By now, Jutta Koether, who in the past has exhibited her paintings suspended in midair, on the floor of her studio apartment, in her own hands during a lecture, or in the hands of friends (to list only a few examples), has become known for eccentric display schemes in which physical and discursive positions bleed together. But in ‘Champrovent’, her latest exhibition titled after the French farm that was once residence to the painter Balthus, the 11 paintings on view seemed to have returned to a more ‘proper’ place; at eye level, evenly spaced on white walls. For Koether, this might have come across as unusually restrained, polite even, if it hadn’t been accompanied by the decision to turn off all the lights.
In a place normally lit by evenly staged artificial lighting, daylight filtered into the space through windows in the back, setting in motion a gradual but constant re-negotiation of visibility: At moments when the light was relatively soft, Koether’s iridescent pigments gave off a diffuse sparkle, while, in more direct sunlight, oilier passages could be obliterated. The gesture felt both understated and brutal, or brutally honest – for paintings, lighting is cosmetic, and natural light leaves them feeling a bit raw.
It was fitting, then, that blemishes figured as a pictorial motif in the work. Stepping into the gallery, visitors were first drawn to eight of Koether’s small, square ‘bruised grids’ (all Untitled [bruised grid], 2010–14) that lined the right-hand wall, extending past a partition into the sunnier back half of the room. These are painted checkerboards in competing shades of bright red, orange and pink, applied with a brush at watery but not totally transparent consistencies. ‘Bruises’ start to surface in sections where hazy conglomerations of strokes override the grid structure, or where swathes of the paintings fade wanly. At first, the undertaking might call to mind the efforts of older artists like Robert Gober or Eva Hesse, whose work reinvested minimal form with a haunting, bodily presence. In 2014, though, lining up grids on a wall feels less transformative than that – more like flogging the proverbial dead horse. And that seemed partly to be the subject: the grid, and by extension painting, as available for use and vulnerable to abuse, its historical privilege twisting into humiliation and pain. Wielding the medium from this angle, Koether permits an exhausted trope to become generative again: ‘One quality these paintings share is that they all make me want to go back to work’, she writes.
Enclosed in the back area of the room were three large, figurative paintings in the same hot palette, one on each wall, in Koether’s signature style: layers of thinned out paint that build up gradually but remain lean, tracing and retracing the contours of forms while leaving much of the white ground exposed. In both Golden Days (2014), a translation of a Balthus painting by the same name, and Lucian David Eli (2014), which depicts a seated hermaphrodite, the small grids resurface in paint, developing like bruises, or appearing like actors on a stage. The final work, Ear Freud Chardin (2014), descends from telescoping sources: After Chardin (2000), Lucian Freud’s etching based on Chardin’s painting The Young Schoolmistress (probably 1735–6). The original depicts the protagonist leaning on a desk before her young pupil, tapping at something written on the page of a book. In Freud’s study, the scene is flipped through the process of etching, and Koether zooms in on this reversal, cropping to the area just around the schoomistress’s ear – an extraordinary detail in Chardin’s original, which, after two degrees of removal, has lost much of its anatomical complexity. Typically, the task of listening falls more to students than their teachers, but discourse happens in both directions. In this way the schoolmistress’s ear feels emblematic of ‘Champrovent’ and Koether’s practice generally, of the near-pedagogical relationships it establishes by invoking objects in painting’s history, and of the simultaneous processes of absorption and transmission that propel it.