lisbethbonde.dk > Art in Words > Articles > Flowers and Bombs

[August 2006]

Flowers & Bombs


By LISBETH BONDE

For contemporary artists it is becoming increasingly difficult to express themselves without walking down trodden paths. The situation recalls that of the young writer in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale What One Can Invent, who badly wants to become a poet by Easter, but chooses to become a literary critic instead, after coming to the conclusion that everything has been written and told about. He is dreadfully mistaken, of course, and in this story Andersen elegantly hangs the powerful class of critics out to dry, pointing a finger at their vacuity and lack of imagination! He puts the young man’s lack of imagination to shame by coming up with extremely inventive fairy tales. Although all artistic experiments and styles seem to have been tried out in the course of the twentieth century, and although the public has become more blasé than ever, quantum leaps are currently being made in art, as evident in the exhibition Girlpower & Boyhood which presents a wide range of narrative, figurative, visual art, from the French-American, living legend, Louise Bourgeois, to such young European painters as Simon Keenleyside and Jana Gunstheimer. Art is a never-ending story, and the artists are constantly coming up with something new - not just to satisfy the cultural institutions, the media and the market constantly calling for a novum - for in the words of the French philosopher J.-F. Lyotard, the present moment is one of the ecstasies of temporality - but also because it is in the nature of art to begin in a new place, to criticize predecessors and thus establish a new platform from which to articulate the visions of a new generation.

All the exhibiting artists – regardless of age – base their work on their own subjective search and their own specific time. Even though their often mythological motifs reappear from one generation to the next and at times can seem a bit retro, one should keep in mind that each new generation of artists views life, society and the art establishment through different eyes. The artists in Girlpower & Boyhood have re-embraced painting and drawing. They make use of figuration, allow an inner, emotional universe to find expression, and look inward with their ”eyes wide shut” – to quote a well-known film. They have moved beyond realism over into the visionary language of fantasy. Through their figuration and very personal, formal language they explore the boundaries of the rational, depicting, among other themes, the dangerous passage from child to adult. Many of the artists incorporate kitschy and kinky mass media elements, and in this way create new and refreshing imagery. They renew painting by drawing sustenance from the realms of computer games and the fairy-tale world of children’s tales, elegantly mixing the ”low” visual art of popular culture with the ”high” visual art of the art establishment.

Many of the artists in the exhibition have rejected the cool attitudes that characterized the art scene of the 1980s and early 90s, were often served up with an ironic grimace, followed by hard-core power plays on the art scene. These painters depict phantasms and fantasies that are fundamentally present in our subconscious, and they allow things to happen that go against the laws of nature and common sense. Many of the artists depict fundamental experiences in connection with the individual’s formation and entry into the adult world.

According to the French philosopher Merleau-Ponty1, the child is meaningfully present in the world through its body, but is not a fully formed creature at birth. It is both animal and angel, and its body and ”soul” – i.e. individual personality - are inextricably tied to each other in a dialectic relationship of constant change. Who are we really? There is no such thing as a fixed psyche or personality. We are constituted in our confrontation with other people, through which we correct our image of ourselves. The realization of this can cause a great amount of fear. In his writings on the language of the unconscious, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan describes the regression that the individual goes through in puberty, reenacting the primal experiences of infancy. When a child is born, it exists in the imaginary, pre-verbal phase, incapable of entering into the symbolic order governed by The Law of the Father. A human child is born too early in comparison with animals, and therefore experiences great bodily insufficiency and frustration during its first years of life. In this pre-verbal, helpless, dependent phase the small child is necessarily symbiotically tied to the mother. In the course of the so-called mirror-stage, it lives out a drama of its own inadequacy, acquiring a fragmented body image and consequent body fantasies. When it enters into the symbolic order, it puts on the armour of an alienating identity whose ”severe structure affects its entire mental development”, according to Lacan.2 A corresponding experience is re-lived, but on a slightly different level, when the individual enters puberty, and undergoes the transformation from child to adult, having not yet defined itself as an autonomous physical body with a stable form. The pubescent child thus exists in a state of psychic instability and can in principle develop in different directions in relation to identity and individuality. It is a time in which the individual subscribes to idols and role models to support its fragile identity. In this phase there is an increasing focus on terrifying or fantastic images and literature. These are some of the psychic mechanisms that the exhibited images thematize. In the following, the projects of the individual artists will be introduced in greater detail.

The narrative drawings of Danish artist Julie Nord at first appear sugary sweet, but she explodes the idyl and introduces another world of images that lies smouldering, ready to burst into flame at any moment. The British illustrator John Tenniel’s drawings for the original Alice in Wonderland, and other classical, Victorian, fairy-tale illustrations have been an important influence on Julie Nord, along with Aubrey Beardsley, Beatrix Potter, Arthur Racham, and others. Nord’s aesthetic expression is ultra-feminine and kitschy; she ironizes and sneers at clichés, turning everything upside-down, and explores the deepest powers of the psyche, archetypes and dream symbols, in an attempt to define a sense of insecurity and temporariness. Fairy tales usually move from A to Z and are based on a fixed narrative formula, according to which the values of goodness and truth are ultimately victorious; but Nord’s work sews doubt about these fixed, deep-rooted values, and narrative rules are upset, both in the narration itself (the forward-moving action) and in relation to the point she makes - and gives dramatic emphasis in the finely executed drawings that take her months to complete. She herself calls her drawings ”existential snapshots”.

