Camgirls and Boiler Cupboards, Moomins and Masturbation: A Peek Inside Paola Ciarska’s Miniature Floating Rooms
Anna Columbine catches up with artist Paola Ciarska, whose zeitgeist work offers a unique peep through the keyhole into a distinct corner of 21st century domestic life.
You can’t help but peer voyeuristically into Paola Ciarska’s miniature paintings of domestic interiors. Square cutaway rooms reveal intimate living spaces; from luxury mezzanine apartments crammed full of furniture, trinkets, plants and art hanging from the walls, through to more modest situations – a sparse, bedsit-like space containing a single unmade bed; a cupboard jammed with a boiler, mop and various cleaning products; an open, unpacked suitcase. Many of the scenes feel very familiar: a laptop precariously balanced on the arm of a chair, numerous other electronic devices plugged into extension leads that trail across rooms, clothes strewn on the floor, bedside tables and kitchen counter tops dotted with discarded cups of half-drunk tea.
Rendered in a flat, illustrative style that feels reminiscent of the two-dimensional computer game and cartoon graphics of the noughties, these distinctly zeitgeist artworks capture a certain snapshot of life in the 21st century and have been quickly snapped up by a number of private collectors. The Gateshead-based artist has been exhibiting consistently ever since her University of Newcastle degree show in 2016 and will be showing new and existing works at Galerie Emmanuel Hervé in Paris later this month. “I always joked about it with my grandma,” she tells me over Skype, “You know, to have an exhibition in Paris – and now it’s actually happening! It’s quite humbling.”
I first came across Ciarska’s work myself on the walls of iMT Gallery’s booth at Manchester Contemporary 2017. The immense detail and pocket-sized proportions of each piece (always measuring 12.5cm x 18cm) demands a close-up encounter; allowing the eyes opportunity to roam inside the nooks and crannies of the various interiors. Ciarska works part-time as a makeup artist and begins each of her gouache paintings by priming the miniature boards herself with a make-up brush – “you really do get even coverage,” she laughs. Struggling to find paintbrushes that are fine enough, she plucks the hairs out of regular-sized ones with tweezers.
Each composition is a blend of documentation and imagination. Initially, she drew inspiration from her own various living situations (she’s moved around constantly over the last 12 years), and those of her friends and family. But she’s also begun to take on commissions from strangers who have encountered her work in galleries and art fairs and wanted to become part of her project. “Some people really like to archive their home – either for themselves or for future generations as a sort of heirloom,” Ciarska says.
In Ciarska’s experience, everyone views their home as their own kind of ‘gallery’ – an outward extension of their personality. Each painting begins with an arranged visit to the person’s home (who is absent at the time), during which she wanders around photographing details that capture her attention and considering particular objects, their placement, and the overall ‘curation’ of the space. For Ciarska, this gives an important sense of who the person is and how they live. “I get to see them in their rooms through their objects,” she explains – and find out far more about them than she would through a conversation down the pub.
Though the rooms are always unpopulated at the time of her visit, this is not the case for their painted counterparts. Instead, each composition is always occupied by a single naked woman; one who is never too far away from a screen or device with a camera on it.
The overall title of the series is Cześć, Pani Ciarska (Hi, Miss Ciarska) – a reference to the French-realist painter, Gustave Courbet’s Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet (1854), reflecting a degree of self-portraiture within these miniature scenes. But Ciarska also believes that her paintings could be seen as a collective portrait of women more generally. As well as documenting aspects of modern life, notions of home and the presence of technology, they also respond to the current resurgence of feminism, and humorously try to challenge gendered expectations about how women should live and work.
The woman in each scene is often captured in an act that might be considered taboo, such as masturbating, performing as a ‘camgirl’, or even just walking around the house naked. “Sometimes we don’t see or don’t talk about those moments,” Ciarksa tells me, “and I want to erase negative associations for females. Female self-love is important, enjoying your own bodies and your own time.” Using the example of the camgirl, the artist describes; “She’s got her set-up, with her camera and stuff, so you know there’s a story there. But you can also see the remains of her breakfast by the sink, her collection of Moomins in one corner, and a domestic space that reflects her personal tastes and style. You witness her as a human being. It’s a very real and normal life, just the rituals mixed with the job she’s doing makes it more of a taboo subject. My paintings present you with a story as a whole.” Ciarska adds that she is keen for the work to be taken light-heartedly, too: “When you view something in a humorous way, you loosen negative connotations.”
Her eye for detail and colour palettes comes through especially in the meticulously patterned backgrounds that the rooms float against. The background is an important constant that connects all of the paintings and – when hung together in a grid or a line, presenting a myriad of narratives we can dive in and out of – it exists as a sort of network. The design is drawn from the wallpaper in her grandma’s house in Poland – with the colour scheme changed each time. “I started painting the pattern, and then I started applying it to every painting. I saw it as a network, like the internet or how the internet is invisible yet connects everything together. Each interior is so different, the pattern becomes the thing that joins them together.”
In some ways we could perhaps question whether the women in Ciarska’s paintings are liberated or trapped within their floating rooms, in the same way that technology can make us feel connected and extremely isolated at the same time. Society, via the internet, can sometimes make us believe that there is only one way to live, one way to look, or one way to achieve success, and much of this is targeted at exploiting the anxieties of women.
There is a certain intensity to how Ciarska creates her artwork which could be reflective of this anxiety-inducing culture. She paints overnight – “the best time to work” – starting at 8pm and continuing until the sun starts to rise, when she heads down to her local coffee shop where staff know her well. Ciarska works from home, using her living room as a studio space. “Since each painting is so tiny, I don’t need that much room and don’t have to go anywhere.” This way, she can paint whenever she feels, but there is less of a work/life balance.
A clear sense of place hasn’t been inherent in Ciarska’s own life and upbringing, having moved around so often over the years. She describes finding it unnecessary – rather than difficult – to make a place feel like home. “But I’m trying a little bit; I’ve started to put some stuff up on the walls,” she shows me a few prints hanging in her home-cum-studio via the webcam. “Painting these houses and interiors gives me the power to create rooms that I always dreamed of living in, rather than occupying them physically. I don’t think I’d ever be able to afford them in real life!” (A remark that hints towards the more political direction in which she plans to take the series going forwards.)
As the definition of voyeurism suggests, we take pleasure in observing what other people do, what they own and how they live, and have readily become recipients and contributors to a mass culture of oversharing through social media. Through Ciarska’s paintings, we are granted access to worlds and interiors that we probably couldn’t find online, however; partly because there is an imaginative element to her work, but also because it reveals elements of our hidden, interior lives – those ‘taboo’ subjects that are less often revealed. They combine a multitude of political, social, cultural and personal dimensions to provide a fascinating look at the way people live in 21st century Britain. A modern-day peek through the keyhole?
Paola Ciarska will be exhibiting work at Galerie Emmanuel Hervé in Paris from 18 September to 16 November 2019.