In June of 2016, Ben Lerner published a short story in the New Yorker about an artist who, on the eve of a big opening, loses two paintings in the back of an Uber. Lerner’s story was largely based on Polish painter Anna Ostoya, a real-life friend of the author’s who experienced this while finalizing an exhibition at Bortolami Gallery earlier that spring.
The Polish Rider finds the two revisiting the incident through their respective mediums, exploring, ostensibly, the transmutation of art forms and the gaps that grow in the process. Ultimately, though, other gaps take the stage.
The Polish Rider
The 80-page book features two texts by Lerner, including the autoficticious New Yorker story and an essay explaining the decisions behind it. These are interspersed with dozens of Ostoya’s paintings and photomontages—older pieces, works from the Bortolami show, as well as others made in response to Lerner’s story. The majority feature variations on an art historical theme, taking well-known works of art or cultural touchstones and reimagining them through different styles and perspectives. The Bortolami exhibition, for instance—revisited in the book—found the painter riffing on Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting Judith Slaying Holofernes (1614–1620), rendering the scene in progressively abstract modes, from cubist shards that recall an 8-bit video game to a group of floating geometric shapes.
Anna Ostoya, Holofernes Slaying Holofernes, (2016/18) and Judith Slaying Judith, (2016/18). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.
On the surface, The Polish Rider enacts a dialogue between painting and prose. The evolution of Ostoya’s experiments in reimagining art history is both narrated and mirrored by Lerner’s words. He says in the essay, referring to himself in the third person: “For several years he had been obsessed with the relationship between fiction and the other arts, had started to think of fiction as a curatorial form, a medium in which you could stage encounters with other media, real or imagined; for him, fiction was fundamentally ekphrastic.”
In this second text, which reads like a coda to the first, Lerner breaks down the differences between the story and the experiences that inspired it. We learn, for example, that while the short story makes the narrator an active participant in the incident, trying haplessly to assist in tracking down the paintings through the New York night, in reality, Lerner was merely told the story after the fact.
In the same way that Ostoya fractures and abstracts her source material through formal means, Lerner contorts the narrative. What we assume is real and fiction becomes increasingly muddied until, eventually, we take on a role like that of the narrator in the story: an ad-hoc detective trying in vain to track down something that we’ve never seen in the first place. Just as Lerner’s fiction found art in the disappearance of Ostoya’s paintings, we’re tasked with making meaning in the tenuous relationships that the book sets up.
Echoing this are two other themes that occur throughout the book: cultural dissonance and role of “old” art in a world driven by technological advancements, which both Lerner’s texts and Ostoya’s art feature. Early on in the story, for instance, Sonia (the name given to Ostoya’s character), desperate to find her paintings, expresses frustration at not being able to understand her driver’s English. Later on in the night at the Uber offices, Sonia herself approaches a parodical form of Eastern European unintelligibility while explaining that, in the truest sense, her paintings are literally worth nothing. “A story that that crossed an old medium like painting, for instance, with the new ‘platform capitalism’ of Uber might open up a space for thinking about some of the competing and changeable networks that make up contemporary life,” Lerner explains in the essay.
Later on, Lerner tells us of his decision to separate the art in his fiction from the actual lost artwork. It’s an insight that captures the dynamics at play within the book as a whole. The story substitutes Ostoya’s Gentileschi-inspired body of work in the Bortolami show with one based in part on another series by the artist, depicting the infamous “socialist fraternal kiss” between Leonid Brezhnev, the head of the U.S.S.R., and Erich Honecker, the leader of the German Democratic Republic, photographed by Régis Bossu in 1979. Depending on the context from which you approach it, the image of the kiss can stand for any number of ideologies: the triumph of the European socialist experiment, the fall of the wall, the power of propaganda, the latent homoeroticism between men in power, the sheer awkwardness of locking lips.
The kiss, by Lerner’s own estimation, becomes a metaphor for “the ekphrastic kiss of genres.” Within the whole of The Polish Rider, it represents a bit more: communication across cultures, across artistic mediums, across a world both united and torn apart by globalized technocapitalism. Like that smooch, the exchange between a writer raised in
the American heartland and a painter born in the Eastern bloc is sloppy and strange and hard to look away from. Some implications are lost in the translation, but the friction also creates new and previously unseen meanings.