With Nord we are in the nursery of a past era. A copperprint in the exhibition is entitled The Sleepwalker. Here life is lived behind closed eyes, and there is a feeling of wanting to return to a lost state of innocence, a dream world, an utopia. Often Julie Nord’s antiquated, little-girl universe is filled with contemporary props, such as suburban houses or enormous helicopters. Nord’s universe is distinctly surreal and often consistently achromatic. You feel that at any moment you could break through to another, scary underworld, a chaotic parallel universe: there is a trap door in the ground, suggestive of a scary underworld. The image is charged with meaning, with hidden powers and polar opposites between the lives of animals, girls and boys, with latent drives and references to the fragility of life – visualized in the many butterflies fluttering about the pictorial space like floating flowers, minutely drawn, with patterns corresponding to the flower ornaments on the wallpaper. Objects and fairy-tale figures step out of a realm of premonition. Julie Nord focuses on the transformation of the child as it reaches puberty and little by little enters the grown-up world, becoming gendered and self-confident. It is about the disappearance of the ”old” individual and the emergence of the new.

The concept of emptiness has long been an important parameter for Julie Nord. As can be observed in the exhibited works, the empty paper seems to gradually become covered by a vignette that spreads from the edge of the paper and will ultimately fill all of it. In other pictures the empty space appears to be the main motif. It can be a growing fractal that is about to eat up the picture. Or it can look like a puzzle from which the pieces are gradually removed. Formally as well as philosophically, emptiness and fullness carry great meaning in her work, at times resembling sophisticated Rorschach tests.In the work of British artist Simon Keenleyside, the magical plays an even more dominant role than in the work of many of the others. His beautiful nature scenarios have an artificial quality; tree trunks and natural elements have been painted in hallucinatory colours, and the motifs are placed almost on the edge of the pictorial surface, with clear reference to the physical construction of the painting as an illusion, with dripping paint, pastose brushwork and sometimes also sculptural effects. This can be observed in the painting We went out to look at the stars one more time (2005), in which he applied paint in lumps to give the stones in the foreground a sculptural appearance. This painting has clear references to the great romantic tradition in art, expressed in grandiose gestures, but because of the artificial effects, the content has been given a more eerie twist. The same is true of his work Show me what you want to show (2005), depicting alder stumps. Compared to the 1893 painting by the symbolist-realist Danish painter L. A. Ring - entitled Alder Stumps (Elletrunter) - in which nature is demonized by the elongated reflection of the tree trunks in the bog, lending the motif a magical, symbolic quality, Keenleyside’s alder stumps appear artificial and hyperreal. The motifs have the appearance of nighttime images, lit up by neon lights in the way cities are. The traditional opposition between culture and nature is suspended, because we see nature through the filter of culture. Keenleyside grew up in Essex where he still lives and works. He is interested in parks, forests and suburban gardens, and his sense impressions of these locations are incorporated into his paintings. He has a special talent for depicting environments that on the one hand seem familiar and lure the observer into the picture, but on the other hand seem strangely alien. This creates a special kind of tension. Keenleyside includes many references to the history of art in his pictures. His uninhabited universe constitutes a parallel reality, a kind of hyperreality in which imagination can find a home.

Trine Boesen makes use of an expressive style in tune with pop and neo-pop. On her surfaces we encounter what is best described as an aesthetic ”car crash”. Her images are divided into two zones: a more anonymous, soft, organic world, characterized by nature, calm and contemplation, and a violent and visually noisy, metropolitan world of bright colours, full of signals, disruptions and turbulence. Her images literally crack open, leading us into another, chaotic order. You could say that her universe is paranoid, yet it is held together by her delicate line and deliberately cliché-filled ”vocabulary”. She also has a predilection for buildings. Wherever possible, she ”builds” motifs with modern architecture. When displayed in galleries, Boesen often supplements her paintings with wall decorations on either side of them. She has previously worked with ”telephone drawings” in the form of ornaments and patterns, but are now working with a more narrative kind of image, as Don’t Get Straight’ned by Reality, (2005), in which a large, monotone apartment building stares blindly out at the observer against a background of mushrooms and whirling signs, or as in Adventure in Wonderland, in which a big city full of skyscrapers is accompanied by an explosive profusion of signs in bright colours, towering above it. In the midst of this profusion, the anonymous buildings of the city constitute a sort of epicentre. Like some post-modern novelist, Trine Boesen presents her vision of the simultaneous presence of everything in the world and the enormous flow of information to which modern man is exposed, but in which we nevertheless manage to discover small oases.

