Fayence – Underglaze painting
Exhibition catalog · Berlin 2016 · English/German · 40 pages
Review by Tanja Langer
the tender Pan
or About the Strange Quality of Self-discovery
Dana Widawski paints tiles. Tiles like in any bathroom, tiles as they were painted in cobalt-blue centuries ago in Delft, to remind us, with their worldly beauty, of the transitoriness of mortal existence. Dana Widawski discovered this artistic possibility of expression during a project, in which she was to create something particularly long-lasting on a house wall, and which would also be fire-proof. «The Garden of Eden» (2014) was the result: the first couple in Genesis, the couple of all couples, Adam and Eve, on two separate tile surfaces, both naked, both wearing safety helmets and carrying tools as from a do-it-yourself store, Eve with a power saw, Adam with an axe. The serpent has also been portrayed twice, in order to emphasize the separateness of the couple: on Eve’s side the serpent winds itself around her body, on Adam’s side it winds itself around the tree trunk (a kind of displaced giant phallus) and looks down on him from the branches. Adam holds the apple upwards with his fingertips, one doesn’t really know whether he is plucking it or offering it to someone we can’t see. Eve, on the other hand, holds her half-eaten apple carelessly, the serpent opens its mouth as if to bite into it. What appears to unite this couple par excellence are the seemingly idyllic tree, the fluttering birds and the background, all of them decoratively placed but broken with evil intent: for between the flowering tendrils are Dollar, Euro, Pound and Yen banknote symbols. Eve seems to be wondering which branch she should saw off, whereas Adam appears to want to take over the chopping with his axe. It’s a bad time for couples, the great creation of the universe and the great «getting to know each other», which once characterized the biblical expression of love between men and women, have been reduced to a not-even-shared tinkering with and possibly disfiguring nature. Is this the latest news under the tree of knowledge?
After observing this impossibility Dana Widawski turned her attention first of all to Eve, if you like. Already in former works she has attacked role stereotypes and has shown self-confident women in bikinis (often herself) with saws or pistols. In her series «Artist’s Rest» (2014) she carries out a highly-original self-analysis on the toilet, this intimate place, the last sanctuary, where no video cameras are installed and no-one is normally looking on. In Latin «video» means «I see» and of course the artist is watching herself and shows us this, in a less narcissistic way centred around herself, but rather distantly amazed, like a child who is curious about its own body fluids, its own body and finally all possible phenomena of this world. In the second-last picture the artist puts her naked hand «in the shit», an act which on the one hand leads directly to painting (the first impulse of the child to play with its excretion and «smear» the walls with it) and on the other hand it means: tackle something fearlessly, find out about it.
What exactly is it that the artist, who moreover maintains she’s taking a rest as an artist, wants to know?
The feminine figure, the artist’s alter ego, unravels her own sock, just to knit it up again. She peels an apple (Eve). With the toilet roll she creates a sort of Farah Diba stole, which at the same time reminds one of the headgear of a mediaeval nun, in its combination, a rather subtle association, and with the cigarette tip she feigns an elegance which contrasts crassly with the pulled-down pants and the loo. She pees standing up, like a bloke, but under her pistol belt she is wearing garters on her thighs, similar to the one VALIE EXPORT had tattooed in 1970, in order to protest against the subjugation portrayals of the female body/being under the stares of male eyes. The reference is not without reason; but this peeing, shitting and fantasizing about «excretions» from a female body are featured in a less raw and militant way than in the menstruation videos or «General Panic» of VALIE EXPORT at the end of the sixties, or the Tampon Performances of Carolee Schneemann (1975). Dana Widawski’s interpretation seems to be light, humorous and playful. But especially in the emotionless, matter-of-fact casual everyday occurrence, in which Dana Widawski transfers her artistic activities to the seemingly most banal of all places, lies her provocation, in a time of ever-increasing prudery which has to come to terms with the global co-existence of naked breasts in advertising, reactionary Heidi Klum Supermodel shows and women completely veiled in burkas.
In the traditional line, beginning with Paula Modersohn-Becker’s self-portrait of 1908 on to Cindy Sherman and others, Dana Widawski uses herself as the easiest, cheapest and most radical model, to display her own nakedness, which she also exposes in her chimera painting «Die Diva und der Grizzlyfrosch» («The Diva and the Grizzly Frog», 2014).
In the preparatory work for «Artist’s Rest» she uses simple paper stencil paintings in order to print already existing photos of herself taken by a self-timer spontaneously onto the pages of an anthology of erotic tales («Madame Rêve», 2014). This in turn leads her to Pauline Réage’s book «The Story of O», published in 1954, which caused a far greater scandal than «Fifty Shades of Grey» did some years ago. For, while Pauline Réage attacked the social order of the French bourgeoisie by portraying the sexual pleasure of a woman in her violent subjugation, the newer, commercial bestseller by the Englishwoman E. L. James only caused a rapid increase in the enjoyment of sex and in the sale of (plush) handcuffs. Dana Widawski decides on the more radical authoress; in her work «Geh doch» («Just Go»), 2016, in which she refers to Réage, she portrays herself tied with ropes which are not fastened to anything, the tiles jut out above the corner into space. A moment of distraught, emotional vulnerability.
