Lyles & King is proud to present Mama, an exhibition of two photographic series by Polish artist Aneta Grzeszykowska. Spot-lit on the gallery’s charcoal gray walls, seventeen photographs show the artist’s daughter Franciszka playing with a doll—a life-size, waist-up replica of the artist herself. Upstairs are a series of self-portraits in which the artist’s face is deformed by the presence of a cosmetic mask. These bodies of work, Mama and Beauty Masks, use dark, probing humor to explore sexuality and feminism, maternity, and the construction (and erasure) of the self.
Over the past two decades, Grzeszykowska has been acclaimed for her wry, unsettling use of performance and photography to investigate the surfaces of the self, as well as the history of feminism and self-representation. Mama is an extension of a previous series, in which the artist worked with artisans to create a silicon replica of herself. Here, she poses her daughter with the doll, showing the child and object in a variety of situations ranging from the idyllic (swimming in a lake) to the grotesque (the girl putting make-up on the doll) to the grim (the doll shrouded in a tarp). The use of this hyper-realistic simulacrum as a stand-in juts the comic up against the uncanny. The images are at times lush and forlorn, at others lurid, but they never lack a sense of self-conscious absurdity.
The Mama series quietly evokes the feminist practices of Cindy Sherman and Hannah Wilke, or the haunting self-eclipse of Francesca Woodman, before heading deeper into the territory of the early 20th century avant-garde, psychoanalysis, and explorations of the surreal, such as Hans Bellmer's iconic photographs of female mannequins. As the viewer moves through the gallery, Grzeszykowska’s photographs collapse the differences between mother and daughter, life and death, and self and other.
In Beauty Masks series, it is Grzeszykowska herself in the photograph. Up against a generic backdrop, like one might find in a passport photo booth, her face is photographed wearing a variety of cosmetic masks: those designed to rejuvenate, heal, or physically alter the face. While purported to beautify, these masks contort and deform, warping the elastic face into an aesthetic ideal. The artist limits her critique to the photographed subject matter. We do not see the systems of consumer capital and sexualized violence which have led to these objects of alteration. We just see the objects themselves. Decontextualized, the float across the spectrum of performance and disguise, referencing in turn theater, terrorism, and surgery.
The Beauty Masks series references the history of Eastern European Socialist Realist photography, and its attendant notions of documentation and idealism. Like the Mama series, Grzeszykowska uses an anthropomorphic stand-in to collapse the difference between the quotidian and surreal. These masks would be banal if seen in their native context (in Sephora, in Duty Free or on Amazon.com). But here, they are alien. Insidiously, their disrupting presence estranges features of the artist’s face itself. This breakdown of her physiognomy suggests deeper distortions at play. In Beauty Masks, as in Mama, Grzeszykowska reveals the body (and by extension, the self) to be both sculptural material and a performative act: a product of great flexibility, and uncertain durability.