By Valérie Verhack
If there is one sector in which transparency tends towards the opaque, it is the world of art, characterized as it is by a highly ritualized system functioning on the basis of complex social processes and value regimes. The boundaries between the commercial, the critical, the academic and the public domain have seemingly blurred in recent times: it is now possible to move effortlessly between areas that were once fenced off, and to transcend the dividing lines between the commercial/critical and the public/private, even in one and the same career. A new type of task flows from this – a hybridization of functions, of which people in the art world are well aware.
The series of paintings with which the German artist Jana Euler made her début in 2009 can be interpreted as a direct response to this phenomenon. Euler showed six realistically executed, large-format works under the title Ambition Universe at an artists’ collective in Vienna. The works themselves have titles like Daniel Gnam, Wolfgang Koschmieder and Diedrich Ceccaldi – forenames and surnames that do not belong together, with Euler composing visually hybrid figures to match. The bodies, with their almost hysterically beckoning hands, belong to artist friends like Manuel Gnam, Andrei Koschmieder and Nicholas Ceccaldi, while the heads (or are they grinning masks?) are those of influential figures from the art world, such as the curator Daniel Birnbaum, the artist/curator Wolfgang Tillmans, and the critic Diedrich Diederichsen. The photo-collages, editions of which Euler produced to accompany the exhibition, bear the same titles as the three final paintings in the series: Ruth Suckale, Harald Waechtler and Werner Denny. They function according to the same principle, with separate heads and bodies once again being combined. The series evokes the frightening context in which artists have to make their way in the early part of their careers, and the inevitability of networking to their potential artistic success.
This quest for individuality can be felt in the multiple iconographical layers that Jana Euler incorporates in her paintings. The foreground figures in the hybrid portraits of the Ambition Universe series contrast with the star signs depicted in the background, which vary from a schematic astrological symbol (in Wolfgang Koschmieder, for instance) to the personification of a sign of the zodiac (the lion in Diedrich Ceccaldi). Euler takes a popular idiom like astrology and slips it behind her convulsively expansive portraits of movers and shakers from the art world.
This layering becomes steadily more complex in her later work, while at the same time, Euler gradually abandons the painterly tradition of dividing foreground from background. We find an example in the series of three canvases that she showed at the Real Fine Arts gallery in New York in 2012, with the collective title Overpainted. The foregrounds and backgrounds of this self-portrait and portraits of two (female) artist friends merge completely. In Identity Forming Processes Overpainted, for instance, Euler’s hyperrealistic self-portrait is rhythmically punctuated by three paintbrushes and by small, schematically painted figures and caricature profiles. At first sight, these different layers make the image highly complex, yet they are related. They intensify one another to form the portrait of an artist searching for her own creative and social identity.
Euler takes a further step in this direction in Whitney (2013), in which she sets aside the recurring rhythm of motifs in favour of a free association of homonyms – from Whitney Houston to the Whitney Museum, New York – laid down over a large expanse of canvas. The painting comprises a single, charged composition created for a specific context, namely the Whitney Biennial, the 2014 edition of which was the last to be held at the museum’s old building. The event was additionally special, because non-American artists were invited to participate in the biennial for the first time. The importance of an overseas event of this kind to a young European artist like Jana Euler cannot be overstated.
Word versus image
The pictorial diversity in Euler’s work extends into the different ways in which she deals with words. We notice that all her works have titles, and that her choices seem very deliberate, possibly prompted by the works’ visual complexity. Where the viewer sometimes risks getting lost in her paintings’ free association of motifs and multiple layers, the titles hold out a key to their interpretation. A title like Painting Out of Focus of Friends Leaving to Berlin (2012), for instance, is both descriptive and evocative. The relationship between word and image in Euler’s work is not limited, however, to the allocation of titles: there are several canvases in which the word largely determines the composition. The B-Motions Are Trying to Control Their Bodies, but the Faces Talk and Money Is Overpowering (2011), for example, consists of seventeen figures in shirts and suits, floating on rafts, their cartoonish facial features together spelling out the words mind body evolution. The word is entirely central to her recent series Fuck You Goethe (2014), recently on display at her first institutional solo exhibition at the Kunsthalle, Zurich. The title comes across as a sharp rejection of her native country’s cultural past, while also referring to recent popular culture. Euler borrowed the title from the German comedy film Fack ju Göthe (2013). The works are constructed from the overlapping letters of the title, painted from different angles or with different character types (textual and anthropomorphic letters).
