Feminist art tends to be associated with the 1960s and ’70s, especially with performances featuring plenty of nudity, from Shigeko Kubota’s Vagina Painting at the Perpetual Fluxfest in New York in 1965 to Hannah Wilke’s Intercourse with … (1974–76). Women artists self-confidently exposing their own bodies – and the resulting politicization of something hitherto considered private – may have dealt a liberating blow to received gender roles, but it also placed feminist art dangerously close to the provocation-loving, porno-centric society of the spectacle.
One feminist artist who doesn’t fall into the trap of the spectacle is Miriam Cahn, who was born in 1949 and emerged in the wake of these pioneers with a different method. She stands out precisely because she was never tempted to equate explicit views with an aesthetic of the explicit, to link political provocation with provocative self-exposure. Cahn’s approach is subtler. And in this impressive solo show LACHEN BEI GEFAHR (Laugh in Case of Danger), there is no sign of drastic confessional art, nor performance. Instead, the work is contained in the museum-friendly media of charcoal drawings, oil paintings, typewritten texts, photographs and Super-8 films.
At first glance, most of the motifs appear unspectacular, too: people, buildings, animals, plants, some in bright or even garish colours, some in gloomy shades of black and grey. Despite such conservative motifs, Cahn is known as a feminist who likes a fight, who often quotes the line ‘your body is a battleground’ from Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground) (1989) and who withdrew her works from Documenta 7 in 1982 because she felt she had been unfairly treated by the artistic director Rudi Fuchs.
The artist deconstructs her conservative motifs from the inside out. The dreamy-looking watercolours from a 1985–91 series turn out to be studies of atomic explosions (for example, A- + H-tests, 1987). Here, the horror – whose actual violence simply cannot be portrayed – is depicted as a child’s rainbow dress, which only amplifies its awe-inspiring quality. Some of the more recent large-format paintings show naked people in garish, pulsating colours, albeit devoid of any pornographic reference (e.g. o.t., untitled, 2012), as well as country landscapes and abstract geometric shapes (e.g. malfreude, joy in painting, or geträumt, dreamt of, 2012). The installation of these paintings was broken up by small drawings of tanks, clenched fists and rolling pins with sharp blades (e.g. planen, 2012). It’s as if violence were always already lurking in the cracks and joints between supposedly pacified zones.
Cahn’s figures are often surrounded by a shadowy, atmospheric band of colour, a diffuse aura that mediates between the motifs and the colourful non-figurative backgrounds. Such aura outlines are familiar from works as diverse as Wassily Kandinsky’s Dame in Moscow (1912) and Mel Ramos’s Nudes (since the 1960s). Kandinsky used such outlines to symbolize the astral body of theosophy, and Ramos describes his pin-ups as fantasy beings, but Cahn’s glowing body haloes have a different meaning. Traditionally, the hard, ‘masculine’ outline served to set figures apart from their surroundings and to establish them as self-identical individuals. Cahn, by contrast, creates transitions rather than borders; diffusion rather than difference. This approach applies to the sex scenes in the drawings in the series das klassische lieben (Classical Loving, 1997–2001). Hung in the basement, they show fragmented bodies in a process of dissolution, wedged together, merging into one another, pulsing with an energy between passion and violence. It is as if Cahn deliberately placed these works here, in the guts of the Kunstverein, while upstairs, in the colourful paintings, a deceptive calm prevails.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell