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Issue 228

Joanna Woś Dances the Line Between the Permitted and the Taboo

Laden with scenes of sex, the artist's new paintings at Croy Nielsen, Vienna, test the border of the disturbing

BY Krzysztof Kościuczuk in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 25 APR 22

A large canvas, nearly two metres tall, is the first thing to catch your eye. It appears to be a restaging of El Greco’s Holy Trinity (1577–1579), with God the Father holding the dead body of Christ surrounded by angels, yet soon unfolds into a perplexing scene in toned-down, earthy hues. In Joanna Woś’s Untitled (all works 2022), currently on view in ‘Precious and Tender’, a solo exhibition at Vienna’s Croy Nielsen, Christ is replaced by a woman in a long dark jacket and pink stockings, her attire reminiscent of that of the French writer Pierre Klossowski or of his artist brother Balthus more than an altarpiece for a Benedictine abbey.

Joanna Woś, Untitled, 2022, installation view, Croy Nielsen, Vienna. Courtesy: the artist and Croy Nielsen; photo: Kunst-dokumentation.com

The Father and the Holy Ghost behind her now resemble a couple from a vintage wedding or baptism photo. A male figure to the right has his back to the viewer, hands to his sides in a stiff pose, while another man to the left is delivering a kick to the nude woman, or possibly pressing his foot down on the head of yet another figure, a woman attempting to rise from the ground, propped up on her hands. Much like El Greco’s The Holy Trinity (c.1577–1579), which was in turn based in part on an engraving of Albrecht Dürer’s Adoration of the Trinity (1511), the work abounds with references. But there’s an element that seems out of place: a green plant in the lower left-hand corner. The artist tells me it was a reference to the surrealist painter Leonor Fini, at which point it becomes clear that, in Woś’s compositions, not much is left to chance.

Joanna Woś, ‘Precious and Tender’, 2022, exhibition view, Croy Nielsen, Vienna. Courtesy: the artist and Croy Nielsen; photo: Kunst-dokumentation.com

Born in Poland, Woś studied architecture there before transferring onto visual arts courses in Wrocław and Vienna, where she is currently based. Her paintings are laden with sex scenes, which often feature the artist’s alter ego engaged in intimate acts that border on the disturbing. In many cases, these works evoke historical or religious imagery, as in the reference to the Trinity, as well as a small painting (all of Woś’s most recent works are untitled), which features a couple during intercourse surrounded by – and perhaps engaging with – a group of skeletons, in an echo of earlier masterpieces such as Death and the Maiden by Hans Baldung Grien (c. 1520).

Joanna Woś, ‘Precious and Tender’, 2022, exhibition view, Croy Nielsen, Vienna. Courtesy: the artist and Croy Nielsen; photo: Kunst-dokumentation.com

These references, however, do not signal the artist’s allegiance to a specific style or technique. They exist on an equal footing with other images that emerge within the multiple intermeshing perspectives, or materialize in the different sections of canvas and exist alongside one another, reminiscent of transition sequences in cinematic montage. In another notebook- sized work, two heads locked in a kiss seep through a contoured, ethereal image of a face with an open mouth. Some of Woś’s fragments, however, are drawn from an utterly different realm: that of online images, including pornography and stock photography. Woś populates her pictures with characters from both history and lived experience, as well as with those existing as pure potentiality. Conceived as actors to be deployed in as many scenes and scenarios as possible, their exaggerated, denatured, emotions seem as artificial as those of 16th-century models.

Joanna Woś, Untitled, 2022, oil on linen, 14 × 24 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Croy Nielsen, Vienna; photo: Kunst-dokumentation.com

The sophisticated and yet raw scenes of sex, tension and violence in Woś’s works are as much uncurbed visions of desire enacted by different characters as they are attempts at negotiating the nature of the obscene. Beneath the dream-like layer that conjures up explicit fantasies, Woś’s paintings ask questions about the practices determining what may and may not be seen, between the permitted and the taboo. Where does the act of transgression truly lie: in the indecent scene portrayed, in the indecorous quotation, the irreverent modification, the profane juxtaposition – or the mere thought of them?

Joanna Woś's ‘Precious and Tender’ is on view at Croy Nielsen, Vienna, until 30 April 2022.

Main image: Joanna Woś, Untitled, 2022, oil on linen, 70 × 140 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Croy Nielsen, Vienna; photo: Kunst-dokumentation.com

Krzysztof Kościuczuk is a writer and contributing editor of frieze. He lives between Poland and Switzerland.