The Scottish-born painter Christoffer Orr quietly seduces the observer with his suggestive images. With his small, intimate formats, he lures us into the picture, drawing a magic circle around the observer. His motifs seem full of inscrutable actions. They are delicately painted, tactile and rich in texture, with a powerful aura - not least because Orr frequently makes use of blurred outlines and warm, earthy colours. On the one hand, his imagery resembles photo-realism, along the lines of such painters as Gerhard Richter and Eric Fischl, but at the same time he always paints an unquiet and indefinable background reminiscent of William Turner’s late nature scenarios. His people are usually placed in an indeterminate wasteland, an indefinable place somewhere in nature, often in water. The immediate impression is of a subtle form of surrealism, activating the observer’s imagination. Is it a dream, a premonition or a nightmare we are witnessing? Orr’s images are like film stills of a dream waiting to be interpreted. He destabilizes the familiar order: In Waders (2004), we see two boys standing in water up to their waists. They are holding on to a heron which they have perhaps fished out of the water. They appear to be blind, feeling their way around with closed eyes, and they look completely alike. Their white shirts and ties make them seem slightly anachronistic, like English public-school boys. A golden light falls across the scene, as if sanctifying the act. The title is ambiguous – the English word ”wader” can mean a wading bird (or person), or the long overalls-and-boots made of rubber that anglers use when they go fishing and stand in the water. The two anti-heroes are interacting with nature – but they clearly belong in the civilized world. It looks as if they are trying to penetrate into the mysteries of nature, aided by the extraordinary sense of touch that blind people develop. The Weight of Water (2006) shows a man who appears to be standing in a green area of nature – perhaps also in a lake. In all of Orr’s pictures, including his earlier, more narrative work, there is an encounter with the unknown. The artist is clearly engaged in a dialogue with the great figures of romanticism – especially Caspar David Friedrich and William Turner – but unlike these artists, Orr is irreligious and willingly subscribes to other pictorial worlds: mass culture – mainly children’s books, reference books on nature and news media photos. He works according to a dogma-principle, i. e. figures and elements must retain their original size – which is why the format is often so small. Orr manages to create a rare sense of presence in his intense, richly textured and enigmatic pictures which raise more questions than they answer.

The American painter Ann Craven seeks to problematize our relationship to kitsch and familiar icons. She punctures the myth of the original work of art. She does so by copying her own works, not in the spirit of Andy Warhol, for Craven does not use silkscreening or any other technical form of reproduction. On the contrary, she still works like a classical painter, stubborn-ly painting the same motifs again and again in large – often larger than life – or small formats. Her handpainted works – all original pieces – thus mime the visual culture we normally encounter in the innumerable images that exist in this modern age of mechanical reproduction. She finds her motifs on cups, vases and crockery purchased in souvenir shops and from junk dealers - kitschy items and trinkets with a certain trivial, visual entertainment value, made for window sills and mantel pieces. These motifs she blows up into gigantic, decorative paintings that remind us of what we see when our eyes scan the interior of a living room or restaurant, not really looking. Her works feature cute birds with moist, black eyes, kitschy full moons and lovely parrots. Her characteristic, almost synthetic palette includes bright yellow and pink as background for silhouettes of stylized birds. Her work is beautiful and flashy, a kind of (post)modern art deco. Craven tells a story of the frail beauty of nature, but she turns up the volume of her artistic effects and makes nature appear so artificial that it becomes decoration and ornament – a symbol of nature rather than a depiction of it. In 1999, her studio burned down. With the exception of a few paintings, all her works were destroyed in the fire – together with photos and documentation. Hereafter she began to reconstruct her motifs in different sizes – the same motifs – again and again. By repeating herself she also encourages us to let go of our ideas of the original work: she invents a way of ”branding” her work and name through the very repetitions.

The mythological world of Lise Blomberg Andersen is rooted in a recognizable, Scandinavian, everyday world, and nature plays an all-important role. As with Julie Nord and Kathrine Ærtebjerg, Blomberg’s painted images have their starting point in nature, but there is comparatively more realism in her world – though not less magic. She suggests that the world is not what we think it is, and that everything is far from what it ought to be. Often fragments from other visual media, such as films and magazines, are incorporated into a sort of painted collage. She depicts a destabilized existence, exposing the familiar to earthquake-like processes that open up existential cracks. Blomberg is strongly influenced by the American painter L. C. Armstrong. She has just published a catalogue in the form of a dialogue with this American artist, who depicts opulent orgies of mutated and natural flowers that have grown so huge and mighty that they appear threatening – like bombs.

Blomberg Andersen often depicts hybrid creatures, such as birds with human faces or anthropomorphic squirrels, and these soulful representatives of nature seem to speak and act like humans. The strong effect of Lise Blomberg Andersen’s paintings is not least due to this psychological realism, inspired by such neo-realists as Mark Tansey and Eric Fischl; Blomberg’s realism, however, is interrupted by dreamy and romantic touches with morbid undertones. Architecture is frequently incorporated – typically single-family, suburban houses that refer to her own childhood and are also familiar to most people.

Blomberg’s hybrids can be seen as helpers in a process of becoming conscious of problematical and painful experiences and coming to terms with them. These figures are disproportionate, which contributes to a sense of destabilization. Her works are emblematic, and painting represents a possibility for integrating different spaces in one and the same picture. It is like a double-exposed film where several levels of action and different conceptual realms overlap, creating the impression that there is more to the world than we think, and that our consensus on how it all hangs together can be invalidated at any moment. Integrated into the natural surroundings, the two girls in Zigzag Sisters (2006) function as ornaments, like the flowers, as do the two girls in the painting Morning (2006), who lie in their sleeping-bags in the midst of a profusion of flowers. These girls are almost cocoons, their bodies like butterflies. The humans in Lise Blomberg’s new paintings are not exactly hybrids, but belong in a culture-nature that appears artificial and construed.

