From the exhibition’s invitation card, title and press release to the additional site-specific elements typical of the artist (and much of her generation) Jana Euler’s show at Portikus in Frankfurt, In it, was presented as a homecoming of a former student of the Städelschule. This makes sense, since Portikus could be described as the school’s ‘home gallery’, playing a key part in its international reputation. In it thus counted as an alumnus project, referring back – with a mix of pride and dutifulness – to ‘the place where it all began’. In this case, ‘it all’ is a lively international career since Euler’s 2008 graduation, paired with a ready consensus that Euler makes ‘interesting’ work.
Perhaps this is why, although it did nothing wrong – or everything right – the exhibition didn’t quite catch fire. Euler was certainly at pains to ‘do something’ with the notoriously ‘difficult’ space and its insufficiently defined, overly symmetrical and unhelpfully vertical character. Arriving at the venue, it was all well and good that the view into the exhibition space was obscured: a monumental heart-shaped metal object was wedged into the room’s entrance, its back turned, reluctant to grant admittance. Once inside, visible on the heart-shaped object was a grimacing face scrawled in red on its shimmering surface – complete with breasts for eyes, a phallic nose and a vagina mouth – sticking its tongue out, so to speak, and barring the way back. Once you were in, you were in. As well as being the title of the show, In it is also the title of that metal construction (all works 2015).
It was all good enough, too, that the modest remaining space in the room contained a few other paintings as distinct as they were typical: the vertical-format photorealism of Schwan, for example, or the seemingly non-figurative work In the Perspective of the Screwed that represents the point of a screw in frontal close-up. Whereas in curatorial and critical business as usual, painting appears unquestioned and substantialized, Euler never contents herself with merely affirming its status as a medium that is by definition art-worthy. Instead, she challenges its iconic and conceptual qualities as a pictorial medium and frame of reference – which at least partly explains the broadly positive reception of her work.
When she playfully switches between figurative and abstract registers, harnessing clever ‘bad painting’ and meagre handicraft, rummaging for possibilities in the (bottomless) depths of teenage bedroom realism, department store painting and therapy art, the ‘extensions’ that are either installed as objects or evoked in words (titles, press release, etc.) come into their own, while making the visitor wonder what this show, which promised mainly painting, was actually all about. This does not mean that her pictures are not also informed by an iconographic memory of the history of painting: Sunrise in Marseille and Sunset in Marseille, hung to the left and right of a balcony door opposite the entrance, transform pictorial motifs that might well be borrowed from Matthias Grünewald, Claude Monet or Paul Thek. In batik shades of faded turquoise and purple, they show sleeping figures in various positions, in confusing overhead and frontal views familiar from the Renaissance, with an obvious look of the Buddha about them. Underpinned by the view of the Frankfurt skyline through the balcony door, the focus here was on a narrative link among the pictures, the passing of time, the changing of light and climatic conditions.
Although the paintings, their hang and the heart-shaped installation extension were all well and good in and of themselves as comments on the current state of things, In it didn’t venture beyond its own territory. In the spirit of ‘could be worse’, the show actually confirmed the status quo of what is currently possible in painting. And as an institutional format – that of the academic ‘closed shop’: once Städel, forever Städel – it is perfectly inoffensive. As such, however, it fits all too well with the state of affairs outside the walls of the Frankfurt academy. And today, if you look around, you can feel lucky every time you see things that aren’t worse than middle-tier.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell