You walk into a laundromat with a big bag full of dirty washing. There’s not much to see in the laundromat: a few benches, a detergent vending machine, signs telling you to sort your washing according to color, not to sit on the counters, not to smoke. You separate your washing by color and throw each load into a machine. You’ve forgotten your book, and you’re bored. You stare at the machines as they wash your clothes, check your phone, then stare at the washing machines again, then at the ceiling – and you don’t notice that the machines are staring back at you. And it is precisely this gaze resting on us from objects which Jagoda Bednarsky’s new work –including the paintings Nuddlegg and Snodgrass, named after characters in Stanisław Lem’s The Star Diaries – takes as a starting point. The two pieces in oil on canvas each feature a large washing machine eye in their center, painted in detail and surrounded by loose brushstrokes reminiscent of the rotating movement of garments during the wash cycle. In her exhibition Sign Activity at gallery Philipp Pflug Contemporary, the paintings with the two deep, dark circles and the feathery-swirling backgrounds sit next to each other, forming a pair of admonitory eyes. These works don’t seem content with being looked at by us, the observers – incidentally it seems like neither are they about watching others observe – but rather, when faced with these paintings, we sense that we are being watched, and that this gaze is slowly and subtly changing us.
The Brussels-based artist elaborates on this theme in two further pieces in the exhibition. But here she focusses on a rather more traditional subject: the rooster. The two proud birds, presented as naturalistic busts viewed in profile against soft, pastel colored backdrops, each turn one eye towards us and seem to be following us through the room with their penetrating stare. The two paintings are hung opposite one another, such that the entire back area of the exhibition space is covered by the roosters’ unyielding gaze – the situation is reminiscent of video surveillance in public spaces. The cockerels’ beaks point towards a large painting hung between them which, like its counterpart in show, features an organic-looking mesh of sorts. The grey, sponge-like netting set against a cloudy grey background holds five blue, pyramid-shaped objects and is interwoven by a red twine. The corresponding piece, titled Anthropivy and hung in the center of the exhibition space, sees Bednarsky push this play between nature and handmade object even further. Here, she lets ivy creep across a fleshy-pink mass of netting. We are also reminded of the contrast between automation and manual work in a further painting showing what seems to be loosely woven paper in front of a checkered background – although it is possible that the machines are here intentionally including emotive glitches in order to confuse us, while decidedly flat banners and leaves float downwards in the background. We might possibly be in the internet here, but it feels a lot more haptic than it usually does.
Jagoda Bednarsky’s new works counter our anthropocentric gaze. Objects are here neither inanimate nor dead, animals and things have agency. Illusions are ruptured and new ones are built up. And every object looking out at us seems to leave behind a trace in us, seems to shape us in some way. These paintings are not merely communicating signs, but hybrid-objects that have developed a consciousness of their own.