elizabeth malaska

ArtsWatch Weekly: all aboard for Eugene

A Eugene cultural tour, Anne Boleyn's music book, a little shop of horror and a full gallop, monkey business, Yetis, two top art shows, "Hughie," roots music, Alien Boy, guns galore, spirit of '76

There are lots of good reasons to go to Eugene that have nothing to do with Ducks or football. Sure, the presence of the University of Oregon has a lot to do with the quality of things down the valley: two of ArtsWatch’s favorite things, for instance, the Oregon Bach Festival and the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, are intimately tied to the university, and a lot of what’s good about Oregon’s new-music scene emanates from the halls and studios of the university’s music department. But the university is far from the only game in town. However you keep your cultural scorecard, Eugene – population roughly 160,000, metro area another 200,000 added to that – consistently hits above its weight.

Here at ArtsWatch we like to keep tabs on what’s happening in the Emerald City, and lately that’s been quite a bit. For starters, check out Gary Ferrington’s Arts Sampler: Eugene by train for a car-free, arts-stuffed weekend, a sort of cultural travelogue for Portlanders looking for a close-to-home adventure. Go ahead, plan an autumn getaway. And if you like, feel free to slip in a football game or a track meet on the side, too.

Portland-bound Amtrak Cascades at Eugene Station.

Portland-bound Amtrak Cascades at Eugene Station.

We’ve also picked up some good features from some top Eugene writers:

— Photographer and arts journalist Bob Keefer, author of the invaluable Eugene Art Talk online journal, has undertaken an almost year-long project of following the development of a new version of The Snow Queen for Eugene Ballet, with a fresh score by Oregon composer Kenji Bunch and choreography by EB’s longtime artistic director, Toni Pimble, who is recognized nationally as a creator of vivid and original ballets. Keefer will write about ten installments leading up to the premiere next spring, and ArtsWatch will reprint them once they’ve debuted on Eugene Art Talk. Here’s Episode 2, focusing on designer Nadya Geras-Carson.


The Best of a Bad Situation

Elizabeth Malaska's paintings at Nationale use the canon for their own purposes

The desire to express a deep appreciation for an artist’s work while knowing that when it comes to writing about that work one feels somewhat out of one’s league… This may be the highest praise an arts writer can give an artist. And while attempting an essay may not do the artist any favors, such it is for me with painter Elizabeth Malaska’s When We Dead Awaken II at Nationale.

First of all, the title has a curious phrasing and demands extra effort to decipher its meaning. It has the flavor of an echo, as if it could be attributed to some older text, a poem perhaps. Sure enough, a quick check of Google brings me to Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. It’s the title of his last play, which is about a male sculptor and his long-lost, female model/muse. One day she reappears and, as it turns out, she has been driven mad by his fame and the loss of her role as his dedicated model. Furthermore, she feels as though her soul has been taken in the experience, and from that moment on she has considered herself dead. Somewhat paralleling her disposition, the artist considers her largely responsible for his masterpiece, the work that put him in the spotlight, yet he has felt empty ever since. No surprise (this is Ibsen, after all) they both die tragically in the end.

Having found a context for the title by reading the play, I could have let my research end there had I not then had a similar intuition about the title of one painting in the exhibit, “Not to Pass on Tradition, but to Break Its Hold over Us (the Archive and Its Shadow).” The phrase cannot be random, and in fact, the non-parenthetical part comes from a 1972 essay by Adrienne Rich, the title of which is “When We Dead Awaken – Writing as Re-vision.” I believe it is from here Malaska draws her most direct reference. In short, Rich makes the argument that women need to find a way to write with their own voices, unburdened by the male-dominant narrative that is embedded in the canon. If we consider that this is also Malaska’s goal in painting, then we might do well to take a closer look at this particular painting as perhaps being most directly related to this effort.

Not to Pass on Tradition, but to Break its Hold Over Us (the Archive and Its Shadow)/Elizabeth Malaska

Not to Pass on Tradition, but to Break its Hold Over Us (the Archive and Its Shadow)/Elizabeth Malaska

Here my feeling of ineptitude arises. First of all, as with many of Malaska’s paintings, I find myself wishing I had a deeper knowledge of art history, for the references in her pictorials are many, and presumably full of meanings I will likely fail to grasp. I can, however, hope to provide the reader with a descriptive gist of it all, and in the doing, perhaps come upon some insights.


Elizabeth Malaska’s post-apocalyptic protest

The women in “When We Dead Awaken” are armed and dangerous


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.

Elizabeth Malaska's "You Will Become Me"/Courtesy Nationale

Elizabeth Malaska’s “You Will Become Me”/Courtesy Nationale

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 philosopher and critical theorist 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 on the Nationale website. “Protest against sexism, against the status quo, against what I should be doing.” Her work 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.

Elizabeth Malaska's "Pause to Give Thanks That We Rise Again From Death and Live"/Courtesy Nationale

Elizabeth Malaska’s “Pause to Give Thanks That We Rise Again From Death and Live”/Courtesy Nationale

Malaska has mastered classical technique and shows a range of painting styles and aesthetic approaches in this exhibit, as well as continual shifts in depiction. Sometimes her style is painterly, sometimes highly detailed and exact, sometimes like folk art. There are carefully constructed fields of perspective in some paintings and in others the floors seem to lean against the walls that lean against ceilings, evidence of Malaska skillfully facing the challenge all painters face–how (and whether) to represent a three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface–and having fun while she does it.

A painting in Malaska’s previous show, “Only the Marvelous Is Beautiful,” investigates surrealism, and during her talk, Malaska noted that part of what draws her to surrealism is its role as political protest–artists reacting against the surrounding chaos and violence of World War I. Malaska continues that important work in “When We Dead Awaken.” So much art being made now ignores the years-long wars in which the United States is engaged. Not Malaska’s. She faces the violence all around us and dares to imagine what kind of world might follow. Looking at her work, I can almost hear the sound of helicopters, explosions, drones and the missiles they release. Though the scenes she paints are more dystopic than utopic, there is, I think, relief, even hope, that comes when violence is acknowledged rather than ignored, explained away, or denied.

Elizabeth Malaska's "Seer"/Courtesy of Nationale

Elizabeth Malaska’s “Seer”/Courtesy of Nationale

I have long insisted that if anyone is going to get us out of the situation we have created on this planet (wars, environmental collapse, racism, etc.),  if anyone can help forge a new way forward, it will be artists. And ultimately Malaska’s show points to just that possibility: that we dead might indeed awaken.

Elizabeth Malaska’s “When We Dead Awaken” is on view through December 31, 2014, at Nationale, 3360 SE Division, Portland, OR 97202.

Sarah Sentilles is the author of three books, including her recent memoir Breaking Up with God: A Love Story. She is currently writing a book about war, the history of photography, and a violin. She teaches at Pacific Northwest College of Art.  

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