There was something altogether mystical, esoteric and hallucinogenic about Dani Jakob’s recent show at Nicolas Krupp in Basel, which featured new paintings using pigment and salt solution on canvas and an equally abstract and radiantly hued series of small photographs. So it was odd to encounter a quote from Hannah Arendt’s heavyweight 1958 treatise The Human Condition on the philosopher’s idea of the vita activa (i.e. labour, work, action) in place of a press release. More understandable, in an odd way, was the selection of four found images that accompanied the quote, including a runway shot from Missoni’s Autumn/Winter 2009 collection and the back of Albrecht Dürer’s Christ as the Man of Sorrows (1493). Both the Missoni model’s peach, pink and cream-coloured cocoon-like layers and the abstracted, colour-soaked back of Dürer’s panel instantly conjured the Berlin-based artist’s fluid, organic forms.
If the coupling of Arendt’s rigorous examination of human freedom and responsibility and the disparate, gleaned imagery seemed strange, it also encapsulated the contradictions that Jakob’s practice embraces, namely a pull between a more rigid Euclidean view of the world, as exemplified by the vanishing points and geometric abstraction that have often featured in her floor paintings, and a kind of heady mysticism, as manifested by her blurry, organic forms and ever-present salt crystals. In this show, however, she appeared to be focusing her attention on the latter, with somewhat mixed results.
Three brightly coloured paintings (all works 2009) conjured Wassily Kandinsky by way of the Swiss artist and healer Emma Kunz. Each were made in Jakob’s signature technique, in which she paints with a pigmented salt solution on a treated canvas, then allows the alchemy of time and the humidity of her studio (which she controls) to do their work. As her coloured forms grow and disperse, pooling and staining and blurring the canvases, she watches over them, before altering the humidity of the environment when the works appear done. Going West, for example, is a series of blob-like forms that hover in the middle of the canvas like oil on water, with all the rainbow hues that image implies. Jakob is a brilliant colourist, and though her organic forms also please, the salt crystals – which pepper the surface like a dusting of rhinestones – made me cringe a bit. In earlier floor paintings, the strict geometry of her design and the dirty utilitarianism of the floors provided a perfect contrast to the preciousness of the crystals. On canvas, however, and atop such a pretty palette, the salt can seem a bit glitzy, recalling kitschy New-Age art.
The exception was Parade, which was entirely black and replaced the watery organic abstraction of the other works with something altogether more forceful and jittery. Jakob made the painting while she was pregnant and was unable to use coloured pigments because of their toxicity; instead she had to rely on organic black pigment made from ash. Against the noir-ish background, the salt crystals glittered in spectral, mysterious clouds, with no glitz in sight. Just as persuasive were a series of small c-type prints that revealed minute details of nature that at first appeared nearly abstract in their close-up isolation. On closer inspection, however, the images began disclosing what might be watery lineation on monochromatic fields of radiant green or blue, or blush-coloured geometric shapes perhaps taken from the reflections offered by real crystals. The photographs (along with Parade) were gorgeous and rigorous, revelling in the esoteric abstraction where Jakob apparently feels most at home, without, thankfully, getting too far out.