I’m sorry, a lemon was thrown at me from across the room while you were talking. Did you say ‘chatty’ or ‘catty’? Surely you meant chatty, as in conversational, not catty, as in feline or mean. They sure are mean, though, these works. And funny, sometimes. Although grumpy and brooding, too. Why don’t we go into the foyer, where you can tell me more about why those two women are arm wrestling?
No, not those two women arm wrestling. I mean Ella Kruglyanskaya’s thickly coloured painting of a blonde and a brunette locking arms over a patterned silk scarf ( Arm Wrestling on Scarf, 2013). Do you recognize that brunette from somewhere? If you look at Kruglyanskaya’s other painting next to it, you’ll see the same, hastily rendered figure painted on what seems to be a Post-It note. She looks like she’s lost something. Gentlemen prefer blondes? No, you lemonhead, why must you always read men into everything? Don’t get angry, I was just going to suggest that the paintings comment on the conventionalizing, heteronormative morality that drives competition in the workplace, as enacted through the blonde and the brunette as opponents, all rendered in a way that is reminiscent of Archie comics or 1970s fashion illustration; you know, the clichéd look of aspirational female empowerment and career independence à la Mary Tyler Moore?
Chatty, indeed. This is all getting too heated. Let’s go over there, where we can have a better look at that messy blue painting with the tiger, Amelie von Wulffen’s Untitled (2012). Is that Van Gogh in the corner of her other painting, with a sliced lemon over his face, and a dead cockroach? It looks like him, but I’m getting weary of these guessing games; I didn’t catch any of the references in that comic by Von Wulffen from the hallway, where we entered the gallery (Untitled, 2013). You really ought to learn German, you’ll get the gossip that way: these are all Berlin figures, and in the middle of the pencil-drawn comic is Dirk Bell, complaining to his friend Kitty Kraus about the art world: ‘When your stuff stops selling, they find new, younger artists.’ In the first frame he’s telling his friends he’s going to get a big studio in Leipzig, presumably because the rent is cheap.
Isn’t that what they say about Berlin? Are we in Berlin? No, dummy, we’re in Leipzig, just with a bunch of Berlin artists. Do you ever get the feeling everyone here knows each other? I’m not sure I care much about all this insider art. By ‘insider’, friend, you mean that the art here hinges too much on the particularities of the figures involved – social markers, dress, personality, their accents? Which would also account for the presence of cocktails, as in Atomic Juice (2013), Birgit Megerle’s deco-inspired painting of a chintzy green cocktail glass with cucumber? If that’s not to your taste, maybe you’d prefer to get lost in Nadira Husain’s hallucinogenic wall design, La saison des amours (The Mating Season, 2013)? Although I admit, for me, they’re not so different: a play on the same clichés of selfhood, here a détournage about Orientalism as background ornament. Husain uses erotic imagery like you’d find in a glossy repro of the Kama Sutra. When you look closely, those colourful blob patterns are series of animals fucking, behind layers of stencil designs.
Do you ever feel anxious in public spaces? Like when you’re facing the wall, looking at a painting? Or like the waitress in Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882), from which Megerle took her series of paintings that we’ve been staring at for far too long? Do you also hear Van Morrison playing when looking at her exquisite painting of a plaintive, lost teenage girl, with emotively rendered chiaroscuro and a tangerine swim top (Summer Crossing I, 2013)? Mona Lisa in the Hamptons?
Tell me, what does it all mean? I think they’re saying something about reclaiming sociability, conversation, cliché and the decorative, but in any case it isn’t for fools like us. Come, let’s go slice some more lemons in the next room.