A formation of battle-ready soldiers is marching towards you. The figure in front strides directly forwards, waving a flag high above. Those following behind are strong, blood-covered and defiant. They are entering a battle for their lives. ‘Amazons’ (2021) is Christine Kowal Post’s striking installation of warrior women that greets you as you enter the Williamson Art Gallery. Made up of nine wood carved sculptures, the figures are of varying heights and dress, but all stand tall and muscular with proud expressions. Adorned with bulky helmets and accompanied by animal familiars, they are not of this world.
They Think They Are Fallen Angels is the third solo exhibition by Kowal Post to be held at the Williamson Art Gallery and Museum. A practicing artist since the 1970s and currently based in East Sussex, Kowal Post produces paintings, sculptures and reliefs made from wood carving. This varied selection of her work contemplates our place within nature through a female lens, and how humanity’s hubris has taken us away from the natural world.
‘Amazons’ borrows its name from a society of women hunters and warriors in Greek mythology. Legendary for surpassing men in both physical strength and combat, these women only sought out men in order to reproduce. Kowal Post’s epic sculptures are carved out of entire tree logs, typically using the soft and evenly-coloured limewood, with each piece taking up to three months to complete. Standing tall and totemic, with animals embraced as an essential part of the tribe, these sculptures implore us to imagine the lost worlds of our ancestors. They point to our shared connection with animals, reminding us of a time when humans embraced their animality.
Who is the enemy these women are poised to fight? The empty space of the open door opposite the formation suggests that their battle is more a personal, internal one. Considering the figures more closely, it becomes clear that this battle is one intimately tied to their gender. One of the Amazons squats, completely nude, balanced atop a fellow warrior. With her tongue sticking out and her genitals exposed, as though to be utilised as a weapon, she is deliberate in mocking whoever dares to cross her. Another figure stands heavily pregnant, cradling her protruding stomach. One breast is uncovered, ready to feed her child. In this installation, Kowal Post employs elements of femininity that have historically been seen as weaknesses, or were altogether hidden, and instead emphasises them as essential to women’s dominance and defiance. One warrior stands mid-childbirth. Her baby enters the world already wearing a helmet; its tiny, armoured head pokes out between her mother’s legs, ready to fight. By simply living as women, their existence is already a site of battle.
By drawing on ancient myths, Kowal Post’s warrior women are relatable across many social and geographic contexts. The Amazons made it to a number of continents, including Africa, Asia and the Americas. Placing these characters outside of any particular time and emphasising universal feminine experiences, her figures explore both the freedoms and limitations that are thrust upon them as a result of their bodies. Along with the burden of womanhood, that they must carry everywhere in their heavy armour, they have the solace of solidarity; not only with the other warriors but also their animal companions. A lizard sits quietly curled on top of the head of one warrior. Next to her, another caresses the tail of a fox sitting by her side. They are at home with these creatures and so are able to embrace their inner animals.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, elements of mysticism and mythology recur. In one oil painting titled ‘Smoke’ (2021), a trio of ominous figures wearing animal headdresses gather around a bonfire. As plumes of pink and purple smoke surround them, I imagine the women engaged in some kind of incantation. A loyal guard dog sleeps by their side. Positioned away from them, a David-esque sculpture stands gripping a wooden club. He is made separate to them in his masculine heroism, perhaps even suggesting his violent nature is a threat to the women’s peace in this mysterious scene.
Kowal Post’s paintings share the distinctive style of her wood carved works. She paints scenes that leave you feeling slightly perturbed. With an Expressionist influence, the bold brush marks and flat planes of vibrant colour greet you with an instant pull. ‘Fire and Water’(2021), is another of her works that dances alongside the mythical. Three animalistic women gather around a lake, using their clawed hands to caress the water. Rays of light beam down onto the figures, whilst the world gently burns away in the background. It is a haunting image that once again reminds us of our place in the natural world. These women appear half-animal, living amongst the elements and embracing their innate wildness in a way that seems unimaginable today.
Throughout Kowal Post’s work, animals exist as constant reminders that we should embrace this aspect of our nature. She portrays humans living alongside wild animals as our companions. Yet it is her 2017 installation ‘Wolfpack’, which sits in the Williamson behind ‘Amazons’ and contains no human figures, that makes this sentiment most clear. Humans and dogs, once the best of friends, are turned away from each other in the space, now entirely separate. Unlike her other works that are not time-specific, this piece comments on our very contemporary relationship with animals. Kowal Post’s wolf pack is made up of domesticated dogs, those we keep as pets and many would consider to be family members. Their expressions are either aggressive and hostile or extremely sad. Many of them have been dressed in outfits chosen by their owners. A sneering French Bulldog is draped in a Union Jack scarf whilst another small dog gazes into the distance wearing a pink tutu. These animals are unrecognisable from those who join the Amazons on their journey in the previous installation. Kowal Post seems to be urging us to look at where our attempts to control and manipulate nature have led us. So detached from our environment, we are now annihilating other species along with ourselves.
This exhibition showcases a vast array of works that question and reimagine humanity’s place in nature, with an emphasis on women’s relationship to their bodies as defined by others. Kowal Post’s ethereal paintings and striking sculptures encourage us to examine how we relate to ourselves and the world around us. By using myths and rituals of the past to comment on how we have exiled ourselves from the natural world, she makes clear the appeal and universality of embracing our more animalistic selves.
They Think They Are Fallen Angels, Williamson Art Gallery and Museum, 25 November 2022 – 25 February 2023.
Nina Newbold is a creative producer from Liverpool.
This review is supported by Williamson Art Gallery and Museum.