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"Parallel rooms, Parallel worlds" by Mannika Mishra, Contemporary Lynx, Issue 1(15), p 16-25, 2021


Paola Ciarska is a creator of worlds. Her paintings - hexagonal-shaped cross sections of the homes of nameless, nude women - simply teem with detail. They shift constantly, one moment reminding the viewer of meticulous 19th century nature drawings and playing out like voyeuristic thriller the next. A quiet, resilient introspection shines through her work, as Ciarska patiently builds theses rooms bit by bit, detailing each object with her arsenal of tiny brushes. The women in her work are remarquable characters, and Ciarska infuses them with humour and personality. For example; orifices are often painted a cheeky bright red, and tiny details like these are typical of Ciarska’s sense of mischievous playfulness. These women are comfortable and confident - you’re never sure if they mean themselves to be seen by us or are unaware of being watched. The effort put into these women, their rooms and their homes, tells a story ; it tells us what Ciarska wants to say and encourages us to link our own sorties to hers. Her work is therefore startlingly interactive, reminiscent of the crowded spreads of classic picture games like ‘I Spy’ and ‘Where’s Wally? ‘
Something else which permeates her work is a striking awareness of social media, and in several pieces you can see the figures in her paintings taking selfies, engaging with the wider world from inside their rooms, displaying a complex power dynamic between the internet and female bodies. Is display and controlled voyeurism a means of liberation or further entrapment ? As our world evolves and struggles to answer complicated questions about consent and bodily autonomy, Ciarska, in her own way shows us the apathy and banality that often goes hand-in-hand with regular, osbessesive use of social media and the creation of new brnaches of cultural capitalism.
Intimate and nostalgic, Ciarska’s for, especially in the time of COVID, is powerfully meditative and immersive. It takes you too new places, makes you spin stores out if thin air, and find joy in the strangeness of the everyday.

Mannika Mishra : Much of your work plays with discomfort, as viewers confront their voyeurism when they see the women in your pieces being completely uninhibited in their homes. But social media involves awareness of a gaze, so, are the people in your work aware of being watched at home, even when they're not on social media?
Paola Ciarska : One of my stand out memories as a child, that has always been persistent throughout my life was seeing Alfred Hitchcock's Rear window for the first time. Since that first time of watching the movie, I watched it hundreds of times slowly grasping deeper meanings that were weaved into the plot. Yet I will never forget that first time. I feel like in that moment my adolescent imagination has expanded dramatically outside the walls it was sitting within. I began looking at buildings from outside and obsessively thinking about various scenarios that might be occurring behind those brick walls. With time I started to expand on the notion of complexity and the vastness of the world and the unimaginable scale of the net of human interactions.

At one point of my life I moved to a flat on a 9th floor of a high multi-story building, where I happened to spend quite a lot of time alone, wondering about all of these other people occupying apartments of the same layout as mine, and thinking about what were they doing. Throughout the time I spent there I befriended quite a lot of my elderly neighbors and often got invited to their apartment's. I was fascinated how that same layout of each flat was utilised in so many different ways and how those people subconsiously curated their environments to reflect the years of memories, personalities and achievements. And that's when I started thinking very seriously about my project which I am working on to this day.
Spending a lot of time by myself in this flat has also made me aware of the daily rituals that I've created for myself. I started to reflect on everything I've been up to during the day, from the most mundane to the most intimate moments. That's when I decided to somehow depict and emulate them. It was vital for me to capture the delicacy and the intimacy of these moments, and that’s why I choosen the voyeuristic angle and compositioned my paintings somehow inspired by the Rear Window. I wanted the works to act as a mirror for the viewer in order to see a little of themselves in these moments as well as being a starting point of reflection about sharing and over sharing. Characters in my painting are not aware of being watched. They are captured in very vulnerable or/and very empowering moments and its up to the viewer to figure that out based upon themselves, their reaction and their own self exploration.

MM : There are so many weirdly shaped, surreal objects in these rooms. How do you choose which objects to include and which to design?
PC : The process of choosing the objects has evolved quite a bit throughout the years. I used to take photos of anything I found really interesting and create an inventory of objects on my phone and to refer it to whilst painting. These would be images of my friends furniture, screenshots of various strange objects I’d come across on the internet, artworks that have moved me or nostalgic pop culture references that would woke memories of growing up. With time, the inventory has moved to my head along with the endless collage of everything I ever painted which organically enabled me to design and imagine the objects. Just as my parallel universe of my painting has expanded - the vision of it has became clearer and more distinct. The objects began to naturally appear in my head to become reality with the helping of my brush. I still like to use real life references to make my world just a little relatable to the real one and I really enjoy getting people involved in creation of my pieces by asking to send me images of whatever they find interesting. It adds a layer of randomness and fun which I really value in my practice.

MM : How close are these rooms to real life? I read that you observe and are inspired by the homes of friends and acquaintances, how close do you get, how much is literal and how much symbolism? Where does the surrealism start to creep in? Do you have a rough idea of what these rooms would look like before you begin to distort and play around with objects?
PC : I work in two ways currently - my imaginary paintings and private commissions for private collectors and institutions. My imaginary paintings are mostly conceived in my imagination, they depict completely made up rooms that belong to my never ending imaginary parallel universe. In these works I mostly use objects from the inventory in my mind. Throughout the years as my practice evolved, the process of arranging and imagining the rooms has became very instinctive. As I sit to paint a new painting I never really knew what the painting will look like, nor do I know it's colour palette or the exact narrative. I have tried to plan paintings in the past but I quickly learnt that working with my instincts and relying on my automatic response to my medium and canvas is the only way to achieve something that I am truly proud of. I believe that when I allow the process to take the lead and scaffold it with my skills and precision I am left with something pure. Sometimes when I finish a painting and I look at it in it's final form I feel like it wasn't me painting it - it's a strange mix between conscious and subconcious meeting somewhere in the middle. And although I do make a lot of, what seem to be, strategic and symbolic decisions, they still, to me, feel very automatic and organic placements that somehow always work at the end. It's quite hard for me to explain, so I hope this was a good go of making sense of it in words.
My other way of working is private commissions. It is completely different process to the imaginary painting, yet I enjoy it quite a lot as it keeps a good balance in my brain between reality and imaginary. For my private commissions I usually visit my client in the space that they would like me to paint (most recently I do this via video call due to COVID 19 restrictions). I take images of absolutely everything in the space and ask my client to point out anything that is absolutely vital to be in the painting and make a note of that. Once I'm back home I review all the images that I've collected and begin extensive planning. In these pieces I try to capture the essence of the space and the personality of the inhabitants. By doing these commissions I've been able to visit some amazing places all over the world and most importantly archive how people are living and curating their living spaces. What is also very beautiful about this process, is meeting people in such an unconventional setting. Even though we were strangers at the beginning of the visit, yet after being shown around their most precious enviroments and being told about certain objects and stories that are part of them, at the end it feels like I really got to know them and that's what I try to encapsulate into my paintings.

MM : A lot of our ideas about privacy overlap with sex and sexuality - or they used to. What do you think about modern attitudes to sex and sexuality and how do you mean for it to come across in your work?
PC : I always been a keen advocate of empowering people to explore their sexuality as l believe that sex can be an amazing tool for self exploration. I think that modern attitudes towards sex and sexuality still can drastically vary from person to person which is not necessarily a bad thing. I believe that in this subject most important thing is to create an inclusive discussion where you can listen and learn from each other and never judge or push your views on one another. Everyday we are still leaning about sexuality and athrough I think we have made quite a big progress, were still in the very early days of exploring this subject. The way I depict sex and sexuality in my paintings is very playful and humorous - it’s how I view it and personally practice it. I consider it to be my input into this ever evolving discussion.

MM : Do you see your work as a criticism of social media? Or an idealised space, where sharing every aspect of your life fulfilling and empowering rather than food for insecurity?
PC : I believe that your own social media experiece is dependable on however you choose to use it. It's a very complicated space and to me it is quite apparent that it has changed dramatically in a negative way which is sadly inevitable in our current society that is highly charged by capitalistic values. I see myself as a narrator to this phenomenon - I neither criticise it, nor do I endorse it. I archive the practices that revolve around it and accept it as very prominent notion that somehow found itself defining the society of our time.

MM : Your work has a lovely, almost graphic novel-like quality, married to a sort of architectural sensibility. Did you specifically take influence from those fields or did it just evolve naturally? There is a significant story-telling element to your work, I feel, coupled with a lot of humour. Your pieces are comparatively quite small and portable, where did the decision for this come from? And what materials do you use most often?
PC : Throughout my life, since being a child, I moved around quite a lot. I think this has highly influenced my affinity towards small objects, as I leaned to not carry a lot with me nor getting attached to material objects. To this day I never carry a bag and solely rely on multiple pockets of my leather jacket. When I look at the whole body of work I have ever created, it has always involved small scale layered with meticolous details. I think theres a slight obsessive quality and a pattern to it. I find comfort in getting lost in these miniature parallel universes I've created. The style of my work has evolved naturally with time. I avoided looking for any sort of specific inspiration in arts and architecture as to not to hinder my imagination. It was important to me to discover my own style without outside influence. I always use gouache paints paired with abudence of tiny miniature brushes that I pluck with tweezers as I have never found small enough brush yet.

