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.
Jana Euler, Press Conference 1, 2, and 3 (left to right), 2010, oil on canvas, each 36 5/8 x 27 1/2".
While Euler ranges widely across past aesthetics, however, her affect is more consistent. Her workwhether her paintings or her occasional forays into other mediumstypically inhabits a subtly comic register. This is perhaps only to be expected, since comedy is so embedded in the socialif tragedy in the classical sense bespeaks a rupture in the social fabric that puts the individual in direct confrontation with some sublime force (death, fate), comedy maps the social’s intense all-embracingness, the way it makes people internalize its rules and mores and absorbs even their drives and desires. One is reminded of Foucault’s much grimmer description of biopolitics as a historically specific technology of power that aims to penetrate people’s lives at the most intimate level. Foucault stressed how this regulating power operates not primarily through subjugation or discipline but through stimulation. Our desire and behavior are shaped in such a way that we want to cooperate. In Euler’s paintings The Body of the Exhibition 1 and 2, both 2012, figures bend in on themselves, willingly fitting themselves to the borders of the picture like contortionists squeezing themselves into boxes. Similarly extreme positions are adopted by the faceless clay figurines Euler presented as part of a 2010 solo show at Dépendance, Brussels (Form Follows Information Exchange 1, 2, and 3, all 2010). The figures could be said to illustrate, in comically literal terms, the flexibility the neoliberal economy demands of us. They strike unnatural poses in order to gaze at the screens embedded in their rears, which show videos of circles appearing and disappearing. Clearly, they are sparing no effort to get a good close look at their screens. The work stages the almost physical fusion with social media that is a characteristic of the networked society, as is the craving for meaningless information that has us staring raptly even at circles.
BUT THE QUESTION OF STYLE obviously can’t be treated separately from the question of substancebodies, and the constructs that give bodies meaning within the social order. It is important to note that Euler’s 2009 portraits graft the heads of her art-world authorities onto the bodies of her male fellow students and colleagues, as indicated by the paintings’ titles. Diedrich Ceccaldi, 2009, for example, is a hybrid of Diederichsen’s head and the body of young Canadian artist Nicolas Ceccaldi (who had a solo exhibition in September at New York’s Real Fine Arts, where Euler has also shown). The pictures take literally the Oedipal-aggressive longing to supplant the father figure that is often said to drive ambitious young artists early in their careers. The young embody the established senior figures.
Men are not the only potential objects of Oedipal desire, as another picture from the series demonstratesa portrait of Ruth Noack, cocurator of Documenta 12. Surrounded in the Pro Choice show by male heroes, Noack was pressed into the role of the token woman, as though to illustrate once again the structural law that, for every artistic formation, there can be only one woman in Germany who garners institutional recognition. Her head, however, has been fused with a body identified as male by chest hair and broad shoulders. We may read this misbegotten chimera with its exaggerated masculine features as hinting at the fact that Noack’s contribution to Documenta 12 was nearly eclipsed by the media’s fixation on its male director, Roger M. Buergel. The large male body that supports Noack’s comparatively small head symbolically recodes herit is the precondition of her visibility. While the series reproduces the dominance of male art-world luminaries, it also points critically to the structural sexism still prevalent in this social universe.
Of course, the symptom the portraits identifythe rising value of social connections in what Boltanski and Chiapello have called a “contact world”is also their problem, for they attest to the artist’s desire to be part of this network of visibility and power, to leave her mark in the club of the established and the renowned. In that regard these works are comparable to Andy Warhol’s celebrity portraits, which in parallel fashion speak of Warhol’s desire to be seen as interacting eye-to-eye with his famous subjects. But unlike Warhol’s idealized pictures, Euler’s portraits capture the monstrous aspect of these overpowering father figures (and one mother figure) as well. Depicted in a way that is hardly to their advantage, the subjects, one suspects, are as likely to find their likenesses offensive as flattering.
Euler does not exempt her own image from this pictorial universe of ambition. In an untitled self-portrait from 2008, she has wrapped her right arm over her head so that it reaches the left half of her face. The pose recalls a formerly widespread procedure used by German primary schools to test whether a child was ready for school: The candidate’s hand had to reach the ear on the other side. Euler paints herself a certificate of maturity and membership but also stages the artist’s life as a perpetual performance test. The detail of the hand clutching a cigarette in a deliberately awkward pose identifies her as a member of the bohemian segment of the art world, the more so as it imitates a habitual gesture of her professor Michael Krebber. And at least since Francis Picabia’s Espagnole à la Cigarette, 1921–22, the female smoker has been an art-historically overdetermined trope, signifying transgressiveness, meditativeness, and autoeroticism.
