(This essay was originally published by Ms. Magazine.)
Though the women are solitary in Elizabeth Malaska’s When We Dead Awaken II, they are not alone. Instead, each appears to be many women at once, composed of multiple figures, a kind of palimpsest. Here, the wrecked bodies of women–those seen daily, cut up in advertisements and magazine pages and newspapers and crime dramas and high art’s canvases–have been reassembled, stitched, repaired. Wild-haired, many-armed, the women triumph. No matter what happened before, no matter who used to dominate these spaces, the painted worlds belong to Malaska’s women now.
Malaska marks the spaces as her subjects’ in part by skewing perspective. The grate in No Man’s Land on which sits a woman and a hawk may be horizontal or it may be vertical or it may be a textile and not a grate at all–yet the figure resting on it with her camouflaged gun understands how it works and will not fall. The ambiguity of the grate destabilizes the room, renders it volatile, mysterious. “A ripple happens because of imprecision,” Malaska told me when we met in her studio. Malaska’s careful work throughout this series–the gridded walls and bricks and stairways–remind the viewer that the ripple is not accidental.
Malaska troubles certainty intentionally, glitching these works. In every painting, the viewer can find places where things don’t line up, cracks, a gap between hips and torso, a broken forearm, hair flying away, a leg with no foot and missing its shoe. These moments of rupture rend the surface of the canvas and bring into view the act of looking itself. As a result, the paintings cannot be easily consumed because you can never be sure what you see is all there is to see; your perspective could be wrong. Malaska’s canvases perform a necessary political critique of the gaze at a time when hegemonic vision—drones, war, police brutality, sexism, racism—continues to kill.
In The Queer Art of Failure, Jack Halberstam argues that failure, unbecoming, and refusal are the only viable forms of resistance left for those working against oppressive systems. Everything is compromised, Halberstam argues; if freedom was defined against slavery, then “freedom” itself is suspect – and it must be refused and reimagined. One of the questions driving Halberstam’s work drives Malaska’s, too: Can “freedom be imagined separately from the terms upon which it is offered?” While Halberstam would answer this question in the negative, I think Malaska would answer in the affirmative—and her attempt to reimagine freedom is visible in When We Dead Awaken II. Malaska has taken on the fraught feminist challenge of painting women without objectifying women. It is as if Picasso’s models have come to life—perhaps they are Malaska’s awakened dead?— marching out of his canvases in protest and into hers. She employs both formal and content-based strategies to grant her subjects agency and to disrupt the viewer’s gaze. I will highlight three strategies here: juxtaposition, collage, and unbecoming.
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