I wish every exhibition was like this one. There are no wall labels, but instead a little maroon booklet with a material list disguised as a poem accompanying each piece.
The work in Karolina Gnatowski (kg)’s exhibition at the DePaul Art Museum can generally be categorized as woven fiber pieces that incorporate other objects; “monumental and small-scale tapestries,” as my maroon booklet reads. Aside from the spun fiber, the “tapestries” consist of materials including:
cutoff shirt sleeve hems
Topo Chico bottle caps
a used tissue
torn up blueberry carton
the “heart” of a bunch of plastic shopping bags
a chicken wishbone
Pawz rubber dog boots, size small
pillowcases made by the artist’s grandmother
a soil-crusted gardening glove
The first piece I encounter upon walking into the gallery is Why Is My Name Jim Morrison (2018). Dead flowers hanging seem overly metaphorical and don’t move me particularly, but maybe it’s because they remind me of the flowers in my apartment that desperately need to be thrown out, leftover from a party, wilting in their temporary beer bottle vases. The next piece is better, An American Prayer (2018) and the dead moths give me a change of heart. They are awful to look at and make me wonder if the strange smell in the gallery is actually the smell of decaying moth carcass but, I think, this is the right kind of morbid.
The introduction tells me that I should be seeing “…references ranging from addiction, personal and family histories…badminton, poetry, Jim Morrison and the Doors, and feminist fiber artists.”
I think this show is about gender, but also about bodies. The audience is unsure of what kg looks like, their work—the objects in this gallery—have to become a replacement body. As objects go, these make for pretty good replacements: handwoven and generally smaller than twelve or so inches squared, the pieces feel human-made and human-scale—by us and for us, as they say. The artist’s touch is very present. Cigarettes smoked, buttons buttoned, tear absorbed, hair shed. kg’s body has touched every part of every piece. This—the artist’s body being in direct contact with their work—might seem obvious but it’s not always the case: painting usually happens with a paintbrush; someone might have their studio assistants construct their work; video, digital photography, most new media, anything “internet”—these are all touch-less art objects. Artist as voyeur or coder or conductor, but not the artist as toucher, maker, live-er. And kg’s objects are lived in, digested.
All of the pieces in the show were completed in “2018” but I know this isn’t really true. The artist had to live their whole life in order to acquire these objects and the emotions that went into making them. More apt labeling might be “1980-2018.” Since they were born in 1980 and I’m writing this in 2019, kg is 38 or 39 years old. kg, being born in Poland in 1980, has lived through much more of the world than I have, being born in Illinois in 1993. And yet, I don’t feel isolated looking at kg’s work. This collection of fragments of a life lived, it feels familiar to me. We all collect them.
The glittery socks are part of a piece called Malutka Chmura (2018). The accompanying poem in the maroon booklet goes like this:
Pink plastic raffia from Mexican Yarn and String
in downtown LA spying
a rusty metal daisy I pinned to
some socks I wore back when
I was drinking
before the clouds set upon me.
This might be my favorite piece in the show. Setting clouds, what an image. Haunting. Have the clouds set upon me? How would I know? The raffia came from Mexican Yarn and String in downtown LA, which is a place I was, not too long ago. I wonder if I passed it. There were no clouds in LA. I have socks like kg’s glittery pair, too, but mine are a different color. Plus, I’m still drinking. I’m not smoking anymore, though kg might be: The White Album (cigarettes) (2018) has half-smoked butts stuffed into its delicate lacy pattern. I look closer to see what brand: Marlboro Gold and Camel. Another piece has a used tissue attached by a binder clip. I wonder if the tissue is really from a funeral that kg went to, or if they just found a piece of Kleenex and folded it up. I have the same thought about many of the incorporated objects: How did the artist think to save these things? Was it unintentional? Were these objects just forgotten in pockets until they weren’t? Or were they purposefully collected?
On the second floor, there’s a badminton net with badminton racquets, all handmade, probably. The sign on the wall encourages me to pick up a racket and play, but I’m the only person there aside from the two gallery attendants. There is very little information about the badminton net and racquets; the two net pieces are titled RALLY! In The London Fog and RALLY! In The Bright Midnight which, if you didn’t know better, might sound like something beyond badminton.
Okay, I can’t wait any longer. I can’t let the work speak for itself anymore. I have to Google kg. They are a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). They show in galleries throughout the city that I’ve heard of. We even have four mutual Facebook friends. Now kg is no longer a projection; kg exists in my real world. I’m intimidated. The potential of meeting them now exists, and the potential of seeing them around and feeling like I know them but they don’t know me and coming to the realization that we will never meet even though I felt so intimately connected once is an even greater possibility. Which is certainly worse. I really want to ruin it, so I look at the kg’s Instagram account and watch an interview with them on YouTube. Here they are, a real person; I found their body in the gallery and now I have their face.
When I’m leaving the museum I see someone I used to know on the street and hide by fumbling manically in my bag to avoid making eye contact. At that moment, I envy the kg of the gallery: a body without a face. When I get home I notice that the little maroon booklet has brought the smell of the gallery with it. Like death, maybe, but how would I know. I still can’t put my finger on it. A smell I don’t like but that makes me feel something. Which is how memory works, isn’t it.