The Eyes Have It
Ellen Gronemeyer’s paintings gauge the distance between seeing and being seen
Ellen Gronemeyer’s paintings gauge the distance between seeing and being seen
The first things you notice about Ellen Gronemeyer are her eyes. They are enormous, open expectantly, giving the painter an air of childlike inquisitiveness. I wouldn’t normally preface a piece with this kind of Sunday-supplement detail, but they say that the eyes can’t hide anything, and, when we meet at Gronemeyer’s Berlin studio the connection between the artist’s own eyes and the cartoon-googly ones that cover her recent canvases becomes glaringly obvious.
Eyes are everywhere. The studio is filled with canvases of different sizes and in vari-ous states of completion from which highly stylized, ping pong ball-like ocular spheres stare out. In some cases they are grouped with other exaggerated, semi-comic features to form a face, but often they float free, independent of one another, expressions of pure looking and being looked at. They surface like tadpoles in a boggy pool from thickly impastoed accumulations of oil paint. Swathes of background colour are muddied by the dense layers of black and white which the artist uses to paint forms out and back in again – repetitively and almost compulsively until the brush strokes look more like chisel marks. Gronemeyer’s sculpted surfaces take a long time to build up; she can sometimes be working on a canvas for over a year. Some pieces in the studio are just back from her 2014 exhibition, Watchever, at Ludwig Forum Aachen; several others are still being worked on. It’s odd and slightly uncanny to be here, just her and I, four eyes between us, being watched from all angles. Studio visits are an opportunity for observation, but it’s usually me who’s doing the looking.
Where did they come from, these staring eyes? Gronemeyer has often used looking as a gauge of distance, a way of measuring separation between spaces. Producing outsides and insides the artist hints at attendant notions of community and isolation, and the power dynamics of withins and withouts.
A group of works exhibited at Andrew Kreps, New York, in 2007, depicting the closed interiors of salons and galleries, seems to focus mostly on peering in. Works like Jetzt (Now, 2007) and Präsenz verstecken (Conceal Presence, 2007) show porcelain-featured onlookers studying paintings (or could they be mirrors?) that hang from the walls. For a time windows were a recurring motif, as were keyholes, as in a pair of works titled Hidden Door (2007–09; 2008) which were slipped in amongst the small-scale portraits that comprised the artist’s 2009 show at greengrassi in London. Where does a hidden door lead, and do we really want to find out? If you are pressing your eye to a keyhole, you are probably on the outside looking in. Then again, maybe the door is already open and you just don’t want to step through. The elegant protagonist of Jetzt looks at the painting on the wall as if she half wants to escape into it. The gallery space in these works – perhaps shorthand for the art world itself – is an ambiguous zone of exclusion, where the desire to be ‘in’ is always tempered by an opposing fantasy of escape. Maybe, in fact, the moonlight-gilded edges of the drawn Billion Blinds in a shadowy painting from 2007 are the bars of a cage.
In more recent works, however, such as those shown in her show Watchever, the anxious introspection of Jetzt has been reversed. Swarms of open eyes have replaced closed spaces, and the illusion of depth, architectonically inferred in earlier canvases, collapses. Everything is pushed to the surface, jostling for space in the same cramped pictorial frame. It’s hard to talk about individual characters in the Watchever works because faces have been distilled to their most basic, generalized form of notation: a rounded nose, an open mouth, a pair of goggle-eyes. Similarly, the paintings’ flatness resists narrative because the viewer’s eye reads everything all at once, frantically, getting lost in the haze of white Mickey Mouse hands and bulbous comedy noses swirling above the reclining figure, himself cartoon-generic, in the extraordinary 2013 work, Bubbletea. In Lobster Heaven (2012), the titular crustaceans appear to have been smushed up, visible in the background as the orange-red of their cooked carapaces, from which bulge hundreds of disembodied eyes. If there are stories in these paintings, they are told by the flashes of colour that are occasionally visible beneath the canvases’ muddied surface – buried layers, which hold earlier forms, like the muscle memory of each work’s own long history.
Pop Up Your Eis (2009) marks a key moment in the transition from the taciturn insularity of early portraits to the cacophonous later works. In this small portrait, pastel coloured ice-cream scoop boules are stacked to form a swollen, misshapen head. Two blacked-out spheres are filled with concentric circles to create eyes that look deranged, as if on some crazed sugar high – a warning, perhaps, about the dangers and addictiveness of a certain Walt Disney-esque strand of saccharine illustration. As with the titles of many of Gronemeyer’s works, Pop Up Your Eis is a semi-pun – playing on eyes/Eis and the popsicle/ice-pop – which deliberately doesn’t quite come off because of a certain grammatical awkwardness in English. Titles like Wait Watchers (2014) are funny in the way that my dad’s jokes are funny: silly parodies of witticism, knowingly flat-footed, playing for the eye rolls rather than laughs.
Humour – of a specifically daft kind – is important, as is the question of what a smile might mean, or what it might conceal. (Mouths, though not quite as prevalent as eyes, feature heavily in works like Comme Ci Comme Ça and Tunnelblick, both 2012). In the studio, Gronemeyer tells me an anecdote from a few years back, when she was trying out ballet as a new hobby. One afternoon she went along with a performer friend who was in a more advanced class. Gronemeyer joined in though it was far beyond her level. She didn’t know the steps, but something stuck with her: the teacher telling the dancers to ‘grin as stupidly as possible’, to imagine they were totally idiotic. To be relieved of the tell-tale responsibility of her own expressions, to abdicate the need for the correspondence between outer appearance and psychological reality, was, Gronemeyer found, totally liberating.
Gronemeyer plays with dumbness, which is not the same as playing dumb. To play dumb is to dissimulate; by contrast, dumbness presents itself as a total openness – the inability to hide. Dumbness responds to a perpetual present: not projecting towards the future, nor dwelling on the past (or learning from it). If cartoon characters – which Gronemeyer’s figures have increasingly come to resemble – seem dumb, it is because they exist as pure expression and gesture. The graphic line of caricature has liberated her subjects from the dramas of their own psychologies. The protagonist in Bubbletea, for instance, is sleeping with his eyes wide open, the pastel-hued confetti above him seeming to indicate the TV-static blankness of his mind.
Many of the ocular ‘bubbles’ in Bubbletea are improbably round, attesting to Gronemeyer’s skill as a painter. Being able to produce near-perfect circles is no laughing matter: in the famous tale, Giotto, summoned to send a proof of his artistic ability to the papal court of Benedict IX, dispatches the messenger with a perfectly-formed pencil circle drawn with a single flick of the wrist. He gets the commission. This story, however, also gives rise to a Tuscan proverb that reflects the ambivalent relationship between the smart and the spherical: in Italian, to be ‘round as Giotto’s O’ is to be, as English expresses it in similarly blunt terms: ‘as thick as a brick’.
Maybe Gronemeyer is playing dumb, after all. Her simple faces hide complex themes – about self and community, and what it is to be observed and observable in our hyper-networked, mass-surveilled society. Playing dumb is a way of deflecting attention, keeping something away from prying eyes when you feel increasingly that everything is and must be on display. The term ‘watchever’ is tinged by an age-old paranoia made contemporarily acute, but it also brushes this off with paronomastic levity: ‘Watched / ever? Whatever!’ There is, after all, something reassuring about being in a crowd. Perhaps being one pair of eyes among many is its own form of escape. Is the frantic energy felt in Gronemeyer’s recent works the same kind of buzz that you get from a party, or is it closer to the anxiety-dream of constantly having to perform, in work and in life? Maybe it’s a bit of both: a concession, made not entirely resentfully, to the impossibility of ever being left alone.