Katharina Wulff paints pictures of ladies and girls and stiff, strange men. Often, there are animals involved. She produces landscapes too – weird, luminous renderings of barren vistas, simultaneously swoony and deadpan. Born in Berlin, but currently based in Marrakesh, Wulff seems wilfully disconnected from the present, from familiar art-world concerns. Coming upon her paintings for the first time, you might mistake them for the work of some forgotten Surrealist or a precocious teenager. It is difficult to say what her work is ‘about’, but its affect is distinctive: haunted, romantic, slightly droll and more than a little uneasy.
‘Wanwizzi’, the title of Wulff’s most recent exhibition – her second solo show in New York – is an attempt to name that affect. An archaic High German term, it was glossed in the gallery statement as ‘a kind of hysteric whimsy’. (The modern cognate, wahnwitzig, is often translated more directly as ‘lunatic’.) Less hysterical than insinuatingly creepy, the show itself was a spare, quiet affair – 13 modest canvases and a few coloured pencil drawings (all works 2010). An air of the fantastic drifted over the works, sometimes made explicit – imaginary creatures and looming faceless figures made occasional appearances – but more often merely implied. Wulff’s penchant for the decorative was seen in a bit of quasi-installation exotica: a Moroccan cedar latticework screen leading into a separate gallery where four small portraits hung on turquoise walls. You had to duck your head under the low pointed arch to get through – as if the artist was inviting you to come in and play house.
There is undoubtedly something theatrical about Wulff’s practice, some subtle play with personae and situations. As a viewer, you feel you are being recruited for something, but are left wondering precisely what your role is meant to be. The gallery statement for ‘Wanwizzi’ included a text written by Wulff herself, repurposed from a recent Cologne exhibition. A batty, disjointed monologue, it seemed to concern a ‘dirty woman’ who ‘practices magic’. Urgent and incoherent, it could be a fragment of a fairy tale or an email sent by a deranged stranger. ‘I don’t want you to turn it into a soft cheese!’ it concludes. Who is speaking here? Surely not the artist ‘herself’. Yet some character has been established by this text, a bizarre childlike voice that may or may not correspond with the person wielding a paintbrush.
The stylistic idiosyncrasies and incongruities of Wulff’s work extend and elaborate this performance; motivated by oblique impulses, it flirts with the naïve and awkward. Some of her canvases are overworked, layered with not-quite-opaque washes of colour, ghostly forms occasionally showing through the murk. Others are intentionally unfinished, with faces missing eyes and mouths, figures blocked out and abandoned. The subject of Mädchen mit Jagdhunden (Girl With Hunting Dogs), a seated adolescent in an anachronistic pinafore, is mostly outline, with bits of paint applied here and there; the large dog lolling next to her, hind legs askew to display its genitals, is even less than that, a bare rudimentary sketch. The effect is of a child losing interest in a colouring book, and finding better things to do on a rainy day. One untitled canvas depicts a bizarre wide-eyed creature with the face of a cat in a 1920s cartoon. It sits in front of a tree on a grassy expanse and gazes out of the frame. It clearly does not belong here, whatever this scene is supposed to be. A blurry naked man, sleeping or dead, lies just behind, while over a hill, a few crudely-drawn buildings suggest some urban alternative to this unsettling Arcadia.
It is impossible to read any kind of allegorical meaning into Wulff’s baffling scenarios, but they often seem to revolve around some uncertain dialectic of sophistication and innocence. Wulff is clearly no naïf, but neither is she willing to give away the game, to show what she knows. Her own pose is as inscrutable as the men, girls and creatures she depicts, and as pleasingly mysterious.