Review in the Oregon

Russo Lee Gallery
Mar 1, 2018 7:21PM

By Briana Miller| For The Oregonian/OregonLive

Elizabeth Malaska’s women are no longer bodies in space, but bodies taking space.As in much of her work, in her new series of six paintings, “Heavenly Bodies,” Malaska depicts female figures in architectural spaces. But where in her earlier work these women drifted coolly in large, sparse, classically detailed spaces and sometimes melded with the patterned walls or floors around them, the grimacing women in her new work push forcibly to the front of their canvases. Writhing and contorted, they press against the edges of the paintings with curled, taloned feet. These women are barely contained.

Malaska is an avowed feminist artist. Her work over the last several years has explored what it might look like to take back the art historical spaces created for women by men. She resamples art historical styles, and liberally plants signs and symbols from art history in her work to revindicate them for her female protagonists. In her new work, the architectural and symbolic elements are still present, but are shoved to the side to make way for the grotesque nudes whose visceral anguish, dismay and rage Malaska confidently renders in paint.This makes the work sound ugly. It is not. Malaska’s skillful painting and inventiveness are compelling and refreshing.

“Heavenly Bodies,” the title of her solo show at Russo Lee Gallery and of the painting series, also includes a dozen drawings and two large-scale self portraits. All of the work was created in 2017 and seems provoked by current events. But rather than making overt statements — with a couple minor exceptions — Malaska reverts to a personal vocabulary to give voice to her outrage.

In “Wake to Weep,” a figure on hands and knees holds her head as she looks at the illuminated screen of a cellphone. Her simplified, abstracted profile and the gray tones Malaska uses to model her crouching body echo the palette and shattered, emotive figures of Picasso’s “Guernica,” his massive Cubist anti-war painting.

In “Star Gazers,” four downcast figures and a cat intertwine on an up-tilted tile floor. Two figures look at a cell phone, another lies with her eyes closed. The fourth may be looking at stars, but her features are scrubbed out. Malaska packs this canvas, reminiscent of Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” with symbols of femininity: a bowl of milk, a vase with lilies, moths, the cat. The lilies, traditionally associated with the Virgin Mary, are translucent and look decayed. The cat, in the Renaissance representative of carnality, beautifully repeats the languid posture of the sleeping woman. In a surrealist touch, a pink organ — a heart, perhaps — balances on the arm of the central figure.

Malaska lifts the reclining figure in “Apocrypha” wholesale from Matisse’s “Blue Nude,” a problematic early modernist painting whose subtitle notes that it’s a souvenir of Biskra, Algeria, where Matisse lived and worked. Malaska’s fleshy semi-nude figure is no one’s souvenir. She wears tube socks and mesh underwear, which mimics the torn chain link fence behind her and is fabulously realized using built-up lines of silver paint. A vase of lushly painted plant fronds centered in the canvas does nothing to cover up her less-than-perfect body parts, the underarm hair and bumps on the areolae, which are described in quick, painted dashes, or her drooping belly.

Past shows of Malaska’s work have focused on her painting series. Here, she also includes drawings. Twelve fully realized drawings comprise “Volatile Bodies,” a set of smudged portraits of women through the ages that are executed in charcoal, Flashe (a vinyl-based matte paint) and chalk pastel. Of the two monumental self-portraits, also in charcoal and Flashe on paper, the striking "Reflection (1)" evokes some of the strange charm of John Graham's cross-eyed portraits of women.

In the midst of this work that speaks so eloquently for itself, the less successful moments come when the messaging becomes heavy-handed. With a title already a touch too literal, the awkward stacking in “Wake to Weep” of the bust of a dark-skinned, veiled woman atop a tabby cat cleaning itself atop the crying, cellphone-checking woman is distracting. And the density of symbols in “Star Gazers” may be at the expense of the composition, which seems less gelled than the others, with the cartoonishly sad face of the central figure and the scumbled face of the figure to her left so undefined as to seem unfinished.  

We get it. The women in Malaska’s paintings have claws, sometimes enhanced by glitter, and they are unapologetically and fully present in their sagging, drooping, sallow skin. While it’s hard to be happy about the political and cultural environment that made this work possible — we live in troubled and troubling times — it’s untethered a powerful, ugly-gorgeous artistic voice, which makes for good art as well as powerful commentary

Russo Lee Gallery