Stephen Brandes’s large Der Angstlustbaum, exhibited only at Brandts, depicts a giant oak tree witout leaves. All around Europe – also in Denmark – there are oak trees that have been around for 800-1000 years, ever since the time of the Vikings and the early Middle Ages, and have witnessed times of war and peace. They have lived through the coming and going of generations, have seen ox-drawn plows as well as high-tech combines, and have survived strokes of lightning and storms. Their enormously wide trunks carry the signs of age, their thick, gnarled ”fingers” point toward the sky, but they still grow greens shoots in spring. In 1999, Stephen Brandes traveled through Europe, following in the footsteps of his grandmother who in 1913 fled from the progroms in Romania. Along the way Brandes made a visual diary in the form of drawings. His current body of work grew out of these drawings, and the work entitled Der Angstlustbaum should be ”read into” the context of this encounter with the past of his ancestors and the recognition of his Jewish heritage, including the fears and anxieties associated with being Jewish. But also the joys. Stephen Brandes is British and received his education in Bath and London, but today lives in Cork, Ireland. While his travel drawings still referenced something factual, his current work is more fictive, but also refers to contemporary events. He is interested in children’s drawings, American underground comics and the Czech animated films of the 1960s, which give his work immediacy.The German artist Jana Gunstheimer expresses herself in a monochromatic palette. Her paintings and watercolours are clearly more rooted in a recognizable reality than the imaginary fairy-tale universe of, for instance, Julie Nord. Gunstheimer’s work refer to her project Nova Porta, a fictive organization – but created painfully realistic – with reminiscensies of science fiction and digital roleplaying. Nova Porta is planned as an organization for ”people without a function”.

Gunstheimer targets the notion of useful employments as the ultimate reason for existense anchored in the mindst of Western civilization. Nova Porta operates 100 percent free of meaning and uses non-utilitarian acts to make its members into happy citicens: ”They seem to have lost the sense of what they are doing, but they all carry on cheerfully and with no illusions. ” (see website at www.nova-porta.de).The works are made as black-and-grey washes that mime the appearance of an old photo album. A series of pictorial messages appear on small pieces of paper and suspended banners. We look into an uninhabited building, Villa Hügel, the former domicile of the Krupp dynasty. Here Jana Gunst-heimer lets the ”people without a function” move in. In these stylish, historic rooms, the highest ranks of society made the important decisions of the past. Here the foremost representatives of industry, emperors, politicians and dictators sealed agreements, and as a result European history took a different turn. Hitler, too, came and went in these rooms, which today – in Gunstheimer’s fiction – is where the disheartened are given a new perspective.

Carolina Raquel Antich employs a very different vocabulary than the artists mentioned above, and her humourous poetic paintings are held in a delicate, pastel palette. Antich is concerned with the traditional, trivial perceptions of little girls and cute boys known from bourgeois children’s literature of the early nineteenth century. Her painting The Last Dance, in which a little, black-haired girl poses for us in a white dress in an indeterminate, monochrome, rose-coloured space, shows us a solitary child living in a world of its own. The girl has been set down in front of us with no pre-history. She is a sort of mnemo-technical instrument for making us recall our own childhood memories. According to Antich, her work represents a negotiation between the child and adult space. With great sensibility she depicts the thin membrane surrounding the child - this fragile, small individual subscribing to the care of the adults - but she also encapsulates the strength of the primal experiences of childhood, cutting into the mind like plowshares. In The Ambassador’s Daughter, (2005), we see a girl in a dream position, a sort of optimization of the self, where she is wearing a pink dress and riding on a great ostrich. Here it is a question of overcoming one’s own incompetence and living out the dream of being protected by a large animal - one that is soft, warm and strong and can carry you forward with great speed. Considering the title, the ostrich becomes a metaphor for social conditions – a privileged child, carried around the world in luxury by a quick-footed ostrich. Antich was born and grew up in Argentina, but lives in Venice.

Vanessa Phaff also depicts isolated children. She opens a door to the nursery and presents us with prepubescent girls living out transgressive and sometimes eerie fantasies. Her formal idiom is very distinctive, with sharply drawn, black contours, owing to the fact that the pictures are executed as giant linocuts, printed on canvas and afterwards painted. The resulting conciseness and clarity give them the appearance of printed, authoritative, official announcements. The girls seem somewhat anachronistic, wearing old-fashioned dresses and long braids. Although they are little girls on the way to becoming grown-up women, they are real powergirls in complete control of things. So much in control that you would be afraid to meet them. In Nature over Nurture we see a girl guarding a hunting cabin. Above the door hangs a gun. She holds the Swiss flag in her hand and has got up onto a podium. Appearing as a Greek goddess of victory, she stands looking out over nature. In Still Life a girl is lying on a large, Swiss flag. She looks askance at us with a challenging expression in her eyes that look as if they have seen too much for her age. She is holding a computer mouse in one hand and a self-timer in the other. Maybe she is also gazing at a monitor, placed in a corner behind us, watching a film or looking at pictures. Porno? A thriller? It is hardly Winnie the Pooh. Her long braids flow out onto the flag, and on the left-hand side of the picture, two braids stick out from a very large drawer. Is the dead body of a child lying in there? Or is it a wig that looks just like the girl’s? Here Phaff strikes an eerie note of Hitchcockian dimensions. In Swiss Flag we see a girl posing with the Swiss flag. The scene is played out at night, and the contours are white as in a negative. An illuminated house is seen in the background. The girl’s pose is triumphant, and she is looking diagonally upwards. She is dressed in a dierndel - a typical Bavarian dress – with knee stockings and an apron, and her long hair is also gathered in two braids. If not for the Swiss Cross, we would be tempted to think her a member of Hitler Jugend. With her point of departure in the child’s own world, and employing a characteristic, clear, alienating idiom, Vanessa Phaff effectively plays on the isolation often experienced by the individual child in puberty. At the same time, her pictures are charged with repressed, inarticulate, destructive desires. Phaff has a great talent for depicting the threshold experiences that children go through in puberty.

With the Swedish painter Judit Ström we are in a completely different ball game, wandering along the multiple, wild paths of dreams. Ström works very texturally and expressively, employing strong, sometimes fluorescent colours, even though her drawings and paintings are often executed in a delicate line and with suggestions of geometrical shapes and architectural compositions. She explores the feminine psyche and the energy emanating from it. We are presented with a tentative definition of the mental and bodily processes involved, and her images function as projection screens for her own imagination (and ours). Things are always ambiguous and and she frequently depicts women as dreamers – with closed eyes – individuals who live their lives from within. Is it ecstasy or a nightmare they live through. Ström’s dream scenarios are as delicate as a spider’s web and light as a midsummer night’s dream; and as with Chagal – or the Danish painter Vibeke Alfelt – a horse often appears as an ancient symbol – a mythological horse, representing sexual energy and power.

Judit Ström also frequently depicts female props in a large format – as if they were fetishes playing a role as divine elements in a sacred act. But above all, Ström stages the fantastical and likes to let people communicate with animals in the open-ended state of a trance or a dream.

In her work, the American painter Sandra Scolnik, who now lives in France, draws on the iconography of early Dutch and Victorian painting. She combines these and several other historical and contemporary references to create her own very special theatre on canvas, with figures acting in changing dramas and comedies. We are presented with strange, unnatural scenes played out in small, often claustrophobic theatre spaces, characterized by an alienated intimacy among the figures.

The women depicted by Scolnik are most often thin and stylized. They also look alike, as in the painting entitled House III, in which a number of strikingly identical women are seen in various stages of their development – from child to adult to old woman – carrying out various rituals within a limited, staged space. Preocupied with absurdity, fetishism, repetition and gender, she filled House III with clones of herself: ”I created a fanciful aristocratic setting for the multiple figures, incorporating 18th-century and Victorian architecture and artefacts. As always, the home was the stage, but the home had expanded into a cabinet of curiosities, an open doll house crowded with figures naked and clothed, pets, shoes, souvenirs, paintings.” (Conversation with the artist).

Sandra Scolnik’s latest source of inspiration is Sienese paintings of the 16th century, from which she adopts perspectival and stylistic structures. They add allegorical qualities to her stories which continue to revolve around serving and being served.

The more formal work by the Danish painter Eske Kath explores a lurking, omnipresent, natural disaster. Kath’s ”vocabulary” is spectacular. His motifs – whether it be the world of single-family, suburban houses or natural occurrences – are stylized and brightly coloured. He likes to contrast the balance of the ordinary state of affairs with disaster – moments when the world is out of joint: tsunamis, vulcanos, earthquakes or man-made tragedies, large and small, sweep across an otherwise peaceful residential neighbourhood or a natural landscape, threatening the existing harmony. Both culture and nature are exposed to violent transformations in Kath’s pictures, but at the same time the elements are stylized almost to the point of abstraction or graphics – as in the kind of pictograms found on traffic signs. Unlike abstract-expressionist art, for instance, which conveys an emotional content by means of the material itself and the signature brushwork, the chaotic in Eske Kath’s work is not visible in the brushwork, but in the pictorial statement, the motif. With his disaster themes, Eske Kath has adopted a classical motif in art. We know it from such works as Theodore Gericault’s The Raft of Medusa and Caspar David Friedrich’s The Wreck of the Hope.

British Julie Roberts has been preoccupied with eighteenth and nineteenth century European history for many years. In a texturally rich, hyperreal idiom, she depicts overlooked details in female victims. She treats the big subjects of life, death and the sexual drive - and their interrelatedness. Historically, art has often been about power plays and male dominance. Roberts tries instead to introduce entirely different, values by focusing on the marginalized and on injustices toward the weak. She sometimes uses photographs as a starting point, as in her series of detailed drawings of five female victims of Britain’s first serial killer - Jack the Ripper - based on photographic evidence found in police archives. She dedicated this work to the victims, depicting them from the least aggressive angle, with their heads swathed in cloth, while the brutal stabbing they had undergone was detectable only in signs like a protruding tongue or eyes not fully closed. Roberts represented them as individuals who had found peace.

