BY Ara H. Merjian in Features | 17 DEC 14
Featured in
Issue 168

In Focus: Anna Ostoya

Mining historical works for new conceptual paths

BY Ara H. Merjian in Features | 17 DEC 14

In Anna Ostoya’s painting Invitations No. 18 (2013), vertical shards intersect neatly to form a kaleidoscopic prism of blues, greys, pinks and various other hues, traversed by a single horizontal line. While the work’s lower half reveals the coarse tooth of the canvas’s fabric, the paint in the upper section is applied to an immaculate finish reminiscent of a glossy magazine. Emblazoned across the painting’s upper half, the word ‘NOW’ seems to identify this more polished, antiseptic mode as the present. In contrast, the lower portion not only appears marked by the texture of oil painting, but its forms unmistakably recall Giacomo Balla’s Futurist ‘Iridescent Interpenetration’ paintings of 1912–14. Other works from that period are also evoked, by artists such as František Kupka and Robert and Sonia Delaunay: partisans of the early-20th-century Avant-gardes for whom geometric abstraction heralded a new utopia. That future, Ostoya’s painting suggests, has become our present. A hundred years hence, its gritty possibility appears reified and sterilized into a sleek imitation of itself.

In a similar vein, Place (2011–13) invokes the 1914 painting Potsdamer Platz by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, whose scene of urban solitude and prostitution is re-envisioned as sleek slices of computer-generated imagery. Ostoya has tamed Kirchner’s gestures of agitated subjectivity into something more coldly detached, elevating them to a higher mathematics of alienation. Part of the same ‘Disclosures’ series, Work (2011–13) takes as its touchstone John Heartfield’s photomontage Spitzenprodukte des Kapitalismus (The Finest Products of Capitalism, 1932), which features an unemployed man with a sign around his neck reading ‘Nehme jede Arbeit an!’ (Will Take any Work!). Like Heartfield’s, Ostoya’s male protagonist treads on the lace train of a luxurious wedding dress modelled by a female mannequin: both figures embody the obverse of capitalist reality. However, Ostoya’s levelling paintbrush has compressed the space of the photomontage onto the same plane; not even the dialectical tension between these figures can rescue them from visual conflation. 

Comprising painting, photography, collage and installation, Ostoya’s oeuvre revisits episodes from the classic Avant-gardes, mining them for meditations on the formal impasses of contemporary artistic practice, as well as for potential conceptual paths out of that same aporia. Born in Krakow in 1978, but based in New York, Ostoya is, however, no facile pasticheur. Her works explore the melancholy attendant upon any resuscitation of ‘heroic’ Avant-garde experiments, particularly in the wake of an inexorably spectacularized culture. Informed by her Mittel-European origins (Krakow is an hour from Auschwitz), the fall of Communism that marked her childhood and her ongoing residence in late-capitalist America, Ostoya homes in upon the interstices between these realms, the spaces – real and imaginary – where histories both personal and public converge. Constructivism, Dada, Expressionism and Abstract Expressionism provide Ostoya with the raw material from which to fashion a practice as formally playful as it is theoretically astute.

Place, 2011-13, oil on canvas, 2.3 x 1.7 m. Courtesy the artist, Bortolami Gallery, New York, and Silberkuppe, Berlin.

Likewise, the presence and absence of women in the historical Avant-garde’s received narratives – their often-unacknowledged roles as makers and muses, authors and models – inflects the contemporary feminist dimensions of Ostoya’s experiments to striking ends. Take, for example, Reconstruction/Construction (2010), a painting based on a photograph depicting Carissa Rodriguez, the artist and co-director of Reena Spaulings Fine Art, walking in a skirt of her own design. In Ostoya’s rendition, the lines radiating upward from the figure’s head turn the body into a vector of activity rather than an object of passive contemplation. Rodriguez’s stride recalls the famous Futurist motion studies by Balla. But, even more pointedly, both the title of the piece and the skirt’s patterned print evoke the work of prominent women Russian Constructivists such as Lyubov Popova, who pioneered innovative fabric design (and who appears in another of Ostoya’s photomontages). Reconstruction/Construction thus confers upon a fellow female artist a shared genealogy (and perhaps a sense of aesthetic possibility). In Lee No. 1 (2013), meanwhile, the cut-out eyes of Lee Miller loom against slim, alternating vertical strips of gold leaf and photomontaged black and white newspaper imagery. The piece recalls Object to Be Destroyed, the 1923 metronomic readymade by the photographer’s erstwhile lover Man Ray. Yet, unlike in Man Ray’s work, where a singular eye is attached to a metronome’s swinging arm, Ostoya restores a sense of agency to Miller by presenting her full gaze.

Included as part of ‘New Photography’ at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2013, Ostoya’s photo reliefs and photomontages invoke various Avant-garde images while deploying some of those images’ visual strategies to new ends. Splicing two photographs – one by Germaine Krull of the model Wanda Hubbell from 1931, the other from Bas Jan Ader’s 1970 silent film I’m Too Sad to Tell You – Ostoya’s diptych, The Mixed Pseudomorphism of a True/False Cry (2010), occasions a reflection on the politics of gender through a split, mask-like construction, whose subjects are linked by a shared brimming of tears. Following the same format, Anthropomorphic Visual Pseudomorphism (2010) juxtaposes imagery from Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s 1929 Surrealist short Un Chien Andalou and David Wojnarowicz’s Untitled (Desire) from 1988 – both films subjected to scandal and censorship, and both featuring the insidious crawl of insects over human limbs. Acknowledging her ‘pseudomorphic’ strategies, Ostoya tackles head-on the question of how images might speak to each other socially and politically, despite the historical and geographical differences that otherwise separate them. The artist does not merely restage the Avant-garde’s collaged appositions and incongruities, but produces her own from their very remains.

Ostoya has not limited her activity to an engagement with specific precedents. Her recent ‘Transposition’ series (2013) entailed the production of collage/paintings according to self-imposed temporal and spatial limitations. Made from oil paint, acrylic, shellac, paper and palladium leaf, each of the large horizontal canvases was inspired by the history of the former industrial building which now houses La Kunsthalle in Mulhouse, where the artist had a solo exhibition in the summer of 2014. Ostoya expressly adopted an assembly-line approach to the series’ fabrication, exploring the tensions between artistic freedom and the discipline of production. Deploying geometric abstraction redolent of high Modernist, utopian Avant-gardes, the images invoke such constraints in order (in the words of the artist) to ‘lay bare the risk of failure’. In the wake of an increasingly dispersed aesthetic terrain, Ostoya narrows her field of vision in order to raise its conceptual stakes.

Anna Ostoya is an artist living in New York, USA. In 2013, she was included in 'New Photography' at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and showed at Silberkuppe, Berlin, Germany, as well as at Bortolami Gallery, New York (together with Barbara Leoniak). In 2014, she had a solo exhibition at La Kunsthalle,  Mulhouse, France. Her work will be included in the upcoming Lyon Biennale in September 2015. 

Ara H. Merjian is Professor of Italian Studies at New York University, USA, where he is an affiliate of the Institute of Fine Arts and Department of Art History.