A girl holding a sniper’s rifle in a basement with fake wood paneling. A woman wrapped in an American flag. A woman wearing mesh and holding a machine gun. For her newest show at Nationale, "When We Dead Awaken, Elizabeth Malaska imagines the aftermath of a catastrophe – and presents the viewer with urgent, mysterious paintings that are unlike any post-apocalyptic images I’ve seen before.
My favorite moments in Malaska’s When We Dead Awaken are sites of rupture.
In the basement room of You Will Become Me, there is a naked girl in sunglasses whose body is disappearing into the wood-paneling behind her. One of the girl’s legs dissolves into the wall and then reemerges with skin that has taken on the pattern of the wood. She holds a rifle, and it, too, disappears and reappears. You can see traces of where the gun used to be to the figure’s left, as if it has recently been in motion. In Seer, a woman with an American flag draped over her body and framing her face, sits at a table that appears to be see-through. You cannot tell if her arm has disappeared into the table, or if the table has disappeared into her arm. In Pause and Give Thanks that We Rise Again from Death and Live, one of the legs of the central figure is obscured by a splash of pink paint.
In an artist talk on December 3 at Nationale, Malaska called such moments evidence of the uncontrollable breaking through, of leakage, and I could not help but think of Judith Butler and her insistence in Precarious Life that for representation “to convey the human,” it must not only fail, “but must show its failure.” Malaska’s figures won’t stay put. They exceed the viewer’s gaze, trouble it, evade it.
I also read these moments of rupture – of intentional failure – in Malaska’s paintings as a kind of resistance. “Protest is a fundamental reason I paint,” Malaska states. “Protest against sexism, against the status quo, against what I should be doing.” In her work, she raises critical questions about art history, the history of painting, and the figure itself. What do you see when you go to a museum or open an art history textbook? Malaska asked her audience during her talk: the naked bodies of women. Malaska has painted bodies that push back against the people looking at them. They can defend themselves. They have guns. They can disappear into their surroundings. They are, perhaps, more in charge of your gaze than you are.
For more, please visit the full article on Oregon ArtsWatch.