A large canvas almost two meters high is the first thing that jumps out at you. This seems to be an El Greco cover Holy Trinity (1577-1579), with God the Father holding the dead body of Christ surrounded by cherubim and angels, yet soon unfolds in a disconcerting scene of muted, earthy hues. At Joanna Woś Untitled (all works 2022), currently on view in “Precious and Tender”, a solo exhibition at the Croy Nielsen in Vienna, Christ is replaced by a woman wearing a long dark jacket and pink stockings, her attire reminiscent of that of Pierre Klossowski or Balthus more than an altarpiece of a Benedictine abbey.
The Father and the Holy Spirit behind her now look like a couple from a vintage wedding or christening photo. A male figure on the right stands with his back to the viewer, hands to the side in a stiff pose, while another man on the left kicks the naked woman, or possibly presses his foot on the head of a other character. , a woman trying to get up from the ground, leaning on her hands. A bit like at El Greco Trinity, based in part on an engraving by Albrecht Dürer, the book is full of references. But there is one element that seems out of place: a green plant in the lower left corner. The artist tells me that this was a reference to surrealist painter Leonor Fini, how clear it becomes that in Woś’s compositions, little is left to chance.
These references, however, do not signal the artist’s allegiance to any specific style or technique. They exist on an equal footing with other images that emerge in the multiple interlocking perspectives, or materialize in the different sections of the canvas and coexist, reminiscent of transition sequences in cinematic editing. In another notebook-sized work, two heads locked in a kiss seep through a streamlined, ethereal image of a face with an open mouth. Some of Woś’s fragments, however, are drawn from an entirely different field: that of online images, including pornography and stock photography. Woś populates his images with characters from both history and lived experience, as well as those who exist as pure potentiality. Conceived as actors to deploy in a maximum of scenes and scenarios, their exaggerated, denatured emotions seem as artificial as those of the models of the 16th century.
Born in Poland, Woś studied architecture there before moving into the visual arts in Wrocław and Vienna, where she is currently based. His paintings are laden with sex scenes, which often feature the alter ego of the artist engaged in intimate acts that test the boundary of the uncanny. In many cases, these works evoke historical or religious images, as in the reference to the Trinity discussed above, as well as a small-scale painting (all of Woś’s more recent works are untitled), which depicts a couple having sex surrounded by – and possibly engaging with – a group of skeletons, a echoing earlier masterpieces such as death and woman by Hans Baldung Grien (circa 1520).
The sophisticated yet raw scenes of sex, tension and violence in Woś’s works are as much unrestrained visions of desire staged by different characters as attempts to negotiate the nature of the obscene. Beneath the dreamlike layer that evokes explicit fantasies, Woś’s paintings ask questions about the practices determining what can and cannot be seen, between permitted and taboo. Where does the act of transgression really reside: in the indecent scene depicted, in the indecent quotation, the irreverent modification, the profane juxtaposition – or a mere thought of them?
‘Precious and Tender’ by Joanna Woś is on view at Croy Nielsen, Vienna, until April 30, 2022.
Main picture: Joanna Woś, Untitled2022, oil on linen, 70×140cm. Courtesy: the artist and Croy Nielsen, Vienna; photo: Kunst-dokumentation.com