Jana Euler, Form Follows Information Exchange 1, 2, and 3 (left to right), 2010, wood, clay, varnish, electronics. Installation view, Dépendance, Brussels. Photo: Sven Laurent.
Moreover, from the early twentieth century through the 1980s (the heyday of Virginia Slims’ well-known slogan, “You’ve come a long way, baby”), cigarettes also signified women’s emancipation, which may also help account for their appearance in Euler’s works. Certainly with the series of women’s portraits Euler showed at Real Fine Arts this past spring, she had visibly broken free of the male-dominated universe depicted in her earlier portraits. The friends portrayed here likewise catered to their own desiresthe painter captured one of them taking a drag on a cigarette, another slurping an oyster. She had not, however, abandoned the affiliation with Neue Sachlichkeit. The thin layers of oil she used to create these pictures once again allude to that movement and the way in which its own facture recalled Northern Renaissance panel painting.
One self-portrait from this series, in particularIdentity Forming Processes Overpainted, 2012highlights the particularly strong connection in these works between the artist’s person and her artistic product. The three brushes painted into the picture invoke three myths of painting: the myth that the absent artist is somehow present in the picture; the myth that it is possible for the beholder to gain an understanding of this absent painter, thanks to the seeming immediacy and indexicality of the work’s gestures; and, conversely, the myth of agency, that is, the myth that the painting has painted itself. (Proliferating eyes, one of Euler’s favorite motifs, feed the myth of the picture as a self-active quasi subject.) Painters have obviously been dealing with their medium’s myths for centuries. But by piling up such venerable painterly tropes, exposing and even mocking their metaphysics, Euler accesses the legacy of numerous more recent painterly practices, specifically those that, beginning in the early ’90s, reconciled painting with the insights of postwar institutional critique. It was a historic accomplishment of sorts when artists like Martin Kippenberger highlighted the importance of personal relationships and pointed to the symbolic value of one’s social scenes. Moreover, these artists insisted that their practices encompassed an entire range of activities and outputs, from paintings to publicity materials to self-presentation. Transposing characteristics of institutional critique to paintingwhich, of course, had long been regarded as institutional critique’s most determined antagonistwas provocative in itself. But Kippenberger, Merlin Carpenter, R. H. Quaytman, et al., actually extended institutional critique’s central insightthat the particular institutional conditions in which an artistic practice operates shape that practice to its coreby acknowledging that relationships have no less institutional relevance. Yet as so often happens with progressive innovations, in the early years of the new millennium this mode underwent a radical shift and morphed into its opposite. It became an aesthetic convention that corresponded to the increased value of social contacts in the new economy. Today, painting exhibitions reflecting on their institutional conditions or taking site-sensitive measures have become the standard.
Euler’s practice doesn’t depart from this standardquite the opposite. In addition to their critical reflection of the imperative to network, her exhibitions always include site-specific gestures. On the occasion of her show at Real Fine Arts, for example, she set up two partitions made of cloudy translucent plastic sheeting stretched over wooden frames. These not only paid tribute to the particular architectural situation at the gallery but also stood, semitransparent and framed, as pictures of sorts. It was as though painting had triumphed once again over the reflex to engage in institutional critique, which has itself often turned into a routine gesture anyway. The Body of the Exhibition 2 similarly refers to the gallery’s floor plan, squeezing the bizarrely contorted, many-eyed body into a configuration determined by the space’s layout. Like this body, Euler’s work fits itself to the frame. She doesn’t break conventionshe makes the sometimes-excruciating restraints it imposes visible and explicit, performing a black comedy of accommodation.
