"We Never Belonged To You," the assertive title of Elizabeth Malaska’s first exhibition at Nationale, poses a sneering refusal, a defiant reclamation – not of the self, but of the selves. Of the bristling, autonomous “we.” Pronouns can be slippery signifiers, though, and their ambiguity here demands that “we” consider ourselves as both subject and object of the title. Perhaps we instinctively heard the phrase as a protest cry, aligning ourselves sympathetically with the artist’s fiercely independent stance. Beware, though: Notions of control, community, influence, and refusal never operate so facilely in Malaska’s work. Her phrasing also puts us in the hot seat, as the artist declares her sovereignty from our own possessive tendencies. Are you and I the would-be oppressors in this scenario, or the never-been oppressed? Malaska’s paintings, in all their forceful and complex imagery, suggest that we are always both.
These challenging, provocative, and elusive paintings find Malaska storming the barns of those who would seek to yoke her. Her canvases howl defiantly against the encroachments of would-be possessors: the collective gaze of art historical “masters” (deKooning, Manet, and Matisse are among those singled out); the optical lull and lure of flowery pattern and decoration; the banal trappings of domesticity and broader entrapments of rational, orderly ideals; those who wish to domesticate us like so many caged beasts; communities that come at the expense of the individual; and the stranglehold of 20th century Modernism on abstract painting.
But just as the verbal declaration, “We Never Belonged To You,” is left as an open-ended rejection, the targets of Malaska’s paintings are perpetually moving and refuse easy partisanship in the battle of us vs. them. Malaska’s appropriation of these very tropes thwart any simple interpretation of whose side “we” are on, creating a much more complex network of attacks and affinities.
Within this readerly web of associations, several motifs demand our particular attention. A series of small canvases, each titled There’s Only Blackness in Your Heart, are the show’s most accessible works, depicting ominous and anonymous homes at night, their windows glowing sickly yellows and violent reds. Their overt themes of structure, domesticity, and malaise can be tracked throughout the exhibition. Architecture pervades “We Never Belonged To You,” but rarely provides comfort or shelter. The grimy blankness of Fissure (Why Men Pull Away) evokes the hyper-rational voyeurism of Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies, while the thinly washed, cavernous hall of Everything Crumbles Around Empty Space feels (literally) like a bloody nightmare. Both paintings are structured around prominent grids – those frequent symbols of patriarchal empiricism, and foundations of flatness at the heart of abstract Modernist painting. The inhabitants of Malaska’s spaces typically fall into two categories: animals and nude women – frequently drawn from the pages of art history. If the grid represents our most linear and unfeeling attempts at order, these beasts suggest an untamed nature, a primal Romanticism. The thin, panting dog of Only the Marvelous is Beautiful and the cloaked gelding of JL-53 are hardly visions of noble liberation, though. Broken in and sequestered to their small interior spaces, they seem to suffer their indignities silently, having acquiesced to their domesticated roles.
"We Never Belonged To You” suggests that we have all compromised our potential for independence, either out of fear or in exchange for attention, comfort, and acceptance. We yield to architectures of authority, turn ourselves into objects of vision, cluster together in tribes and families, and wrestle with the sins of our ideological fathers. We accept these roles willingly, and sometimes impose them on others. And so we say, and listen as it is echoed back to us, “We Never Belonged To You.”