Portrait Jana Euler
For the past ten years, the German artist Jana Euler has worked an eclectic lexicon of styles to dissect the mechanisms by which value is assigned to art. For her recent exhibition at Galerie Neu in Berlin, she presented eight tall paintings of sharks. Swiss curators Tenzing Barshee and Fabrice Stroun met to talk about the ideological implications of her work and the unique place it occupies within the field of figurative painting.
Tenzing Barshee: When did you first encounter Jana Euler’s work?
Fabrice Stroun: In early 2012, when you and I started talking about her paintings, it seemed to me that each of her works was about something. Some of them highly skilled, others much less so. She was working with a whole bag of painterly tricks. Every mark seemed to serve an analytical purpose. Painterly effects seemed to be a means to an end rather than just for show. I remember we both appreciated how unprecious they looked.
TB: True. They brought a well-timed take on issues of representation. What about this seeming lack of preciousness? Can you elaborate and, looking back, do you still feel that way?
FS: The paintings have gotten more articulated with time, which could become a problem, but in essence, yes. Content over Haltung (attitude). Part of this sentiment was circumstantial. When I started looking at her work, a lot of other German painters her age were still considering artists of Kippenberger’s generation as plausible models, thinking their stylistic misgivings and dandyish personas could somehow be aped. She didn’t put her foot into that hole. Her paintings were smart, very funny, and in their own peculiar frozen way, quite beautiful.
TB: Do you relate her work to so-called Bad Painting, a concept you’ve often made reference to?
FS: Not really. Bad Painting refers to a specific moment in the reception of essentially formalist, neo-Expressionist practices that coalesced in the late 1970s in the United States. Today, the use of this term only makes sense within a hyper-regional North American context. The one contemporary artist I’m really interested in who possibly still fits that bill is Gina Beavers, who also has a show up in Berlin right now [at GNYP Gallery]. I’m sorry to miss it. In Germany, a number of artists were also working in similar veins in the late 70s, albeit for radically more political reasons. In retrospect, they are the last European generation to give an explicit painterly form to historical anti-establishment positions that have since waxed and waned.
TB: I’d like to go back to your judgment of Euler’s contemporaries. What you are talking about, if I understand correctly, is the academicisation of a punk ethos.
FS: Yes, but by the time Euler’s practice emerged, this issue was already twenty years old. By the mid-1990s, the vast majority of the original punk artists had already classicised themselves to death. And then you have the whole “Spirit of Cologne” thing, which, as far as painting goes, cemented this process of academicisation for good. In 2012, Euler seemed to offer a relative analytical respite from this dead-end narrative.
TB: Right, but I don’t agree with you that Euler’s practice is that analytical, that cold. There is a performative dimension to the work. For me, it doesn’t simply represent an idea, positions or intention. She weaves levels of meaning by modulating different painting techniques. Euler displays a real sensitive and conceptual intelligence in the ways she constructs an image from within painting’s history. In the show we saw earlier today, there are fish paintings that include spray paint, that look like something at a fun fair …
FS: … like the facade of a haunted house.
TB: But you also have a painting that is rendered in a 19th-century neoclassical style, and another looks almost expressionistic. The heterogeneity is remarkable.
FS: Her virtuosity is elastic.
TB: In Germany, painting culture is essentially gendered. There’s the prevalent myth that an expressive gesture contains the violence of history or, alternatively, its alcoholic/anarchist negation. Both of these traditions are embedded in an essentially masculine narrative. So now, we have a younger artist who’s claiming a position of power, even if only size-wise. The fish paintings are really tall things.
FS: It’s mind boggling that this phallocratic perception persists. Despite the historical fact that in the last decades in Germany the most formidable paintings were all made by women. First and foremost, Jutta Koether, for whom I have a quasi-religious awe. There is no work of hers I don’t unconditionally love. And then you have artists like Monika Baer or Amelie von Wulffen, who are, I believe, truly forward-thinking. And more eccentric voices, such as Katharina Wulff’s, are just as interesting. The list goes on.
TB: Michaela Eichwald or Heike-Karin Föll come to mind.
FS: I’m talking specifically about representational painting, which carries its own historical burden.
TB: Obviously casting a long shadow. So here we are. We enter Galerie Neu and we see eight huge paintings of marine life. But in fact, they look like hard cocks. Eight giant explosive cocks. They look scary in the most caricatural and ridiculous way.
FS: Many of them actually look kind of pathetic.
TB: It’s funny that she made them explosive. Unlike an actual penis that distributes fluids, they burst out of the water themselves. They aren’t here to inseminate anything, they’re being spewed out by the ocean. I’m wondering if this can be read as a metaphor for the adolescence or advent of power itself. The thing is, Euler is astutely aware of how contemporary images come to be and how they are distributed, and how that relates to the dynamics of social life. I’ve always appreciated the way she deals with the anticipation between language and images. What I first heard about the exhibition was that she had made paintings of sharks and that the title of the show was “Great White Fear”.
FS: So funny.
TB: Vittorio Brodmann, our painter friend, told me that the “Great White Fear” makes him think of the white canvas. The question of how one goes about finding a subject to paint.
FS: The fact that these works are so obviously, among many other things, about painting might be, for me, their greatest Achilles’ heel. Do you remember the scene in the movie Superbad (2007), when Seth fills his entire notebook with dick drawings?