UNLIKE IN THE 1970S AND ’80S, when painterly practices still faced considerable pressure to justify themselves, painting has now become contemporary art’s given, its granted premise. For evidence, one might note that artists such as Jenny Holzer and Mathias Poledna, whom one would not ordinarily associate with painting, have recently taken up the format of the picture on canvas. To a significant degree, painting owes its growing appeal to a push by theorists to buttress its legitimacy, with David Joselit’s brilliant 2009 essay “Painting Beside Itself” being especially noteworthy in this regard. In this oft-cited text, Joselit proclaims the visualization of social networks as a worthwhile painterly strategy and uses the term “transitive painting” to describe practices that “actualiz[e] the behavior of objects within networks”i.e., perpetual circulation and retranslationby staging the “passage” from “painting-as-cultural artifact to the social networks surrounding it.” (He aptly cites Jutta Koether’s picture-performances as an example of this staging.) Joselit’s essay contributed decisively to the establishment of a new paradigmthe paradigm of network painting. Artists of Euler’s generation have been dealing with this paradigmand, more broadly, with the institutionalization of the positions staked out by Kippenberger and his cohortin a variety of ways, ranging from naive illustrations of the network-painting model to more complex and nuanced responses. Euler occupies the latter end of the spectrum. At first glance, it might seem that her pictures do exactly what Joselit suggests: They visualize networks, whether those of art-world authorities, literal constellations, or the artist’s circle of friends. Yet whereas Joselit’s essay takes an oddly positive view of the network conceptor, at least, has little to say about the hierarchies, exclusions, and social violence that may intrude into the smooth concatenation of relationships implied by this technical metaphor for the socialEuler’s work foregrounds the vexations of the networked life in her exaggerated figurative deformations and repulsive flesh tones.
A recent critical rereading of Neue Sachlichkeit, and in particular its verist subgroup, allows us to better grasp the significance of this rebarbative figurative language. When art historian Graham Bader looked at verism in an essay published in these pages in January 2007, he argued that it was far from being a retrograde rejection of avant-garde strategies such as abstraction and montage. What verism sensed and diagrammed, with its violent, decadent, or macabre figuration, was the Weimar Republic’s historically unprecedented biopolitical obsession, its relentless efforts to control its citizens’ bodies via any available means. Bader’s text reminds us of the necessity to situate each instance of figuration historically by relating it to its social conditions. In Euler’s case, it is the biopolitical subtext of network capitalism that is not merely hinted at but taken to the extreme. If we are supposed to work the room, to communicate nonstop and to stay mobile (between openings, fairs, and biennials, in the case of much of Euler’s audience), our bodies, our gestures and expressions, and our psyches will be affected and shaped accordingly. Yet the body depicted by Euler is far from a site of resistance, as it was for many feminist artists of previous decades who used their formerly repressed bodies to express opposition to patriarchy, and in so doing ran the risk of being reduced to that body once again. On the contrary, Euler’s work recognizes that formerly private matters (our bodies, social and cultural reproduction) are nowadays far from being repressedthey have risen to the forefront of the economy. Indeed, it is the formerly reproductive sphere that the new economy is busy absorbing, since it targets our behavior, our deepest feelings, and our most private interactions. The bodies that we encounter in Euler’s paintings are therefore not just biological matter but also sites on which this economy works.
Bodies are indeed ever-present in Euler’s work, in all their abysmal carnality, their genderedness, their posturing and vulnerabilities. Yet they are also and increasingly caricatures, cartoon personages. Zodiac signs notwithstanding, Euler is obviously less interested in personal motives or individual psychologies than in a structural analysis of social interaction and behavior, one that may turn us again toward the project of understanding how power works on and through bodiesyes, that old question, but wittily and incisively attuned to the contemporary factors that inflect it anew. That is especially evident in Euler’s pictures of the past two years, such as The Emotions Discuss in the Postmodern Side-Room About the Transformation of Their Bodies 1 and 2, both 2010graffitilike paintings of grimacing talking heads with stick-figure bodies seated at conference tables. Twisted with pain, carved by physical exhaustion and emotional isolation, their faces remind us of the way in which networks are everywhere inscribed on the body, articulating a near-complete and decisive instrumentalization of the subject. There is no way out of this social hell, or so it seems in Euler’s art. In Anonymous Powergame, 2011, muscular bodies bearing Dubuffet-like balloon heads try to stay afloat by performing gymnastic exercises but ultimately lose altitude. The picture suggests a certain pessimism, to say the least. Yet this visualization of new compulsionsright down to the physical-fitness imperativestrikes me as a strength of Euler’s work, as does the way she presents these compulsions so grotesquely and in such exaggerated form that the possibility of new positions of distance and critique seems within reach. Her power games may be anonymous, but we are more than likely to recognize ourselves, our friends, our networks, in their painterly gambits.
Isabelle Graw is a Berlin-based critic and the publisher of Texte zur Kunst.
Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.