifs and historic documentation about her. Inspired by the visceral, sensual sculptures of Alina Szapocznikow (1926-73), Ołowska created her own series of paintings and collages, which were shown alongside those of the sculptor and other contemporary artists using a similar method at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, titled Awkward Objects, in 2009.

In 2011 her Applied Fantastic series at the Metro Pictures Gallery in New York caught the attention of Guardian reviewer Skye Sherwin. Sherwin wrote of the series, which took popular images of fashionable aspirations of Polish women behind the Iron Curtain and reinterpreted them through collage and painting. Sherwin found that "with their localised take on western trends, Olowska's paintings present a vision at odds with capitalism's vision of eastern Europe" and that her "take on pop culture behind the iron curtain has made her a prominent figure within a younger generation of Polish artists". 

In March 2013 the Studio Voltaire gallery in London hosted Ołowska's The Method, in which the artist set her own works alongside those of Władysław Hasior, Matthias Schaufler and Włodzimierz Wieczorkiewicz - three intriguing artists of Poland and Germany who were active creating works that used a similar referential method of inspiration during the socialist era, but who have been overlooked today. 

In 2014, the artist received the prestigious Kunstpreis Aachen award, which made her the second Polish artist recognized in this competition (Paweł Althamer received it in 2010).  In February of the same year, her solo show The Spell of Warsaw opened at the capital's Zachęta National Gallery of Art - the exhibition was co-produced by the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, which presented the artist's exhibition Au Bonheur des Dames a few months earlier.

Selected individual exhibitions:

  • 1999 - "Triumph of Youth", Fine Arts Academy, Gdańsk
  • 1999 - "Who Likes Sport Style", Telhal 59 Gallery, Lisbon
  • 1999 - "Two Strangers on Satumus" (with H. Lund), Royal Fine Arts Academy, the Hague
  • 2000 - "Abstract in the Process", Zebra Gallery, Tartu, Estonia
  • 2000 - "In Spring", Entropia Gallery, Wrocław
  • 2000 - "Summer Discount", Bagatte Gallery, Gdańsk
  • 2001 - "HeavyDuty" (with Lucy McKenzie), Inverleith House, Edinburgh
  • 2002 - "Romancing with the Avant-garde", State Art Gallery, Sopot
  • 2003 - "In Lubelian", Cabinet Gallery, London
  • 2003 - "Nova Popularna" (with Lucy McKenzie), Warsaw
  • 2004 - "Suspicious?", billboard project, New Context Gallery, Chicago
  • 2004 - "Asymmetric Display", Galerie Daniel Buchholz, Cologne
  • 2004 - "Sie musste die Idee eines Hauses als Metapher verwerfen", Kunstverein Braunschweig
  • 2006 - "Farewell to Spring" (with Joanna Zielińska), CCA Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw
  • 2006 - "Rainbow Brite", the CCA Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw
  • 2006 - "Hello to You Too", Cabinet Gallery, London
  • 2007 - "Salty Water", Portikus, Frankfurt
  • 2007 - "Noël sur le balcon/Hold the Colour", Sammlung Goetz, Munich
  • 2007 - "New Scene", Metro Pictures Gallery, New York
  • 2008 - "Usher We (Down There)", collaboration with Bonnie Camplin, Tate Modern, London (performance)
  • 2008 - Galerie Daniel Buchholz, Cologne
  • 2009 - "Shadow with a Sneak", Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich (2009-2010)
  • 2010 - "Onethousandandsixhundredandseventeen Neons in Warszawa", Steirischer Herbst Festival, Graz (performance)
  • 2010 - "The Magnificent Seven", CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco
  • 2010 - "Accidental Collages", Tramway, Glasgow
  • 2010 - "Applied Fantastic", Metro Pictures, New York
  • 2011 - "The Revenge of the Wise-Woman", Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw
  • 2012 - "Alphabet", The Museum of Modern Art, New York (performance)
  • 2012 - "Mother 200", Simon Lee Gallery, London

Selected group exhibitions:

  • 1999 – 34th Biennial Exhibition of Paintings, Bielska Gallery BWA, Bielsko Biała
  • 1999 - "Young Art from Baltic States", Community Centre for Arts, Greifswald
  • 1999 - "Shake the Disease", Lower Foyer Gallery, Dundee, Great Britain
  • 2000 - "Nurse with Wound", National Gallery in Tallinn
  • 2000 - "Dangerous Brushes", Królikarnia, Warsaw
  • 2001 - "Modern Painting", the State Art Gallery, Wrocław
  • 2001 - "Relax", BWA Gallery, Białystok
  • 2001 - "Open Studios", Centre of Modern Art in Kitakyushu, Japan
  • 2001 - "Fish Eye", BWA Gallery in Słupsk
  • 2001 - "Festival of Wall Painting", Gdańsk
  • 2002 - "Really, the Young Are Realists", the CCA Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw
  • 2002 - "The Rules of Hospitality", Neue Galerie, Berlin
  • 2002 - "Germination 13", Paris
  • 2003 - "50th Biennale di Venezia", Venice
  • 2003 - "Architectures of Gender", Sculpture Center, New York
  • 2003 - "Hidden in the Sun", film festival in Cieszyn, project of the Foksal Gallery Foundation
  • 2005 – 2nd Biennial Exhibition in Moscow
  • 2005 – 9th Biennial Exhibition in Istanbul
  • 2006 - "Subversive Charm of the Bourgeois", Van Abbe Museum, Eindhoven
  • 2007 - "Le Nuage Magellan", Pompidou Centre, Paris
  • 2007 - "Expats/Clandestines", Wiels Contemporary Arts Centre, Brussels
  • 2007 - "Conditions of Display", The Moore Space, Miami
  • 2008 - 5th Biennial Exhibition in Berlin
  • 2008 - "T2", Torino Triennale, Turin
  • 2008 - "When Things Cast No Shadow", 5th Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art, Schinkel Pavilion, Berlin
  • 2009 - "Compass in Hand: Selections from the Judith Rothschild Foundation Contemporary Drawing Collection", Museum of Modern Art, New York (2009-2010)
  • 2009 - "Awkward Objects", The Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw
  • 2009 - "Modern Modern", The Chelsea Art Museum, New York
  • 2009 - "Interventions", The National Museum in Warsaw, Poland
  • 2010 - "Early Years", KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin
  • 2010 - "While Bodies Get Mirrored - An Exhibition about Movement, Formalism and Space", Migros Museum Für Gegenwartskunst, Zurich
  • 2011 - "The Power of Fantasy", Bozar, Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels
  • 2011 - "Ostalgia", The New Museum for Contemporary Art, New York
  • 2012 - "Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language", The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Author: Ewa Gorządek, the Centre for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle, April 2004. Updated by Agnieszka Le Nart, March 2013, Anna Micińska February 2014's picture
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Paulina Ołowska


Paulina Ołowska, Alphabet, 2005, a series of 26 photographs, images courtesy of the artist

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