MM : Could you tell me a bit about your background? About the places which inform your work, and especially the significance of the background in your illustrations.
PC : When I attempted my first ever gouache painting, it was at my grandmothers house in Poland. As I sat on her veranda with my fresh set of paints I wasn't sure what to paint. I then gazed through the window and immediately decided to paint my grandma's beautiful and intricate wallpaper. This pattern has became a distinctive background of my paintings acting as a link and a network connecting them together. As my work and imaginary universe expanded I realised that it was important for me to see the paintings connect to each other even further. That's when I abandoned the patterned background and started to paint on hexagonal shaped custom made boards that connect to each other like honeycomb. I still use my grandmothers wallpaper in many of my works as an actual wallpaper as a symbolic memory he where it all started.

MM : Obviously COVID and lockdown has made your paintings unexpectedly prescient, do you have plans to depict it in some way or somehow include the pandemic and its isolation into your work?
PC : I believe that my work somehow always depicted the notion of isolation. Rather than focusing on the negatives of the pandemic and highlight the undesirable effects of it, I hope to continue to expand my neverending universe where I am able to humorously present the state of isolation and perhaps try to depict some small benefits of it.


"Microverse : The paintings of Paola Ciarska makes us all voyeurs" by A. Smith, HI FRUCTOSE vol. 60,  pp. 40-67, 2021

It’s not uncommon to see someone’s face just inches away from Paola Ciarska’s gouache paintings, attempting to absorb every detail of her domestic spaces. These scenes, ranging from single dens to multi-room complexes, have typically shown her female subjects at their most intimate and vulnerable. And the idea for a series of paintings that garnered her international attention started around six years ago, when she was living in a high-rise apartment.


« I’ve spent a lot of time by myself, often wondering about other inhabitants of the building, » she says. « In my head, I began to create blueprints of other apartments, imagining how others arranged their spaces, how they’ve adapted to the layout, and most importantly, what they were up to. This prompted me to reflect on my own daily rituals, from the most mundane to the most intimate moments. I began this series of paintings aiming to somehow depict and emulate at the delicacy and beauty of these moments as well as injecting a little humour into them. I wished for the viewer to discover a part of themselves within the painting and to shift their focus towards self-reflection ».


What viewers would relate to or surmise about the person-who was initially the artist herself in scenes from her own life-was up to them. But gradually, the twenty-eight-year old Poland native says, « throughout the years my parallel universe has vastly expanded. » She began to involve the practices and living spaces of others, and now, her practice « has evolved into a vital organ of mine that helps me to see the world in a more patient and accepting way. »


It started with the objects. Throughout the years, she’s asked « friends, partners, and strangers » to offer some tangible fodder for these spaces. In turn, working inside jokes into the fabric serving made the pieces more specific, and thus, more relatable Then she started doing call-outs on Instagram for those who would like to be featured in a new series. « The process of painting all of these strangers through stalking their Instagram accounts in order to capture their essence was fascinating » she remembers. « I asked them what room they’d like to be in and what they would like do be doing : It was important for me that whilst incorporating this new layer of reality into the piece, I allow it to evolve with minimum control from myself. Since then, I often invited input from Instagram followers into my pieces; I really enjoy the layer it adds to my parallel universe, as it blurs the line between the real and imaginary. »


More recently, she took this a step further: She gave up control entirely and let followers control every element of a painting through Instagram polls on a weekly basis. « Each week, I anticipated what has been chosen for me to paint, » she says. « The creation of the piece allowed for fascinating dialogue between the followers and me. None of the objects that have been chosen would of ever existed side-by-side in the real world prior to this, yet the internet enabled this glitch in the universe to come to life. »


Indeed, her recent works carry more surrealism inside these walls than previous experiments. An endearing, yet unsettling mural of Peppa Pigs with a knife and a gun adorn one prominent space in « Life and the Pursuit of Pleasure #3. » A Rubik’s cube end table and couch resembling a hot dog occupy another, while nearly every room has a couple fornicating in one fashion or another. The works have rightfully been compared to offering the perspective of Wheres Waldo ? Illstrations, but here, the beauty of the unexpected is how it’s seamlessly woven into domestic backdrops.


