A female artist’s world

Were it not for feminist art history, the ways in which we look at the work of women artists would probably be quite different, perhaps not so eager to note gender associations where in fact there might not be any. No angle is, of course, entirely value-free and no «eye is completely innocent,» to quote Gombrich. Given the penetration of feminist art theory, the spectator is almost conditioned to interpret the laces and bright textiles so typical of Lila Polenaki’s work in terms of femininity and female experience. Even though there is no overt feminism in her work and no trace of gender politics, the knowledge that Polenaki is female makes symbolic associations almost automatic. Her latest work currently on view at the Eleni Koronaiou is indeed filled with them. The works, mostly brightly colored and large in scale, are layered surfaces made of all kinds of materials, mostly textiles and paint but also paper, photographs, postcards and newspaper clippings, combining to produce a pleasingly bold visual effect. They are items that Polenaki has amassed over the years or has come across by chance, mainly in Berlin where she lives. They are her own visual diary and the sense of domesticity and intimacy that the works evoke somehow springs from that. But much of this feeling of intimacy also derives from the extensive use of fabric. Former scarves, pieces of sheets, curtains or clothing – these are all strongly reminiscent of a domestic space. However, they are also richly suggestive of the human body, particularly the female body, as most of what Polenaki uses are floral prints in feminine colors. Indeed, the concept of the female body seems to be everywhere in her work, but wrapped in cloth rather than openly depicted. Implicit reference to the body is actually a concept explored by many female artists; Eva Hesse’s work from the 1970s and most recently Mona Hatoum’s installation containing barely visible threads of hair throughout the exhibition area are both examples of how women artists use extensions of the human body to suggest the female realm. So does Polenaki, but what is interesting about her work is how, having established this female, domestic and personal realm, she blends it with more social concepts as if to suggest that identity is shaped both out of domestic space and social environment. Fabrics and cloth connote the female aspect, both as the personal items of a female artist and, more broadly speaking, because they suggest the female occupations of sewing and weaving. But together with this, there is a social environment which is captured both in the newspaper photographs pasted on the canvas and the palimpsest, poster-like aesthetic. Polenaki constantly shifts between the two and although it is the more «female» aspect that makes the most impression, much of her work’s effect revolves around a skillful combination of gender with social factors. The artist constantly blends the one into the other, just as she fuses fabrics with painting and paper to produce a visual play of color and texture hard to break down into its individual parts. The visual ambiguity she produces is a metaphor of the complexities of gender and femininity. If there is something female about her work, this is either because our conditioning makes us think so or simply because as a woman, her experience of the world is by definition influenced by gender. Either way, we are not forced to look at Polenaki through the prism of gender. Although she appears to describe a female world, it is not out of claustrophobia or anger. Her work does not partake of the bitter polemics of feminist art nor does it lapse into a self-defeated frailty but has a confident, almost sanguine quality about it that gives it a positive feel. And even if one fails to spot the gender connotations, the skillful combination of so many different materials on canvas delivers a visual experience that raises equally interesting issues such as illusion and the relationship between reality (in this case actual objects) and the painted surface. Lila Polenaki’s one-woman show at the Eleni Koronaiou Gallery (5-7 Mitsaion Street, 010. 924.4271) will run until 28/2.