Robert’s way of painting is seductive and highly detailed - qualities evident in two paintings entitled Sleeping Beauty (2002), depicting two beautiful girls who look like dolls. There is an old-fashioned air of Victorian virginity about them. Their skin is covered by a fine layer of sweat. Roberts paints impasto and almost scratches the contours of her images into the mass of paint. In this respect, her painting resembles the heavily textural work of Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach, but here her small formats create a certain intimacy and sense of closeness. By means of her formal idiom, Roberts makes the sleeping girls more potent, turning them into dreaming individuals who live their lives behind closed eyes.

The Swedish painter Jens Fänge contributes with a portrait of Hans Christian Andersen (1998). We are presented with a baroque humour, full of sublety and drollery, as if we were at a ball with Holberg’s Niels Klim in the Underworld. The palette is always held in slightly saccharine pastels, reminiscent of the nursery. In Jens Fänge’s work, the fantastical has long since taken the lead at the expense of rationality. The law of gravity and all other laws and forms of logic seem to have been eliminated. The portrait of Hans Christian Andersen is full of a visious humour playing on the many roles and concerns of the famous author in his life: his big nose and his hair is artificial – his many layers of clothes may come off and reveal nothing in the end. It is a patchwork of patterns and colours, composed of bits and pieces like a collage. In this work, Fänge underscores the fantastical side of the fairy-tale writer as well as the fact that he was a complex and colourful personality whose highly original work is so profound and philosophical that it can be read on many different levels according to one’s age and prior knowledge. In this portrait, Fänge stylistically also pays hommage to the mannerist Giuseppe Arcimboldo whose bizarre portraits are composed of individual elements such as books and fruit, but are said to bear a striking resemblance to the portrayed.

The Italian-born Enrico David is educated in London and lives there. He uses monumental formats, a carnevalistic iconography, and a material that is unusual in contemporary art: David embroiders his images, thematizing the androgynous. His works depict stylized stagings of individual characters, posing at the centre of a finely prepared and painted canvas, before an imaginary audience. The two exhibited pictures, Cora (1999) and Dinnisblumen (1999), show slender, eroticized bodies dressed in ultra-high-heeled shoes. Instead of a face, they have masks evoking erotic associations. The figures pose against monochrome backgrounds, and as templates or silhouettes they leap toward us, creating drama and adventure, evoking an air of Venetian carnevals of the past. These figures are androgynous divas, capable of luring both men and women out of their closets and into the boudoirs. David clearly draws on the tradional representations of slim, elegant, idealized types in the mass media, and the two individuals appear as a sort of ornament or decoration familiar to us from art deco. David is also inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe, but he is much more theatricalizing than his older, American colleague.

Kathrine Ærtebjerg depicts pubescent girls. They are not, however, inarticulate individuals without an identity and bent on testing limits, but girls who are capable of communicating with animals, plants and such creatures as E. T., who show up on her canvases. Ærtebjerg seems to let all of her fertile imagination loose on the canvas, employing a surreal and grotesque painterly idiom, rooted in the fairy-tale universe of children’s books. Her imaginary world contains both eerie and poetic undertones at the same time, which she accentuates in such ambiguous titles as She sought Shelter, She was Open, She Started to Dissolve. Ærtebjerg keeps returning to the themes of budding female identity, sexuality and love as well as to the inner chaos that haunts the fragile individual becoming ”gendered”. All of it is packaged in a feminine, almost saccharine expression, bordering on kitsch. Ærtebjerg’s work places us in an artificial, fairy-tale landscape, inhabited by girls, animals, trolls and giant flowers, executed in a palette that strikes the eye with spectacularly loud colours; sometimes she uses an airbrush and fluorescent colours. Her works mime the narrative universe of picture books, but the painterly virtuosity makes for a more complex appearance, with Kathrine Ærtebjerg combining ”high” and ”low” culture. Her deliberately childish universe represents something new on the art scene, having for many years been characterized by more cool and ironic attitudes. Her visual idiom is clearly based on a tradition in twentieth century art represented by artists, who have worked with a related, feminine form of expression.

In the work of the Scottish-born painter Paula Kane, represented by just one picture entitled Echoes in the Trees (2005), we are again – as with many of the exhibiting artists – in nature, an artificial, pastoral landscape, yet full of atmosphere and feeling. Like Simon Keenleyside, Kane works with a fantastical, uninhabited nature, but her paintings are more panoramic and even more artificial, almost psychedelic, due to her warm, glowing palette of pink and yellow, reminiscent of an LSD-trip or a computer-generated realm – as in the sophisticated computer game World of Warcraft, played by millions of children and youths all over the world. Paula Kane’s landscapes are imaginary, sampled so as to form a synthesis or collage of a great many visual languages and past expressions, including the huge image bank of the mass media. Kane paints very beautifully, with a predilection for fairy-tale-like tableaux with phantasmagorical trees and an infinite perspective, landscapes that seem wrapped in a suggestive veil of memory and leave a vibrant after-image on the retina. In Kane’s images, the sky is yellow, and the trees stretch their gnarled, naked branches up towards a God who probably does not exist. They are in equal measure Disney and Renaissance landscapes. One would expect to see wild boars grazing next to lions, or Bambi appearing on its long stilt-like legs. But rather than personifying her vision, Kane prefers to let our imagination move in and inhabit her imaginary landscapes.

