Stedelijk Museum * Rijksmuseum * Huis Marseille
Over the past decade, Amsterdam has been caught up in a seemingly endless round of museum closures and renovations, planning problems, safety concerns, blown budgets and postponed reopenings. Then, suddenly, everything seems to come together all at once. Following last year's long-delayed relaunch of the Stedelijk Museum, both Huis Marseille and the Rijksmuseum have opened after undergoing extensive makeovers, expanding their exhibition spaces, shuffling collections and, in the latter case, accommodating bike lanes for the city's many cyclists. Whether through timely serendipity or institutional synergy, Amsterdam now looks very different from the last time I visited.
With all this extra waiting around, the exhibition programmes have a lot to deliver and, at the Stedelijk, the slight head start seems to have paid off. Set against the blockbuster survey of Kazimir Malevich and the Russian Avant-Garde, Paulina Olowska's concurrent exhibition 'Au Bonheur des Dames' is a thoughtful counterpart, an extension of and digression on suprematist aesthetics and Soviet ideology. Her work deftly swerves between representations of communist idealism and bourgeois decadence, addressing the ways in which one informs and justifies the other through an eclectic array of styles and signifiers: advertising hoardings, photo spreads, realist painting, graffiti tags and shop display units. As in the early department stores of Emile Zola's novel from which the exhibition takes its name, Olowska's jumble-sale, all-over approach resembles 'a tumbling of stuffs, as if they had fallen from the crowded shelves by chance, making them glow with the most ardent colours, lighting each other up by the contrast, declaring that the customers ought to have sore eyes on going out of the shop'.
In a single space, one finds Palimpsest, 2006, with its overlapping, neon-lit messages of '24h' and 'pizzapastasushi', a spattering of ovals, circles and arrows, and a stylised rendering of a nude woman stretched over a champagne glass, alongside freestanding canvas panels of magazine cut-outs embroidered against painted backgrounds (Rock and Rolla, 2006) or fragments of (counter-) revolutionary text (Warsaw Belongs to the Bourgeoisies, 2006). A vast mural, designed by graffiti artist Mick La Rock, combines references to pioneering female graffiti crews, shout-outs to Malevich and Zola, and the exhibition title in sparkling silver spray paint, while the gouache-on-canvas work Crossword Puzzle with Lady in Black Coat, 2009, juxtaposes the central figure--reminiscent of the novel's saleswoman protagonist Denise Baudu--against a backdrop of contrasting black-and-white blocks, opaque shapes and vacant spaces.
Throughout, the inextricability of these ostensibly oppositional ideologies is tied to desire, and specifically to a feminine longing for the accessories and accoutrements of a fantasised, unattainable 'other'. For example, Olowska's paintings of children in crocheted sweaters, or of a fashion model revealing the latest outfit, are based on Polish postcards of the 1980s, prized as a guide for sewing one's own trendy garments. The canvases convey a particularly ersatz quality, an awkward clunkiness that imbues the figures with a shabbily homespun charm. In their reproduction, Olowska makes these mundane cards 'strange'; they amplify the naivety of the period's aspirations towards western cosmopolitanism while, at the same time, recalling the similarly idealised portrayals of Soviet women (albeit delivered under very different conditions and expectations) that bookended the careers of Malevich and much of his contemporaries.
There is something strange about Henk Wildschut's exhibition at the Rijksmuseum, too. While one might expect the city's pre-eminent historical museum to have a somewhat fraught relationship with contemporary art (and its display on Modernism confirms this, siting an actual airplane among its examples of De Stijl artworks), it is hard to figure out what exactly Wildschut's photographic series 'Our Daily Bread' is doing here and why the Rijksmuseum commissioned it. …