BY Chloe Stead in Opinion | 05 JUN 24
Featured in
Issue 244

Jana Euler’s Rebuke of Sexism in the German Art Scene

We revisit the artist’s ‘Great White Fear’ series, featuring phallic shark paintings, to evaluate its enduring message

BY Chloe Stead in Opinion | 05 JUN 24

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: Jana Euler’s GWF 1 (2019) is a painting of a huge dick. The Tate website calls ‘Great White Fear’ (2019), the nine-canvas series of which this work is part, ‘phallic-like’, but that’s far too polite. Depicting muscular sharks jumping out of water amid splashes of sea spray, these paintings are about as understated in their phallicism as the veiny, ejaculating penises horny teenagers like to draw on each other’s schoolbooks.

Anyone who has seen Euler’s sharks in person – as I did when they premiered during Gallery Weekend Berlin in 2019 – is well aware of what they represent. What audiences might not know, however, is the staggering statistic that inspired their production: of the 33 solo shows presented by galleries at that year’s edition, 73 percent were dedicated to white men.

Jana Euler, GWF 1, 2019, oil on canvas, 3 × 2 m. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Neu, Berlin; photographs: Diana Pfammatter

At three metres high, the paintings in ‘Great White Fear’ aren’t subtle, but then neither is sexism. What did Georg Baselitz care about nuance when, in 2013, he told Der Spiegel: ‘Women don’t paint very well’? The German artist is one of several ‘great white’ postwar painters that Euler references in this series, with each of her sharks expertly aping the style of a male giant, from the cool photorealism of Gerhard Richter to Anselm Kiefer’s dense and emotive abstraction. Anything you can do, Euler seems to say, I can do better.

And, despite their fearsome height, there is a mournful quality to these predators, their beady, black eyes and twisted mouths betraying the terror of their impending irrelevance in the face of a diversifying canon. If the massive queues outside Richter’s exhibition at Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie are anything to go by, there’s no need for these stalwarts of the German art scene to fear being sidelined anytime soon. Nonetheless, things have shifted in the half decade since Euler’s series was made. At this year’s Berlin Gallery Weekend, solo exhibitions by women and people of colour outnumbered those by white men, with numerous shows also tackling colonial legacies.

Jana Euler, Coffee Bean: Where the Energy Comes From 3, 2023, oil on canvas, 2.8 × 1.9 m; Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Neu, Berlin

It is perhaps telling that Euler won’t show works from the ‘Great White Fear’ series in her upcoming, large-scale exhibition at WIELS, Brussels. Instead, the artist will display new pieces alongside a 2023 series of paintings of comically oversized coffee beans – a symbol of the grind of capitalism and the exploitation of the Global South (‘Coffee Bean: Where the Energy Comes From’). As a satirist, Euler knows that when the conversation evolves, so must her work. What remains consistent throughout all her projects, however, is the use of virtuosity and humour to speak truth to power.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 244 with the headline ‘Big Dick Energy’

Jana Euler’s ‘Oilopa’ will be on view at WIELS, Brussels, from 21 June until 29 September 

Main image: Jana Euler, GWF 6; GWF 2; GWF 3; GWF 5; GWF 7, 2019. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Neu, Berlin; photographs: Diana Pfammatter

Chloe Stead is assistant editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin, Germany.