The American painter Hernan Bas whose images subscribe to a baroque and symbolist iconography, gives his pastoral scenes a fantastical twist. He employs a more trashy, textural and expressive way of painting, reminiscent of the ”wild” painting of the 1980s, with crude brushwork and dripping paint. Like Enrico David, he has a predilection for the androgynous – with emphasis on the homo-erotic – just as his opulent and kitschy motifs resemble Matthew Barney’s baroque and kinky videos. As a late follower of Caravaggio, Hernan Bas has his young men appear as erotic creatures, offering themselves up lying in a shell-shaped boat drawn by swans – as in the large Tapestry (2005), or they appear as beautiful, fine-limbed youths, as in The Hero Centaur (2005), in which we see two pale and slightly anaemic-looking, beautiful youths – or rather, one beautiful youth riding on an equally beautiful centaur through the autumn forest. If you zoom in on Bas’s youths, they are feminine and fragile, with downy chins – on the threshold of manhood. On the one hand, his works are strangely alien and, on the other, recognizable, because of the extent to which they subscribe to a classical iconography. They do not, however, seem rooted in any specific time; they represent eternal stories of human desire, the longing for someone to hold hands with, and for a sense of belonging in nature. But Bas realizes that this is a construction, a dream, rather than anything factual. Hernan Bas’s expectant, but patiently waiting youths send us looks that are both innocent and conspiratorial. This particular mixture of fashion and personal mythology, af art history and kitsch, lends his paintings a very special, seductively secretive feeling of obscure, latent desire.

One of the artists who has paid particular attention to the boundaries between body and gender – and to the narrative – is the American Kiki Smith. She had her international breakthrough in the 1980s as an innovative and challenging sculptor and installation artist who turned her female protagonists inside out, so to speak, to explore what kind of taboos they contained. She has continuously experimented with a variety of media – such as glass, plaster, painting on muslin, and other materials associated with traditional female occupations - and she is constantly concerned with integrating different visual elements in her work. She works with crafts and visual arts of different times and places – for example Victorian children’s books, German Renaissance, Assyrian reliefs and fine tapestries from European courts. She is interested in fundamental female fantasies in general, and she sees the (female) body as a container full of knowledge that you can draw on endlessly. The exhibition shows mainly her large paperwork made after 2000 in various graphic, mixed media. Her starting point is the mythological narratives of popular tales such as Little Red Riding Hood, included in the exhibition, and she also reinterprets Lewis Carroll’s illustrations of his own fairy tales. For Kiki Smith, prints represent a special, repetitive medium that mimes the specifically human: we all look alike, and yet we differ individually. Her very large prints are the result of a slow process. The exhibition includes four large, hand-coloured drypoints. In Companions (2002) we see Little Red Riding Hood with her basket, face to face with the wolf. The title makes us ”read” this encounter as a friendly meeting between a fragile, little girl and a strong, formidable wolf. Perhaps they will actually become friends, one thinks. In the second drypoint, Born (2002), we see a dramatic and blood-dripping rebirth of Riding Hood and her grandmother, but the two are represented as a holy mother-child dyad. A new beginning thus arises from the bloody belly of the animal. Pool of Tears is made in response to Lewis Carroll’s fairy tales about Alice, here swimming in a pool of her own tears. She seems to be in danger and is pursued by a flock of giant web-footed birds with a threatening appearance, not least due to their size. Her series of drypoints of a woman, a wolf and a lion shows a more direct erotic relationship, culminating in the lion’s attack on the woman. In the last print, entitled Rapture, violence seems to have been transformed into direct pleasure – depending on the point of view.

In these prints, Kiki Smith examines the child’s vulnerability and innocence as well as its budding sexuality and the lurking dangers of it - often represented by a dangerous animal such as a wolf - and the sexual initiation takes place as a veritable assault, in which the fragile little girl or woman is destroyed. It usually ends well, however, as when Riding Hood is reborn, or the naked woman seems to surrender to the lion and allows it to violate her. At the same time, it is a light-hearted and humourous re-enactment of prejudices about the sexes.

In Ida Applebroog’s work we are likewise presented with an investigation of female desire, but at the same time her aim is broader than this: She punctures meaning itself by employing a disparate ”language” that constantly defies a coherent reading. She examines the latent, sometimes brutal and grim feelings such as jealousy and hatred that often pervade relationships between people. Her snapshot-like pictures take place where something goes wrong or could go wrong in daily routines. They are like freeze pictures in which everything seems to be in perfect order, but is not – the place where a nightmare begins. Applebroog’s ambiguous and enigmatic pictures can be interpreted on different levels. There is a latent threat contained in them, as when a medieval lady of the manor pulls out an axe or a knife, seconded by an anthropomorphic father rabbit teaching his young etc. The ambiguity and lack of logic impress the viewer as a dream. Applebroog expresses herself in a cartoon-like, arte-povera style, but she also draws on medieval murals, on Brueghel’s Proverbs, Hieronymus Bosch’s tales of hell, and the early Renaissance tapestries with their somewhat rigid contours. Her works are often held in pale, earth colours, and her canvases are composed of several large or small formats, assembled as in a puzzle where the individual pieces in principle could be put together differently and thus present another story in a coherent, yet broken tale. She thus captures the complexity of existence, the duplicity of people and the dialectical and contradictory quality of life, constantly moving between the polar opposites of affirmation and destruction, love and hate, guilt and innocence, shame and honour, etc. Her work fascinates because it is impossible to dismiss, insistent and mysterious; one tries in vain to make the pieces form a coherent tale. The focus of her work is constantly changing, and you experience this stream of contradictory statements and emotions as a cacophony that in many ways corresponds to life itself.

