In Germany, the term Ostalgie—a combination of the words for the East and for nostalgia—refers to the fashion for Soviet-era merchandise and a corresponding longing for life under socialism. Discernible in films such as Good Bye, Lenin! (2003) and in the continued popularity of the hammer-and-sickle icon after 1989, this sensibility, like all such yearning, is a symptom of estrangement from the present-defined in this case by consumerism, globalization and growing inequality-and it involves reimagining a half-forgotten past as an alternative to the evils of today.
Polish artist Paulina Olowska (b. 1976) has often reveled in this kind of nostalgia despite her country’s offi- cial ban on Communist symbols. She frequently applies the procedures of the Western avant-garde-particularly of Dada and Pop art-to the popular iconography of pre-1989 Poland, creating 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.
In a recent exhibition (all works 2010) at Metro Pictures, however, Olowska complicated this brand of sentimentality. The show featured paintings primarily, along with small collages and assorted elements from her studio’s “inspiration wall”; the show was titled “Applied Fantastic” after the Polish writer Leopold Tyrmand’s term, coined in the 1950s, for socialist pastiches of Western fashion. A number of the canvases are based on tasteful Western-style magazines from that period, and feature models posing in stylish attire before rustic backdrops. Jacket Oktawia, for example, shows a woman in a belted sweater, arms akimbo, before a sun-dappled wood fence; the two protagonists of Wool mark stroll in a wintry birch forest in thick overcoats. Ironically, the paintings are nostalgic for an era likewise characterized by an intense pining, but for the glamorous West.
In the back room, a suite of seven paintings formed a kind of portrait gallery. At about 6 by 4 feet each, they replicate images from do-it-yourself cards that circulated in late-Socialist Poland. Each card provided directions for knitting a fashionable sweater along with an illustration of a woman modeling it. The paintings are captioned with playful nicknames. A woman in a flashy yellow-and-black number is dubbed “bee.” Another, in a checkerboard design, is called “chess player.” The sweaters’ bright colors, irregular patterns and vari- ous appliqués follow the fashions of the 1980s, but they often appear folkish or even clumsy compared to their Western counterparts. Olowska painted both the fashion plates and their captions in a manner reminiscent of Pop art (particularly that of the British artist Pauline Boty, an oft-cited influence). She additionally commissioned a knitter to re-create the designs; three of the resulting garments were splayed like specimens in frames on the wall. The display conjured an era of both deprivation and improvised chic, and one that stands as a distinctly ambivalent contrast to the abundance of mass-market products that followed.
Photo: Paulina Olowska: Cake, 2010, oil on canvas, 69 by 491⁄4 inches; at Metro Pictures.