Alexandra Chowaniec boldly explores The Spaces in Between
by Allan Wigney
A tall, slender painting beckons you to the end of the narrow hallway of Wall Space Gallery, and to The Spaces in Between, an exhibition of paintings by Alexandra Chowaniec. The oil on canvas work, Feel My Bones, captures a couple in embrace, nude, their entwined bodies less than perfect — blemishes, bruises and veins tempering this tender moment, offering a visual record of life's emotional and physical blows.
“I never really get to talk about the element of performance behind the way that my paintings are made,” the artist originally from Ottawa but now based in Brooklyn says as she points in the direction of the work. “I don’t hire models and shoot them. I work with people who are close to me… For that one, I asked them to think about what it meant to experience interdependency — to feel the push and pull of their relationship. I documented that.”
Chowaniec’s exhibition, the San Francisco Art Institute grad’s second solo show at Wall Space, probes such push-and-pull realities — at times graphically, as in the case of a series of paintings of a subject pulling on her bottom lip. Each boldly rendered subject — Chowaniec’s expressive use of colour challenges the viewer — commands the space, yet appears in some way displaced, distracted, detached.
“The show,” the artist explains, “tracks the idea of in between space — in terms of relationships, in terms of time, in terms of emotions, in terms of mortality. I’m very interested in how that place is a space of simultaneity and multiplicity. So in all of the paintings, you’ll see the coexistence of emotion and the idea of a space of fear and desire coexisting, and what the slip is between where one thing comes so close to another that it becomes the other.”
Friends. Fruit. Fish. Each is represented in Chowaniec’s ode to dichotomous existence, oftentimes as oil on paper rather than canvas. And keeping watchful eye on all, and on each other, on opposing walls of the gallery, is the artist herself, in intimate before-and-after bedroom moments. One of the 60”x84” oil on canvas works, Clutches, has one figure astride the other, their eyes locked in anticipation. The work’s companion, revealingly titled Crutches, shows Chowaniec’s lover spent and asleep; the artist, meanwhile, is sitting up gazing into space, lost in thoughts as blurred as her face.
“There’s a point at which to make paintings about these anxieties, these tensions, these relationships, for me it seems like to work with myself, who is experiencing it, there is a gesture and a performance that is captured in the image itself when you render it,” Chowaniec says of her self-portraits. “You are physically painting that tension or that emotion into the work. It’s about bringing the subject, the concept, as close to the physical representation as you can.”
It may also be about painting what she knows. And since Chowaniec’s first brush with success — a mural commissioned by the Ottawa-Carleton Catholic School Board a decade ago while the then 17-year-old was attending Immaculata High School — she has explored aspects of her gifts that have enabled her to complete projects that have ranged from a graphic novel to a 2010 documentary on the experience of women in American art. “I haven’t slept in three years,” she jokes of the pace she has maintained.
The next chapter, represented by a lone oil on wood panel called Study for Pesce Cane, is being previewed at her Wall Space exhibition. The series, she says, will take us into the belly of a whale. The teaser on offer, is “just a sketch.” More to come — for now, it too is an in between space.
As are we all, according to Chowaniec.
“You’re constantly placed in a position of needing to present yourself in a professional realm, with such a high degree of confidence and empowerment, and you’re always simultaneously playing the role of the daughter or the mother or the lover,” she observes. “But I think it’s a wonderful thing that we constantly have the responsibility to move between these roles and to present a multifaceted existence, and to engage with ourselves and each other.”
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