Critical Reflections: Andrea Kalinowski - Society of Women

Klaudia Marr Gallery<br /> 668 Canyon Road, Santa Fe

Date June 30, 2008 at 10:00 PM

Author Diane Armitage

Publication THE magazine

Categories Performing Arts

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In Andrea Kalinowski's series of mixed-media paintings, Society of Women, her processes threaten to overshadow her content. There is also a problem with her use of patterns which are too busy and can seem claustrophobic. While mimicking eighteenth- and nineteenth-century folk art landscapes and genre scenes, the backgrounds tend to trump the points Kalinowski wishes to make in her work. The artist-using wallpaper-derived patterns, silhouetted figures, pieces of elegantly scripted text, ink, plaster, and acrylic-attempts to braid together historical vignettes of people loosely anchored in various scenes of iconic country and city life that echo visions of Americana and critique it at the same time.

Kalinowski's ambitious agenda is noteworthy for its serious attempts to come to terms, for example, with the underlying historical forces that have led to our current saber rattling and imperialistic global meddling. And certainly there is the desire in her work to say something profound about America's origins, its fascination with purity, its Protestant work ethic, its legacy of slavery, and its slow liberation of women. All these themes are there in the work but are too often in danger of having their edges blunted by a reliance on the decorative at the price of a harder one-two punch of historical analysis.

The general diminishment in scale of the figures within the landscapes also contributes to a watering down of her intentions. Kalinowski's figures, for all their silhouetted details, are often so small, so seemingly insignificant within their repeated patterns of trees, hedges, discretely tended fields, or Grandma Moses-style houses that we lose the thread of her "society of women"€ as an underlying organizing principle. And this tends to beg Kalinowski's very real and important questions: What did women know, when did they know it, and how did they work their way out of the stasis of being objectified, of being colonized, of not having the power to influence history in a more substantial way?

Perhaps Kalinowski is emphasizing the fact that women just tended to blend into the landscapes and cityscapes like two-dimensional beings on a strip of wallpaper. But I still am puzzled by the static quality they possess, by their decorative charm, frozen energy, comic-book charisma. In this body of work, Kalinowski shines a light on the historically obvious without benefit of a more nuanced view of history. Where satire, for instance, enters into the scenario-as it does in Reading for Pleasure, with its waterfront harbor, clipper ships, and mercantile self-satisfactions-Kalinowski plants bare-butt babes and pin-up girls with books among the lawns and the genteel citizenry. The satire works here, as does the occasional elements of weird, subterranean fantasy figures in Southern Sewing, one of the more interesting paintings.

In this work, there is a greater dynamic arrangement of landscapes, silhouettes, and historical information. The palette is subdued-mostly tan and shades of gray-and the placing of the black silhouettes is more varied in terms of scale. Also, instead of horizontal bands of landscape, which the eye tends to follow as if reading a book, the eye roams in a more exploratory fashion and comes upon areas of discovery where it finds, say, a dancing satyr, a Civil War encampment, or African-American figures working in a field. Here the visual stasis of the women, as oblivious Southern belles, works with the soft but powerful images of war and social injustice. However, even in this work, Kalinowski corrals her visual elements in a too tasteful equilibrium that undermines the social malaise at the core of her implied critical commentary.

In choosing to interrogate history by merely mirroring historical art forms with their penchant for the tasteful, the unoffending, and the decorative, without really subverting them, criticism can be subsumed by a reliance on facile techniques that pass for deconstruction. In Kalinowski's work there is more than a passing nod to the artist Kara Walker and her singular grappling with American history and its intense historical blowback. But Walker took her artistic processes and jumped off the edges of history in order to blast it apart and admit new levels of understanding into the twists, turns, and perversions of the American story.

If Kalinowski's visual mirrors of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries feel a little tepid by comparison with Walker's gutsy historical revisionings, she comes much closer to the mark when dealing with contemporary events. The most succinct, satisfying, and visually dynamic of Kalinowski's paintings is Iraq Landscape, and here the artist brings landscape patterns, a profusion of details, and her flat human stereotypes to a strong pictorial conclusion. A businessman in the foreground with a grenade for a head; women soldiers taking aim at men in robes; ironically placed fashionistas in high heels pointing machine guns at the women soldiers; helicopters hovering over medieval Islamic cities; trucks and tanks violating the Iraqi landscape; men bowing down in prayer-all the visual information feeds the whole and doesn't appear gratuitous. There are also two other very small but important details at the heart of Iraq Landscape that give it its ultimate political spin, but those you can go and find for yourself.

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