Reviews

'What do we do when things break down?' Exploring Harriet Poznansky's paintings

In response to paintings by Harriet Poznanksy

Written by Gabriella Sonabend, originally published in After Nyne Issue 14, 2017

What do we do when things break down, when the machine like a body slowly decays or suddenly stops pulsing, when systems cease to make sense, when language diverts from meaning, when communication ceases and all that remains are unrelated abstract concepts. When does something reveal itself to be broken? At what point is something fragile or irregular cast off as redundant or as failure?

‘Keeping Our Heads’, 2016, Oil on canvas, 40 x 60 inches

‘Keeping Our Heads’, 2016, Oil on canvas, 40 x 60 inches

“Rust Belt. Post-Fordism. Trumpism. Techism. Dot Come bubble and burst. Patriarchy. Fear. Pain. Force. Weaponry. Military industrial complexes. Futurism. Masculinity as a state - this state being one of fear of the future and trying to control its outcome in an anxious and neurotic way. My grandma as masculine. Objective thought. Sciences. Imbalanced ecosystems. Nature turned on its head. Natural order disrupted. Hospitals. Care-taking. The point where love and care is pushed to it’s limits - where things breaks down - where you can no longer care - where responsibility for another stops us from being responsible for ourselves - the heaviness of illness - how we push it to the margins - there is a truth in this that we cannot help but admit too - hospitals as a place of margins are equipped for this thing - but the home is not - life is not - we couldn’t do it - we let the person down - individualism and self preservation - a turn towards preventative care - like preventative journalism - instead of reactionary states of liberal action and reaction.”

2016, Oil on canvas

2016, Oil on canvas

Poznansky’s practice is embedded in her experience of life in Oakland. There, people are rapidly being displaced from their homes and tent cities are expanding beneath bypasses, but as crime and poverty ensue so does cultural, social and political progressiveness and there is a sense anything can be discussed and anything can happen. Murals cover the city and a lack of censorship makes Oakland a canvas for truthful expression. On walks through the city Poznansky tries to commit images and scenarios to memory, bringing these sensory fragments into the studio.

Photography does not enter her practice; she is not interested in painting a scene as it appears within one frozen moment. What fascinates her is the deeper psychological and metaphorical implications a scene might hold. Poznansky first started painting machines because they were a clear metaphor for the body in states of abandon, decay or regrowth and resilience.

Her work is driven by a fascination with bodily experiences and the judgements they accrue, for example pleasure becoming associated with shame or fear with disgust. In Poznansky’s first machine painting Attached to Machines she explicitly depicts a fascination with human curiosity and the body as a specimen. Inspired by watching people jump-starting cars, peering into bonnets, emotionally provoked by mechanical failure, Attached to Machines depicts two cars with jump cables trying to fix an engine together “Like surgery, like an open mouth”.

2016, Oil on canvas

2016, Oil on canvas

Painting an engine from memory leads to the creation of an amorphous body, which is neither human nor machine; a unique language representing the way bodies function when influenced by the culture of others. In this way Poznanksy’s work speaks of the fear of the alien, there is a sense of infection that rises from assimilation between state and individual, the body politic is forever present but there is no clear indication of where the head lies. Poznansky reveals a fear of anonymity, loss of identity and the ease with which governments reduce people to mere numbers allowing the body to be so easily removed. In a way Poznansky's paintings are acts of protest, unraveling the messy emotional reality of disempowerment, depicting the chaos of systems and refusing to conform to the mass-propagated idea of the body.

Poznanksy grew up on a farm where her mother bred a small flock of 8 Cotswold sheep. She shares a story of a ewe giving birth to siamese-twin-lambs, the lambs lived less than a few hours but her father photographed the deformed creatures and Poznansky became fascinated by the prints and kept them amongst family photographs. Poznansky compares the structure of the body to the evolution of language allowing her to view the body with a liberating fluidity. There is a search for some kind of perfection or truth in the beauty and ugliness of form and this search finds its way into her socially engaged projects.

Recently she ran a workshop entitled ‘My body the beauty and the beast’ during her exhibition at The Flight Deck in Oakland, this workshop has now developed into a 10 week course, or rather a 10 week quest exploring the beauty and ugliness of visual language.

Paintings by Harriet Poznanksy in ‘Paniculate! The Joy of Stretching’ at The Koppel Project, 2016

Paintings by Harriet Poznanksy in ‘Paniculate! The Joy of Stretching’ at The Koppel Project, 2016

Poznansky’s workshop was a collaboration with painter Rhea Adri. The workshop encouraged interaction with a life-model inviting the participants to work with themes of ugliness, pain and pleasure. Workshop exercises included imagining internal organs and projecting this on the model who was posing in the shape of that organ. The model was challenged to respond to words like fracture, distress, collapse, dissolve; whilst the participants were asked to mimic the model’s poses and empathise with the challenge of the pose. In one exercise the participants were asked to draw the model concentrating on the flux of her own outer layer of skin, observing how her body is shifting and regrowing.

Unlike many artists who try to conceal their methodology, Poznansky invites others to see through her eyes, willing them to look beyond the surface and understand the body as a collection of ideas and feelings in flux; not confined to one rigid form but ever changing with its shifting environment. In the same way that someone with phantom limb syndrome feels the sensations of a missing limb, Poznansky’s work challenges the viewer to empathise with other bodies releasing us of shame and feelings of entrapment.

Speaking of shame, Poznansky remarks in particular on the acute repression and shame carried by white women in America in regards to seeking pleasure. A language of guilt and judgement prevails in mass-media rhetoric about women and sexuality, perpetuating a dangerous set of values that essentially allows dominant white males to control the sexuality of women. The denial of pleasure to Poznanksy seems the ultimate invisible attack and she fears how this means of quiet manipulation will intensify in this new era of Trump.

The body needs pleasure, as the machine needs movement; the body needs to move, to pump adrenaline and flush with endorphins. Poznansky asks what happens when we are denied our pleasure and our movement, when our physical appearance leads to paralyse, when lack of social mobility silences us. She demands to know “How do we fix? Which is essentially, how do we love?”

Are we able to love a broken machine and take the time to restore it? Perhaps the restoration lies in the viewers ability to recognise it as a whole and not as broken, but rather as a beautiful alteration, a siamese body - horrifying some and yet loved by others for its truth.

Harriet Poznanksy in her Oakland studio, portrait by Rohan DaCosta.

Harriet Poznanksy in her Oakland studio, portrait by Rohan DaCosta.

Gabriella Sonabend