YOU ARE YOUR NETWORK. This aphorism, freely adapted from theater director René Pollesch’s 2012 play Kill Your Darlings, trenchantly captures the new worth of connections and friendships in contemporary life. Of course, it is a well-known fact that social interactions have changed in the age of network capitalism (to use Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello’s term). We communicate more, assiduously accumulate the contacts that are now of such unprecedented value, and seize every opportunity to network that presents itself. And yet however well known or familiar this scenario is, it takes on a slightly unexpected, even exaggerated form as it plays out in the paintings and objects of Brussels-based artist Jana Euler. Visitors to her 2009 exhibition at the Vienna gallery Pro Choice encountered a signal example: a group of portraits vividly illustrating the growing pressure on artists (especially young, ambitious artists) to network with “important people.” The portraits’ subjects, a mostly male array of prominent art-world figures, include the critic Diedrich Diederichsen, the artist Wolfgang Tillmans, the filmmaker Werner Herzog, and the curator Daniel Birnbaum, all of them recognizable at first glance to me and surely to many other viewers. In formal terms, the compositions adopt the oddly compressed frontal view of Gustave Courbet’s self-portraits. Like the painter in his Man Mad with Fear, ca. 1843–45, these figures move directly toward the beholder, their arms outstretched as if they seek to clasp her in their hands.
Now, in certain circles, like the one centered on the Frankfurt’s Städelschule, where Euler was a student until 2008, her subjects are regarded as authorities. (I should knowI teach there. The fact that I am now writing this essay even though my portrait is missing from Euler’s series may be chalked up to the efficacy of her networking strategy.) In the case of Birnbaum, who served as the Städelschule’s rector until 2010, it is obvious that, from Euler’s perspective, he held institutional power. The other subjects warrant inclusion because they set the terms of the intellectual debate, possess institutional clout, elicit the respect of fellow artists, or have achieved success in the art market. The portraits’ large format, as well as the forward-moving dynamism of the figures, may be read as symbolic of their impact and influencean influence a young artist can hardly escape, because these figures occupy crucial positions in the art business and contribute to shaping its agenda. She must engage them whether she wants to or not, just as artists, and painters in particular, have to cope with the legacy of modernist spectatorship and subjectivity, as inaugurated by Courbet.
Beyond their evocation of this art-historical hero, the paintings’ style also recalls the verism of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), with its freakish exaggerationsfor example, the work of Otto Dix, whose portraits feature similarly overdrawn wrinkles and aberrantly oversize hands. Neue Sachlichkeit has been generating renewed interest in recent years; like Euler, contemporary painters from Lukas Duwenhögger to Lucy McKenzie have quoted the progressive strain within the movement with a view to reactivating its aspiration to social critique. In Euler’s portraits, however, this critique is qualified by another element: The sitters are shown before a starry sky and accompanied by the symbols of their respective zodiac signs. The aim of these pictures is not really to turn the subjects into the social types a critical analysis might sketch; instead, we might say, the works try to limn esoteric psychograms. Yet the zodiac signsconnoting astrology, sci-fi, and a general embrace of the mysticalalso open the paintings to woefully down-market intellectual and aesthetic idioms. Having claimed a distinguished art-historical pedigree, then, Euler adulterates it with these astrological digressions. Meanwhile, the whitish-pale hue of the figures’ bodies vaguely suggests dead flesh, strongly recalling a particular mode of glum East German figurationespecially the Selbstbildnis mit roter Kappe (Self-Portrait with Red Cap), 1988, by the East German painter Werner Tübke, whose coloring of his own face seems similarly pale, sickly, and somehow repugnant. So instead of sticking to the conventions of Neue Sachlichkeit, Euler compromises those conventions twice over, risking connections not only to the antiobjectivity of astrology but also to the work of a GDR state artist, an affiliation that has little cachet. We might say that she invokes the primal scene of realism in painting, Courbet, and synthesizes it with more recent traditions such as Neue Sachlichkeit and socialist realism, tapping the potential of each strain only to quash it by virtue of the association with another idiom.
But if Euler pursues different styles rather promiscuously, she seems particularly tempted by modernist painting, perhaps especially its mildly stigmatized Surrealist-decorative margins: Miró’s sinuously interlocking forms, Klee’s tiled superimpositions, de Chirico’s exploded architectures and eggheaded figures, to name a few. It wouldn’t precisely be correct to say that she evokes these styles, howevershe rather seems to evoke the style of these artists’ legions of unknown, amateur imitators. In works like How to be more than one without turning your back to fascism, 2012 (in which a giant-headed figure reminiscent of Klee’s Senecio sits in a lotus position in a black cosmic void), or a surreal untitled pastoral from 2010 in which human-animal hybrids gambol lasciviously, or several paintings that improperly push abstraction toward architectural representation, modernist styles are filtered through the sensibilities of that anonymous midcentury aspirant whose paintings we have all stumbled on at one time or another in a thrift shop or on the walls of our doctor’s office. Those old paintings always seem to speak of forgotten longings for a particular type of social belonging, a desire to be part of the hegemonic artistic formation of one’s time, and their derivativeness makes this ambition all the more visible. Even if Euler’s paintings are wittier and more commanding than these efforts, their dense referentiality points to this same desire to project oneself imaginatively into a specific social universeto belong via style.