TB: Yes! The character, played by Jonah Hill, admits to how as a younger boy he’d obsessively drawn pictures of dicks. The scene is set up well. When he confesses, his best friend asks with astonishment: “Dicks? Like a man dick?”
FS: There is one of the fish paintings where the two eyes are looking right at you, going: “Duuuuh”.
TB: The self-portrait?
FS: You call it that?
TB: I was told it was one.
FS: It’s the one work in the show that obviously invites you in on the joke.
TB: Last fall, I met John Kelsey in Berlin. I asked him, “How’s New York?” He said: “Paralysed”. I guess he was talking as much about how the current political climate makes it feel like we are living in a caricature as to how the overheated conversation around identity politics affects people’s language and the work that artists make. People are scared of doing or saying the wrong thing. With “Great White Fear”, I feel Euler is forcing us to reflect on this situation.
FS: Sure. For decades and decades, moral censorship came from the political right. Now it comes from within our midst. It’s a complex issue. This self-censorship is a toxic side-effect of a struggle you and I actually believe in. We need to tackle systemic behaviours of oppression. The question is, how do we get rid of the bathwater without throwing out the baby? I’m wondering what these eight gigantic cocks are trying to tell us that we don’t already agree with.
TB: I’m not sure they are as righteous as you make them. Her humour opens up an array of interpretative possibilities. There are obviously preset punchlines, but these are so deadpan, they cannot be considered authoritative. For example, I love the fact that she exhibited a Whitney Houston portrait at the Whitney Museum in 2013. “Whitney at the Whitney”. It’s too deadpan, far too flat to be authoritative.
FS: In this respect, it’s interesting to make a comparison with the works of Mathieu Malouf, which we also saw today [in a show at Lars Friedrich in Berlin].
TB: You’ve referred to both of these artists as moralists. What do you mean by that?
FS: They’re both satirists, they are both toying with our respective moral misgivings. But the way they wield irony is quite different. I’d identify Euler’s as critical or constructive. It is meant to articulate something, to reveal a structure. Malouf, on the other hand, has more of a scorched-earth approach. His work doesn’t even pretend to explain anything. I agree with you that, in the end, Euler’s works are not authoritative. But – and it’s part of their appeal, and their beauty – they are so self-assured. In Malouf’s case, and that’s his appeal, the minimum amount of self-possession required for any kind of authoritative pronouncement is out of the window from the get-go. It is obliterated along with its targets.
TB: Euler states correctly in her press release that, if left undescribed, there’s nothing in the fish paintings that you wouldn’t see or miss. Again, super deadpan, whereas Malouf is mildly hellbent, to say the least. His practice is a form of trolling.
FS: Trolling is a means to an end, you have to look at his actual paintings. The sense of dislocation I experienced in his recent survey at Le Consortium in Dijon, curated by Stéphanie Moisdon, was intense. I felt like a Philip K. Dick character who, as reality disintegrates, isn’t sure whether he’s standing at the edge of a new world or already on his deathbed, hallucinating.
TB: For you, seeing both exhibitions on the same day was a real treat, wasn’t it?
FS: Seeing two legitimate figurative painting shows in one go? It hasn’t happened to me in a long time. I kept thinking about a David Salle interview I read in the late 80s, where he compared his relationship to Morandi and de Chirico. If I remember correctly, he said something to the effect that standing in front of Morandi’s works, he found them ravishingly beautiful, perfect, but then when he left the room, they vanished from his mind. On the contrary, he found de Chirico painting always highly problematic and far less attractive, as they kept the traces of all his squabbles with the artworld of his time, with whom he kept petty score. But once they were out of his sight, he couldn’t stop thinking about them.
TB: If I buy your earlier distinction, I’m more inclined to keep thinking about art that is critical or constructive instead of scorched-earth tactics. But we should not oversimplify either of these artists’ practice. In Euler’s case, you have to agree that her work is more perversely polysemic than you give it credit for. I would say it’s interesting to look at her exhibition, the shark-cocks, the representations of power and their silliness, in combination with the title, and how they’re tapping into a larger conversation around morality.
FS: They are certainly teasing us into having this discussion.
TB: Like being honey-trapped.
FS: They are three-metre-tall cocks. If that’s not a honey trap, I don’t know what is.
TENZING BARSHEE is an independent writer and a curator at Sundogs in Paris.
FABRICE STROUN is an independent curator based in Geneva, Switzerland.
JANA EULER was born in 1982 in Friedberg, Germany, and lives in Frankfurt and Brussels.
Recent solo exhibitions have taken place at Galerie Neu in Berlin (2019), Dépendance, Brussels (2018), Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and Cabinet Gallery, London, both in 2017. Among other group shows, she participated in “The Violence of Gender”, JC Contemporary (Tai Kwun), Hong Kong, and “January”, Dépendance, Brussels, in 2019; “Optik Schröder” II, Mumok, Vienna, in 2018; “The Absent Museum”, WIELS, Brussels, and “Infected Foot”, Greene Naftali, New York, in 2017; and “Painting 2.0” at Mumok in Vienna in 2016.
Represented by Galerie Neu (Berlin), Dépendance (Brussels), and Cabinet (London).