Performance artist Pat Oleszko, whose art is on display in the Women’s Studies Research Center (WSRC), unraveled the absurdity of her work to a full house in the Kniznick Gallery on Wednesday, Jan. 25. Faced with a burning bra, boob costume, crocodile, polar bear, life-size cactus costume and more, gallery visitors immediately pulled out their cameras. Oleszko’s art is that mesmerizing.
“Leading people happily astray,” is how Oleszko described her duty as an artist, in an interview. Oleszko effortlessly accomplished this task in her artwork, especially in “Fool for Thought,” which WSRC staff member Susan Metrican curated to perfection.
Constructed with balloons and fabric, “Betty Boob” made for quite the bizarre spectacle at the main entrance of the gallery. Oleszko named this costume “Breast, St’oked!” and created it for an open water swim race at Coney Island.
Oleszko really likes puns. She informed the audience about her frequent use of what she calls, “puntification,” in her artwork. For example, the inflatable “Womb with a View,” which unfortunately does not appear in the exhibition, portrays a gigantic, naked woman laying on her back with her legs sprawled apart. A human head pops out of the figure’s vagina. The short film “Recipe for Pasta Madonna” features cheery Oleszko in an outfit completely made out of different types of pasta. She cooks pasta, stuffs pasta into her mouth and holds a baby in front of a church, in the video.
Oleszko draws upon her own personal experiences in her work as well. An alligator made of cardboard, fabric, a skateboard and a toy car occupies the gallery’s floor. Dubbed “Gator Raid,” this piece is based off of a six-foot alligator she found in Queens. She discovered the animal underneath a car, hence the toy car inside of the alligator’s mouth.
While Oleszko sure knows how to make her viewers laugh and ponder, she also employs her sense of humor to make statements on political issues. “Hello Folly: The Floes & Cons of Arctic Drilling” comments on oil drilling in the Arctic. “O-Let’s-Go Chant,” an original poem, accompanied the scene on a placard. “False informing / Media whoring / Facts ignoring / Global warming / QUIT DRAGGIN’” reads the first stanza. Oleszko effectively communicates the urgency of this conflict with her repetition of “QUIT DRAGGIN.”
There are two parts to “Hello Folly”: The “Drilling Sergeant Platform” displays an oil rig labeled “Polar Wrecks-Plorer,” “The Cull of the Wilds” and “Oil, Oil, Toil & Trouble” on the three different sides of the sculpture. The pipes on the ground say “Hell No!” with the Shell gas logo and “Drill = Spill.” Plain black pieces of fabric, or oil, spill out of the pipes as well.
The second part focuses on polar bears, or as Oleszko calls them, “Bi-Polar Bears.” One large bear sits on a platform, while other polar bears are draped over the wall behind. The polar bears look lost, vexed and angry. All the while, blue plastic bags lay underneath both segments, symbolizing water. Oleszko uses the plastic bags to communicate the harm they cause to the environment, as these types of bags are made from petroleum and in oil refineries.
By far one of the most amusing stories of the night was about the time Oleszko went to jail in the Vatican for five hours. She created a pope costume and props to interact with visitors, while also criticizing the pope. She called herself the “Nincompope,” meaning “little pope.” The Nincompope carried a golden water gun containing “holy water” that she squirted at pedestrians.
Oleszko showed the audience footage of this public performance. She can be seen shooting holy water into her mouth and spitting it out with disgust. However, the Vatican did not appreciate her stunt and consequently detained her. The artist was ultimately released soon after, but this incident clearly demonstrated Oleszko’s pure courageousness. This entire episode ultimately stemmed from the mere truth that Oleszko disliked the pope and was willing to openly mock him in his own home. At the end of the day, Oleszko said that the fact that she ended up in the Vatican’s jail made the project a success.
Oleszko also got kicked out of the Macy’s Day Thanksgiving Parade … three times. Sporting a conspicuous turkey costume, the third time around, Oleszko hid in the middle of crowds when the police searched for her. The police eventually found the performer and made sure she actually left the scene by escorting to the subway. Oleszko has actually been thrown out of plenty of events and arrested quite a number of times in her career.
Playboy once threatened to sue her for visual slander when she dressed up as a Playboy bunny, just not in the conventional way. Instead of a licentious, seductive bombshell beauty, Oleszko appeared as an unsightly female rabbit in undergarments. Ironically though, Playboy later contacted her because they wanted to photograph her in the unappealing, taunting costume. As is evident in all of her work, Oleszko does not hold back. Frankly, throwing boundaries to the side is why Oleszko’s art has such a strong effect on her viewers.
The packed room of more than 50 attendees most certainly admired Oleszko’s talent, as did the rest of the world. Oleszko’s work has been showcased in the Museum of Modern Art, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She has also received a Guggenheim fellowship, the Rome Prize fellowship, the DAAD Artists-in-Berlin residency as well as numerous other awards, grants and residencies. Pat Oleszko is, to say the least, a world traveler and artist.
A question that most observers probably contemplate is how and when did Oleszko’s wild, imaginative, comical, critical eccentric persona arise? Oleszko started using her body as armature and the world as a stooge in college, when she realized she could use her six-foot-tall stature as pedestrian art. “I found these characters lurking in my body,” she said.
Bold—the most fitting word to sum up both Oleszko’s persona and art. She is outright fearless in her craft. The performer walked into the room sporting an all-black outfit covered in what looked like stuffed hands. These hands adorned her coat, headdress and earrings. She undoubtedly captured the audience and remained the center of attention throughout the evening.
This crowded room contained individuals from predominantly older generations. However, Oleszko’s art certainly has the ability to appeal to a younger audience. Her work can be vulgar, witty, hysterical and aesthetically pleasing among all the chaos. Without a doubt, Brandeis students, and community members in general, should journey to the Women’s Studies Research Center for a very unique artistic experience, on display through March 3.
In short, Oleszko’s mantra is, “I am, therefore I art.” This motto aligns with the employment of her own body as walking art. Oleszko literally embodies art. However, Oleszko also embodies art in hopes of carrying and conveying deeper messages about the world. “We have a lot of work to do in the future,” Oleszko concluded her talk. “Show me what democracy looks like,” she howled. “This is what democracy looks like,” the audience shouted in response, a common cheer from last week’s Women’s March. Ultimately, Oleszko’s artwork not only has the capacity to provoke roaring laughter, but also has the power to embolden her viewers and the world around her.