Katharina Wulff


-- Art Review by Donald Goddard

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In Girl with Hunting Dogs, 2010 (fig. 1), the girl sits on the ground, maybe an early teenager, left knee pulled up to her chin, right leg stretched in front of her to her left with foot in red shoe, hair red (orange, really), blouse red (partly painted in), face sad or troubled flushed with red tones, the rest of her body barely drawn in, a male dog eagerly lays on its side, drawn and shaded rather distinctly, belly showing, penis erect, part of another dog seems to advance cautiously in two images in the lower right, probably female, ground has some grass-like green, blue water, horizon, and sky seen above the girl’s head, her head seems to balance a boulder behind her, another natural formation of rock and wood appears on the right echoing the dog’s erect penis and testicles, both the boulder and the branch formation stretch out over the water and barely touch the sky, tentatively but tenaciously establishing the connections among things in the painting. The scene is most apparently not a real scene but a painting and drawing, brushstrokes, graphic outlines, and shading, canvas showing through, careful balancing of shapes and colors, transition from foreground into deep space. It’s just a painting, to be appreciated for its skillful use of color, line, shape, likeness, space, light, its dramatic rendering of a state of mind and playful framing and interaction of human, beast, and nature, like a movie.

Fig. 1. Katharina Wulff
Maedchen mit Jagdhunden (Girl with Hunting Dogs), 2010
Oil and charcoal on canvas
52 1/2 x 73 3/4 inches
133.4 x 187.3 cm
Courtesy Greene Naftali Gallery, New York

The artificiality of art has never been more manifest, but then neither has its reality. What appears is originally and definitively real, something that has never existed before. The girl may refer to, in another sense of reality, the artist herself, or someone she has experienced, but in fact the image is something quite distinct (or indistinct), different molecules constituting their own realm of being. It might be said that any emulative art can be described this way insofar as it has a life of its own in the medium of the art, but here the open questions of identity, thought, juxtaposition, and narrative constantly evolve and change to the extent that their completeness in the overall picture encompasses incompleteness, a constant state of becoming that is embodied in the act of painting itself. One senses sadness and puzzlement in the girl, but why, and would it be known even if the figure were completed? She is in the process, the painting is in the process—it is incomplete, and yet as complete as it and the emotions involved can be. The puzzlement seems to involve sexuality (at her age . . . or any age?), but of course the juxtapositions of the naked dog, the girl, and other images are rather comical, as the evolutions of human emotions often are. And here they exist as much in shape, color, line, and space as they do in land, sea, sky, and our fellow beings.

Appropriately, the thirteen paintings and nine drawings in the show are what have been called Wanwizzi, an archaic high-German word approximately meaning “hysteric whimsy,” by Wulff, who was born in Berlin and now lives in Marrakesh, Morocco. Innocence and/or bewilderment are/is present in all Wulff’s figures, usually men, however harsh and angular or soft and melancholy they are, heads and shoulders trapped in the picture frames that surround them. One double portrait (fig. 2) has a young man and woman, he in a black jacket and bow tie, she in a low-cut, sleeveless light blue gown (perhaps a wedding couple, though she is not wearing white). The eyes in their oval faces stare past the viewer, though her eyes barely exist, the right one hardly at all. They seem stunned and without context, the top of his head cut off by the frame, hers almost touching it. He seems paralyzed with uncertainty and her features barely exist, as though they had reached some kind of stasis and cannot go further, jailed by their circumstances, like all the others in these portraits. Is it because the natural world has been eliminated and forgotten, shrunken to a place in which they can no longer evolve? That is very much the condition of the work of art itself. It moves toward a certain completion, which is in fact a false completion, an artificial completion, given the choices throughout and beyond.

Fig. 2. Katharina Wulff
Untitled, 2010
oil on canvas
13 3/4 x 11 inches
34.9 x 27.9 cm
Courtesy Greene Naftali Gallery, New York

Fig. 3. Katharina Wulff
Untitled, 2010
Oil and charcoal on canvas
33 1/4 x 47 3/4 inches
84.5 x 121.3 cm
Courtesy Greene Naftali Gallery, New York

This dilemma infuses a rolling green landscape (fig. 3) where a four-legged creature, which seems like a cross between a cat and a dog, sits at the base of a double-trunk tree. It stares in wide-eyed bewilderment to its right, where a naked man lays supine (or dead) on the grassy ground. It occurs to one that this might be the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, to which the man has succumbed. But there also seems to be another human figure, to the animal’s left, that is barely visible under the paint, a pentimento as might be painted over in an old-master painting. In fact the entire scene is reminiscent of an early Renaissance Netherlandish or Italian painting. There is a sense of community and relevance in the interweaving of vegetation and the background hills, upon which are evidence of human settlement. But they are at a distance and barren of human beings. The buildings on the left in the distance seem to include a Roman triumphal arch, a medieval castle, several Renaissance and perhaps Baroque buildings, a factory, and some modern office or apartment buildings. On the right are high-tension power lines stretching far into the landscape. Duality and ambiguity are apparent: there are two trunks, two reclining bodies, two halves of the landscape, two high-tension towers, and perhaps two entities in the animal, which is, in any case, at odds with the scene. The landscape sprawls out in its verdancy and exquisite dotted patterns of trees, even as death insists and civilization encroaches from afar. The central tree, with its mosaic bark, is topless, but nonetheless seems to reach beyond the picture itself.

--Donald Goddard © 2010

Katharina Wulff’s paintings and drawings, dating mostly from 2010, were shown at Greene Naftali Gallery, 508 West 26th St., New York, NY 10001

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