Jana Euler’s focus on the context in which her work is exhibited is unusual for an artist whose oeuvre consists mainly of painting. In her recent series, Where the Energy Comes From 1, 2, 3 (2014) – also on show in Zurich – she explores the perspective that can be generated by a painting on a flat wall. Electrical sockets, enlarged to a size of two metres, for instance, make the walls look smaller than they really are. She painted the title of her 2013 exhibition at the Cabinet gallery in London, When Expectations Measure Needs across the various walls of the space. There was only one viewpoint in the gallery from which the entire title could be read and all the works viewed at once. She shaped the space at several other exhibitions, meanwhile, by installing matt plastic walls. The fact that the plastic was not transparent rendered the walls neutral: light alone could pass through them, which meant visitors were not distracted by other images. She used this type of wall at the Real Fine Arts exhibition, mentioned earlier, to give each work space to breathe, while simultaneously obliging visitors to follow a circuit in the shape of a question mark. The painting The Body of the Exhibition (2012) visualized the route the visitor unknowingly had to follow. The canvas features a human figure with closed eyes, whose body corresponds with the shape of the exhibition circuit. The wide-open eyes in different colours painted on top of the man’s body echo the viewers’ eyes. The painting, as it were, looks back.
Looking and being looked at
Sight is the most important sense for a visual artist: it is the gaze which, during the painting process, shapes the final result, the image. In a series of works shown in Zurich, Euler explores the extent to which a painting she made with one or two eyes can differ from a canvas like Men Painted with No Eyes (2014), done freely from the imagination. Men Painted with One Eye (2014) is a painted copy of a photograph, while Men Painted with Two Eyes (2014) is a painting of a live model. The principle was clarified in Zurich not only by the titles, but also by stickers on the floor representing open and closed eyes. The three works are executed in totally different ways, in terms of their directness, their movement and their brushwork. The series Painting Out of Focus – three canvases that Jana Euler painted with an airbrush in 2012 – represent a similar visual experiment, in which she explores one of the fundamental questions in painting, namely how to represent the reality around us. She painted each of the three works from a different distance from the support: 10, 15 and 20 cm. The further she held the airbrush from the canvas, the more blurred, the more out of focus the result. The absence of the painter’s touch is one obvious difference compared to works done with a paintbrush, giving the paintings a very flat feel.
Using an airbrush also means that Euler no longer has to make contact with the canvas: the paint she applies in this way remains visible at all times and under control, unlike painting with a conventional brush, which conceals part of the canvas for the duration of each stroke. The composition in each of the three paintings is abstracted to such an extent that everything becomes motif. Depth is suggested solely by a foreground and background. Euler’s exploration of the focus of the gaze recalls recent studies on optical disorders in painters, and how this might have shaped their artistic output. When Monet developed cataracts, for instance, his sense of detail and contrast supposedly diminished, causing him to use darker colours.
The artist’s gaze cannot exist without the things located in his or her field of view. Euler’s inspiration for her themes and motifs is both direct and indirect. Many images arise, for instance, from her immediate surroundings. The models she used for the portraits in the series Ambition Universe and Overpainted are artist friends of hers, and she also draws inspiration from the abundance of visual material available on the internet. For her hyperrealistically rendered portrait of the curator Jamie Stevens, for instance, who collaborated with Euler in 2012 on her exhibition at the Cubitt Gallery in London, she painted the first image that appeared when she searched for his name via Google Images. Jamie Stevens the curator happens to have a namesake: the UK’s then hairdresser of the year. Is this Euler’s humorous response to the theory of ‘network painting’, which has been attached to her work in recent years?
Although the internet can be stimulating, the ease with which images can spread and be used does, of course, have a downside. In recent years, for instance, it has been flooded with embarrassing smartphone photographs and hacked information. You can view anything you like online, but you too are constantly being watched. Jana Euler seems to address this risk in Overexposure. Other than images of her work, personal information about her online is few and far between. She does not have a Facebook, Twitter or Instagram account, for instance. Euler painted a self-portrait, Nude Climbing up the Stairs (2014), for her Zurich exhibition, as part of a deliberate strategy perhaps to keep control over the visual material that can be published about her. Like Marcel Duchamp’s celebrated Nu descendant l’escalier (1912), the work shows the sequence of fragmented poses adopted by a naked body walking on a staircase. The work feels more like a statement than a formal quotation, however, as Euler does not walk down the steps meekly, the way Duchamp’s model did, but climbs up them confidently until she disappears round the corner. By placing the painting next to a staircase at the entrance to the exhibition, she made the visitor follow the same movement. At the same time, the work functioned as a kind of signpost, urging visitors to move forward, to step into Euler’s imagination.
The original Dutch version of this text was first published in Metropolis M #6, Dec 2014 - Jan 2015. English translation by Ted Alkins.