But beforehand, in the next step for «Artist’s Rest», she deliberately photographs herself in certain postures, edits the photographs on the computer, combines them with other elements found on the Internet, in order to finally apply her draft in several steps with the paintbrush on to the tiles – the irregular, lively paint on the cold, industrially-made underground, which will finally be fired. By means of these time-consuming processes the subjective development is given special emphasis; painting as an active form of artistic production is accentuated in its organic, natural proximity to her own physical being.
Somewhere in this series the artist sits brooding on the toilet, her head held in a classical pose in her hands. Doesn’t a person find oneself after a confrontation with another person?
The question of genders preys on her mind. Dana Widawski’s answer is pessimistic. In both works, «Die Diva und der Grizzlyfrosch» (The Diva and the Grizzly Frog) and «Die Drachenbezwingerin» (The Dragon Master), 2015, she portrays two couples, who are connected to each other exactly in their not being related to each other, you could even say they need each other for their narcissistic projections, but in the end don’t touch each other. The grizzly frog, like the dragon, belongs to the genre of animal bridegrooms found in fairy tales, he is bound by hand and foot shackles (s. above!) to a water pipe, his penis is sheathed in a metal sex toy. The woman – again recognizable as the artist – lies before him, legs open, as though to show him her sex, but then on the other hand perhaps not. Is she disinterested in order to arouse him or is she really disinterested? She is telephoning with a dildo-like mobile phone, the natural slime of the snails is wedged in a stencil or captured in the decoration of the floor tiles, just as in the «Dragon Master» the bamboo canes, swaying in nature, are motionless on the wallpaper. The Asian beauty sits on the dragon man, whose wild face, excited and full of pain, is bent back, she is plucking petals from a chrysanthemum – he loves me, he loves me not: the innocence of a child’s game is crossed with the memory of the scandalous Japanese film of Nagisha Oshima «Realm of the Senses» (1976), which deals with the violent, dark side of human sexual passion up until death. The wooden boardwalk, which rises out of abstract waves, is reminiscent of the water as an erotic-engulfing aspect of the sexuality shown by the grizzly frog in the extremely banal water pipes. Two pictures which deal with the unfathomable impossibility of relationships as well as with certain clichés of power play in eroticism. The magnitude of the longing equals the amount of dread of what one fears and hopes for in the loss of self in love. Fantasmagorias of tenderness and violence, man, as well as woman, are both damaged.
Morris’ ornamentations, porno pages, Grimm’s fairy tales, ancient myths and Japanese legends: Dana Widawski uses the history of art and the Internet as open source for her fantasy; when she has an inspiration for a picture, she looks for the components then plans and rejects them as though in a daydream; she never stores them in between times and only stops when she has found the «right» picture.
And so she was inspired by a certain encounter with two people, as well as by the sculpture «Pan Comforting Psyche» (1857/58) by the Berlin sculptor Reinhold Begas. This is her wonderful final picture so far in the series of half-man, half-animal creatures and couples: «Pan and Psyche» (2016).
Psyche has already experienced self-loss. Being ravishingly beautiful, she invoked the ire of the goddess Venus, who sent her son, Amor, to settle the matter. But Amor fell in love and seduced Psyche. To keep this secret he only visited her at night. Spurred on by her jealous sisters, who persuaded her that her lover was a monstrous serpent(!) who didn’t want her to see him, Psyche waited for Amor with a knife and a lamp. Amor, hurt, left her, and Psyche, full of grief, threw herself into a river. The river had mercy on her and laid her in the reeds. There she met Pan, his lower body that of a goat, the god of woods and nature, as a child ugly and unwanted. Who had unhappily fallen in love with the nymph Syrinx. She, fleeing from him, changed into a reed, out of which Pan carved his pipe, whose sound calms all creatures. The story has something. Pan comforts Psyche, the half-animal comforts the soul. The fact that it is forbidden to ask who one is, has to be ignored, only in this way can true love exist.
On Dana Widawski’s tile work they sit together, both knocked about by love – Psyche tender, childlike, androgynous, Pan much older, fatherly, with wild fur and a large penis. They are turned towards each other, smiling. He is bandaging Psyche’s wrist; she has probably tried to cut open an artery. She has also cut off her hair, an ancient symbol of feminine grief – and self-assertion. And all around them the hanging willow. The animalistic aspect, which in the other two chimera paintings refers to the difficult, often rejected part of sexuality which is linked to violence, is often in contrast to noli-me-tangere in the masquerade of indifference, reverts here to a creature-like empathy. To tenderness and reciprocity. Pan and Psyche are not looking at each other directly, but in their body language there is an emotional feeling of seeing and being seen.
In mythology Psyche, comforted by Pan, goes on her way to find Amor.
translated from German by Elizabeth and Wilfried Hemp