Through it all, she’s been honing and evolving the physical process of creating on such a small scale, which certainly requires patience. Many of the works are pocket-sized, and working on such a small scale is pretty taxing. (Her Insta bio does say, after all, « I torture brushes for a living. ») For her though, the pursuit of injecting the tiniest of details and a quality of absorption in her work is worth it. « My art language seemed to be embellished with almost obsessive quality of meticulous details, small scale, and precision, » she says. « I find it very therapeutic and calming, as when I paint I devote all my thoughts and attention to it. I paint throughout the night when the world is asleep, as I believe that that’s when mine can truly thrive. I think that throughout the years this process has naturally refined itself and grew with me. I’ve learnt to capture my thoughts pursue… I see it as a puzzle I’m forever solving. And if I get frustrated, I take a shower and somehow the peace is restored upon my return. »


Beyond the sourcing of objects, she’s been experimenting with canvas size and shape over the past year, feeling « a little trapped » working with the same hexagon shape. The answer, somehow, wasn’t going bigger or smaller : It was both.


« I found that a larger-sized board paired with smaller scale within the painting allows me to inhabit that specific section of my parallel universe for longer, and ultimately allows me to get to know it better, » she says. « The thoughts and narratives have become more profound and intense. I’m currently working on a large piece that has truly consumed my life, as I find myself either painting or thinking about painting. I’m certain that I’ll always pull elements of reality into my work, as the paintings have slowly evolved into a diary of my thoughts in relation to reality that has helped me tremendously to understand myself and the world around me. As for Instagram polls, I think they work best for me as a spontaneous element of fun rather than a leading force. »


But what’s it like painting domestic spaces in the stay-at-home era ? Ciarska answers that with a reflection on what it was like traveling and moving around with her mother as a child. That process changed her relationship to physical objects, « as it was much easier to travel light. »


« I was always deeply fascinated by other people’s homes, especially with the ones that have been inhabited by the same people for many years, » she says. « Although I find this fascinating, I can’t imagine settling down in one place myself. As my parallel universe painting series expanded, I often found myself creating imaginary rooms and spaces that I’d like to inhabit myself instead. The process of painting one room alone, which can take up to six hours, feels like I’ve teleported myself there, as all my attention is dedicated solely to visualize and depict it, and is also sufficient enough to provide me with a constant yet ever-changing living situation that exists at my fingertips. I was grateful for my practice during the lockdown as I was able to take breaks from reality to sneak into my parallel universe. »


Her viewer, in turn, are given the same gift to escape.

"Sensual Awakenings - The New Generation Of Young Women Artists Exploring Gender And Sexuality" by Maggie Kuzan, CONTEMPORARY LYNX, 2018

Paola Ciarska (b. 1993, Poland) builds pleasure palaces for women. Growing up in Poland, she recalls moving houses numerously, unable to truly indulge in curating her own bedroom. Addressing her latest series of paintings, tiny 18 x 12.5cm reimaginings of the rooms of her friends and acquaintances in Newcastle and Gateshead, where she is currently lives and works, she enthuses, “I tend to create dreamscapes and environments that I always longed for. They started to translate into reality in recent times – my house is fully equipped with seven lava lamps and a few hungry tamagotchis.”

Seeing these artworks in person at IMT gallery in Bethnal Green, London, as part of Ciarska’s first UK solo show, Czesc, Pani Ciarska, I was overcome by their staggering detail. These gaudy interiors, studded with mass available products and emblems of 90s popular culture, Furbies and Tellytubbies, are reminders of Ciarska’s millennial upbringing.

At the centre of these cluttered rooms is the naked female protagonist –sitting cross-legged, reclining, leaning, on all fours – she animates herself into playful positions, performing for any available screen. The affluence of web cams, laptop screens, smartphones and selfie-sticks refers to our contemporary condition of oversharing, a surplus of readily available information and our retreatment into our devices. Ciarska’s portraits indulge our voyeuristic eye – in one scenario the naked woman dons a black fetish eye mask with elongated bunny ears whilst sitting cross legged, holding a selfie stick in her right palm. In another set-up, she rests on all fours, with a bondage harness or rope for kimbaku, a Japanese style of BDSM, tied around her waist and thighs.

Ciarska’s playful woman unveils alternative messages for women, not restricted to heteronormativity. Ciarska tells me that, “I like to spread a strong sex positive message through my paintings, as I believe it is important to erase any bad conscience that is sometimes associated with female self-love. My paintings try to evoke the familiarity of intimate moments through a humorous commentary on how it is like to be a 21st century woman that might enjoy an occasional nude selfie photo shoot or a leather harness.”

It is this refreshing honesty and nod to shared womanhood that make Ciarska’s intimate paintings so compelling. In one artwork, the female subject sits on the garish carpet, painting her nails, a sight so familiar. By portraying the mundane everyday, the artist reveals the unspoken truths between collectives of women, of mundane daily rituals, of self-care and preservation. Her paintings may reflect an age of Nokia 3410s and dial-up internet, but they are also documentations of the present, time capsules grasping what it means to be a woman today.


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