Throughout her long life as an artist, the oldest contributor to the exhibition, Louise Bourgeois, has been preoccupied with inner demons, especially feminine fantasies, in her sculptures as well as her many installations and works on paper. In her personal, poetic version of surrealism, using the body as a pivotal point, she twists her themes in both terrifying and fascinating directions. She has constantly surprised her audience with her innovative use of new as well as trashy materials. In her later years, she has taken her work to an unprecedented scale with her giant spiders – metaphors for the evil mother figure, recurring in many of her works. Few artists have had her staying power, and today she is a cult figure for a great number of young artists who show up for the weekly salon at her home, a brownstone house in Chelsea, New York. The exhibition presents a number of her works on paper, dating from the early part of the present century (2003 and 2005) when she was 92-94 years old, executed with a sure hand. In the short series of five drypoints entitled The Laws of Nature (2003), she challenges traditional gender roles in an imaginative and subtle way. A naked man and woman wearing black shoes are swinging each other around. First the man is swinging the woman who has incredibly long hair. Then the woman begins to gain power over the man and swings him around in a somersault, holding his hands. His penis acts a semaphor, indicating the direction of the movement. In the course of the series of images, the woman’s hair grows into a demonic, dark band, occupying a still greater part of the picture, making her the phallic superman who finally throws the man down onto the floor. In this series of images, Bourgeois, with a poetic touch, reverses the traditional pecking order between men and women. In the drypoint Spiral Woman of 2003, we see one of Louise Bourgeois’ mythological figures, the body twisted into another shape, a spiral that is about to strangle her. This spiral-shaped figure, holding the woman in a suffocating grip and making her turn around until she gets dizzy, reoccurs often in her work as hanging sculptures in bronze. In the blood-red works on paper executed in a wavering, psycho-infantile style of drawing, The Good Mother (2003) and The Evil Mother (2004), Bourgeois grapples with the primal mother. The good mother holds her tiny baby protectively in her arms – happily smiling and communicating with us – while the evil mother spreads out her arms in a gesture of embracing the world. The picture is cropped so that you do not see her face, but there is no child to hold – instead there is an eroticized breast with a mega-size nipple offering itself up in an inviting, sexualized gesture. In addition to this, there is a long pony-tail which – as in the previous pictures – acts as a sort of phallic attribute to the woman. Bourgeois has always been preoccupied with these primal figures of the sexes in the human psyche. The material for her art comes out of a past filled with conflict, her father being the cause of these. Pain and anger, directed against sexual injustices, have been the fuel of Louise Bourgeois’ fantasizing art from the beginning, and always with a mythological representation of the human body as its pivotal point.

As apparent from the above, the overall theme of the exhibition is human beings and human experience on the threshold between childhood and adolescence, between dream and reality. The artists participating in Girlpower & Boyhood let us see ourselves reflected in art again. They may whisper or shout what they have to say, but as a rule they make use of the human figure and nature metaphors to express their visions. In his still relevant essay ”The Dehumanization of Art” (1925)3, the Spanish philosopher Ortega Y Gasset describes some characteristic qualities of avant-garde art, one of which is that it has freed itself from a human content and from ”all living forms”. The artists in Girlpower & Boyhood, born between 1911 and 1975, work along other lines than their 20th-century, abstract predecessors, even though they implicitly build on their achievements: The exhibiting artists have re-humanized art – and with a vengeance. Focusing on the threshold experiences of the individual, and employing a kitschy, sometimes Gothic aesthetics of horror, they depict adolescence and gender, and the schizophrenic, fear-provoking process that each individual goes through during the transition from child to adult. They make frequent use of hybridization and allow several levels of reality to encounter each other in a new, fairy-tale-like version of surrealism. They change familiar points of view and establish dream scenarios in the form of a semi-artificial nature in which they ”botanize” with their brushes and pencils, making fantastic flowers and trees take root on their canvases. They up-scale details, making them play the main part, and often employ drastic means to engage our attention. Each in their own way, these artists open our eyes to symbolic spaces full of strange beings, letting them wander through hitherto unknown realities.

1) Maurice Merleau-Ponty: The Phenomenology of Perception
2) Jacques Lacan: Ecrits
3) José Ortega Y Gasset: ”The Dehumanization of Art”, first published in Spanish in 1925.

From the exhibition catalogue to ‘Girlpower & Boyhood’, Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh (August-September 2006) and Kunsthallen Brandts, Odense (October 2006- February 2007).

Lisbeth Bonde writes about art for Weekendavisen and is the author of: Kunstnere på tale (2002), Atelier – kunstnerens værksted (2003), Solo – en monografi om maleren Peter Martensen (2006), and – with co-writer Mette Sandbye: Manual til dansk samtidskunst (2006).