Autumn 2014 saw three concurrent, impressively unsettling painting shows open in Zürich. At the Löwenbräu-Areal complex on Limmatstrasse, I was shaken by Dorothy Iannone’s chaotic retrospective at the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst and by Jutta Koether’s loosely painted figurations at Galerie Francesca Pia. But it was Jana Euler’s exhibition, ‘Where the Energy Comes From’, at Kunsthalle Zürich that struck me the most, with its vast array of painting styles making use of digital and art-historical networks.
Situated in the Kuntshalle’s entrance, Euler’s hand-drawn plan of the institution’s top floor – converted into a vinyl sticker – was displayed on the wall alongside her ghostly full-length painted self-portrait Nude climbing up the stairs (2014), an animated and fragmented image of Euler that shadowed the visitor’s movement up the staircase and into the upstairs gallery. In an ambiguous homage to Marcel Duchamp’s Cubist Nude Descending a Staircase No.2 (1912), Euler’s representation of her own disappearing nude body appropriates and reinterprets Duchamp’s original work in a late-feminist critique that reverses the direction in which the female body is moving.
This objectification of the painter and the viewer’s reflective experiences within the gallery transformed into an exploration of a more specific, philosophical discourse. The series ‘Fuck you Goethe’ (2014) was a near-illegible layering of individual letters, painted one on top of the other on each canvas, leaving the viewer struggling to make out the titular phrase (a reference not only to the writer but also to the film Fack ju Göhte, a hit Germany comedy from 2013).
Euler’s work is a complex critique of the parallels being drawn in contemporary discourse between aspects of early-19th-century German Romanticism – such as the use of philosophical fragments to point to the infinite yet incomplete nature of human knowledge – and 1960s Conceptualism. Euler’s intricate painting process illustrates this negative theoretical discourse, which is destined to remain unresolved, to produce opposing yet affirmative painted forms. In turn, the colourful painting Analysemonster (2013) is a Frankensteinian figure cobbled together from images on an alternative medicine chart. Euler gives each section of the body a proportional therapeutic significance, so that the composition follows an internal logic but results in a ridiculous ‘whole’ – an absurdly distorted and surreal image with outsized tongue, eyes, ears and feet. Euler’s works are full of rational processes that give rise to irrational consequences and oppositions: readability battles expression; figuration wrestles abstraction; ‘academicism’ and ‘freedom’ antagonize each other. The oversized, hyperrealistic, airbrushed series of paintings Where the energy comes from 1, 2 and 3 (all 2014) depict different standard electrical sockets from Belgium, Germany and Switzerland, respectively, presenting a kind of hardware that resists international standardization. These works at once question an anachronistic system (one that, paradoxically, points to diversity) while also evoking male and female sexual organs. Together they act as a metaphor for the failure of individual ‘power’ to adapt within an increasingly technological present.
Nearby, Socketing in the digital age, 2 (2014) – a reductive sculpture of a half-formed human figure with a cable plugged into its head and a hand in which a socket has been sunk – again demonstrated a combination of hard technology and bodily exposure. Meanwhile, Untitled (2014), a Swiss Alpine scene translated from generic web imagery into a painting marked by extreme colouration, represented what might be described as a blending of the site-specific sublime (a Swiss landscape) with Post-internet painting. It referred to the utopian and esoteric groups that have historically retreated to the mountains near Zürich. Here, Euler highlights the painterly relationship between computer image and limitless landscapes to explore the possibilities of representation beyond the strict categories of ‘digital’ or ‘analogue’.
In the final room, Human Size presented an oversized proboscis monkey contemplating a plant held in its hands alongside Men painted with one eye (Confident man) (both 2014), a portrait of the Israeli mime and body-language expert Samy Molcho who, paradoxically, in his overly self-assured pose, appears more ridiculous than the animal. The pairing exemplifies how Euler alternates between traditionally ‘serious’ subject matter and the human/humorous to produce an impish critical analysis of recent ideas of ‘the contemporary’. Aided by a tension between hyper-real, figurative, abstract and Surrealist painting styles, Euler’s works complicate social relationships, feminist and digital subjects in a way that is both intricate and highly effective.