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A Tenuous Relationship with Self

A Tenuous Relationship with Self

Justyna Gorowska, FWJG  (detail), 2009, black and white pigment on photo rag, 10cm x 10cm. Image courtesy of artist and CYDONIA.

Justyna Gorowska, FWJG, 2009, black and white pigment on photo rag, 10cm x 10cm. Image courtesy of artist and CYDONIA.
Justyna Gorowska, FWJG, 2009, black and white pigment on photo rag, 10cm x 10cm. Image courtesy of artist and CYDONIA.

Justyna Gorowska at Cydonia

Since her tragic suicide at 22 years old, it’s been almost impossible to disassociate American photographer Francesca Woodman’s evocative photography from her disconcerting personal legacy. But Polish performance artist Justyna Gorowska attempts to do just that in a body of work entitled FWJG on view at Dallas’ Cydonia Gallery through May 8.

Inserting herself into Woodman’s oeuvre by recreating the still photographs Woodman took of herself with self-portraits and video of her own, Gorowska challenges our response to Woodman’s work by subtly separating Woodman’s photographs from the larger than life persona of Woodman herself.

As is the norm with the artists Cydonia shows, Gorowska’s aesthetically pleasing work belies its conceptual density; in FWJG Gorowska purports to explore not only the notion of identity but also that of essential nature and our philosophical construct of imitation.

While apparent in previous shows, the centrality of context has been nowhere more evident than in the work of Gorowska. A cursory reading of the work would offer audiences little more than a derivative exploration of artistic ownership and identity in the vein of Elaine Sturtevant’s photographic recreations of Joseph Beuys performances; a young artist’s attempt to engage in a highly conceptual exploration of artistic ownership and identity.

Woodman’s personality, however, serves as the through-line in Gorowska’s work, imbuing it with more ontological nuance than the experiments of Sturtevant and others. Using Woodman’s legacy as conveyed through her photography and the wealth of conjecture we’ve come to accept since Woodman’s death, Gorowska attempts to play with our tenuous understanding of self, or as she might put it, “essence.”

Justyna Gorowska, FWJG, 2009, black and white pigment on photo rag, 10cm x 10cm. Image courtesy of artist and CYDONIA.
Justyna Gorowska, FWJG, 2009, black and white pigment on photo rag, 10cm x 10cm. Image courtesy of artist and CYDONIA.

We know, innately, Gorowska’s work is not the same as Woodman’s, we would know it without being told as Gorowska makes no pretense towards exact replication, the activated portraiture serving as testament to that fact. The difference is contemplative. She wants us to sense the difference between their distinct bodies of work at the same time as we perceive the similarity. Gorowska must, for the work to succeed, successfully assert her identity only to the point at which we stop seeing Woodman, and instead, see just the (a) body.

The stylistic ways in which Gorowska renders her work; the grainy black and white film she uses to activate her recreations of Woodman’s stills, alongside the photographic accompaniments, are haunting, and Gorowska skillfully avoids the risk of her film work devolving into bland nostalgia by intermittently disrupting the short clips with jarring glitches and brief sound, imbuing the work with a hypnotic quality conducive for a level of contemplation which might allow the thoughtful visitor to go along with Gorowska in her quest to eliminate the personality from an artist’s work.

I struggled with this work. I think FWJG will leave even many seasoned arts viewers grasping for originality and the ideas Gorowska asks her audience to engage with seem far more complex than the work on view, but I find myself surprisingly willing to accept the work. As conceptual art has been teaching us for decades, simple illustration is generally the method most amenable to conveying dense ideas, in this case, the refutation of self in pursuit of something greater.

Thanks to Gorowska’s well-executed work and its inextricable connection to a discrete, highly symbolic body of work, FWJG represents an appropriate first step in an exploration of the individual “essence” and how a desire for something to happen, in this case a disruption and recreation of Woodman’s work, can, or can’t, shape a result.