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Languor spiked with a vague sense of dread suffuses two untitled paintings of a cavernous hotel lobby (both dated 2016) that arguably constitute the centerpiece of It Was Just This Moment, Katharina Wulff’s third exhibition at Greene Naftali Gallery.
Far from crowded, the ornate but rundown interior is nevertheless somehow full of exchanged glances and potent gestures, shadowy subplots in search of a unifying conflict, minor characters busying themselves in anticipation of the protagonist’s entrance.
In the larger of the two works, which is roughly five by eight feet, a middle-aged man in casual dress ambles across the foreground, his face turned away from the viewer, as if he too is surveying the goings-on: at the far end of the room, suave fellow in an emerald green shirt waits for service at a counter; a man on the right lights a woman’s cigarette, which she holds in an extended hand rather than to her lips; smaller, sketchier figures engage in not-easily-discernable activities that might be illicit, or might simply involve routine maintenance; behind the service counter, but separated by a pillar from the man in the green shirt, a rotund clerk holding a key glances up at the viewer from across the enormous room.
The bottom edge of the canvas crops the man in the foreground above the ankles, so that the weight of his body rests on one continuous curve from his shoulders down his spinal column into his backward-tilting pelvis — a souvenir perhaps of a lifetime spent on his feet. He cups a cigarette in his left hand. This beautifully articulated figure is an astonishing flash of realism in a show that is otherwise dreamlike, rife with distortions both anatomical and spatial.
Common to these paintings (most of which are untitled; all are oil on canvas) is the presence of a central, dominant feature — whether it’s an interior space or a portrait figure — embellished by a wealth of anecdotal details such as furniture, bystanders, animals (especially dogs) and other components of the urban streetscape. Wulff, who grew up in East Berlin, moved to Marrakesh some fifteen years ago, and her work reflects her situation amid the elaborate, distinctly Islamic decoration that adorns traditional architecture in Morocco. This filigree overtly appears in the hotel lobby paintings and others, but the general structure — a primary motif, embellished — is present more broadly throughout the compositions.
Yet, despite the abundance of visual information in each of the paintings in the show (which also includes drawings and sculpture, about which more later), their implied narratives sometimes remain obscure, even though many elements seem to be symbolic. Among the most readily decipherable is “der Aufbruck” (“The Departure”), a 2012 painting about two feet high. The plainly dressed, androgynous central figure (who is presumably doing the departing) turns away from an approaching horse-drawn carriage bearing a diminutive but fashionable couple; over the figure’s shoulder hovers that symbol of romantic fidelity, a swan, while a sailor, apparently on shore leave, goes to great lengths to entice a little yellow chickadee. The blasé main character is having none of it.
Also from 2012 (and a bit larger) is a more abstruse but no less engaging portrait of a youngish woman with oversized eyeglasses, an aqua blue swimsuit and a sculpted, coppery-orange coiffure. Both imposing and anatomically rubbery, she regards the viewer with a steely expression. The setting is a beach or seaside pier, where a faceless group of four or five pedestrians seem to be mourning some unhappy event beneath a luridly grinning billboard. In the background, a large cat evades a rampaging boar. Despite the painting’s surreal undertones and apparently allegorical content, the portrait itself reminds me of the anti-expressionist Neue Sachlichkeit movement in Weimar Germany, whose objectivity or “matter-of-factness” grounded the work in the observation of society’s prevailing conditions.
In Morocco, as elsewhere of course, those conditions are often hostile to women. In a four-by-three-foot painting from 2016, a young girl in a blue dress lingers on the periphery of a gym full of men (whose skin ranges in shades of pinks and browns) lifting weights and honing their boxing skills. An older, no-longer-buff fellow rests on a bench in a Rodin-esque “Thinker” pose: male brawn as well as brain — a belief system, or maybe habit of mind — exclude the girl from participating.
The gym’s exterior, clad in sunbaked, pale ochre stucco and bordering a vacant lot, is the ostensible subject of another 2016 painting, this one nearly eight feet wide. The boxy building, home to “Atlas Mirleft D’Education Physicale,” echoes the horizontal format of the canvas, and is decorated with fading silhouettes of lithe female dancers and muscle-bound bodybuilders. A real-life he-man lolls in a sporty car in the foreground, in the vicinity of a nasty little scorpion: a David-and-Goliath cautionary tale? On a hill behind the gym, a pack of dogs checks out the local scents.
The female subject returns to the fore in “Esther” (2012), another example of Wulff’s major/minor iconographical hierarchy. The portrait is nearly full-length —cut off at the knees by a dog who is passive-aggressively engaged with the subject’s left thumb. She is dressed in an extremely tight-fitting one-piece with an incongruous, girly ruffle at the neck. Prominent in the dizzyingly perspectival block of storefronts behind her are shop signs for eyeglasses and telephones — sight and sound. Completely ignoring her are a buttoned-up businessman with a briefcase, looking like a thug; a ragged, shoeless guy; and a bespectacled weirdo with his hands in the pockets of his trench coat. In another realist note, a finely rendered supermarket shopping cart sits empty and abandoned on the sidewalk.
In a reversal of the time-honored formula whereby symbols of the sitter’s life and work are arrayed in the picture like saintly attributes, Wulff implies antipathy, not affinity, between the subject and her surroundings. Esther’s inscrutable facial expression may express slight dismay and/or mild amusement, but it is certainly stoic.
Wulff has commented at length on the work of Florine Stettheimer, and she shares the American’s taste for radical shifts in scale (though Wulff’s use of the device is more closely tied to spatial illusionism). Comparison to Nicole Eisenman is a natural, and while there are some similarities in thematic material and compositional method, Wulff’s view of the world is more outwardly directed than that allowed by Eisenman’s ruminative temperament. Her touch is lighter, both in terms of materiality — Wulff often thins her paint to a wash — and palette. And there are passages in Wulff’s work in which perspectival distortions and spatial telescoping suggest that she might have a sweet tooth for Sienese painting.
A group of drawings in pencil, colored pencil, and ink on translucent paper combine decorative and figurative elements, particularly female heads, busts and full figures; the swan motif returns in one, and there are jewels, sunbursts and a globe. Lovely in themselves, the drawings relate to the nineteen colored glass panels in an elaborate decorative screen, designed in the tradition of the mashrabiya. Dated 2014 and made of cedar wood and Iraqi glass, the screen is nearly six feet high and twelve feet long. It is positioned near one of the gallery’s large plate glass windows, where it performs something akin to one of the mashrabiya’s original functions, providing privacy. It is in fact the first work the visitor to the gallery encounters, albeit from the outside looking in; when you come upon it later, after seeing the paintings, it opens up ideas about public versus private space, veiled appearances and cultural conformity.
Of those two hotel lobby paintings, the smaller is the more explicit regarding sexual politics. The largest of the dozen or so figures, a naked man who looks like he stepped out of a Jim Nutt painting, is angrily accosting — perhaps assaulting — a mostly unseen clerk. The other occupants of the lobby lounge on a sofa, wait for the elevator, or huddle under blankets in a corner. They seem uninterested in the altercation, except for a woman in a sleeveless blue sheer dress of the kind that would get a lone woman in trouble in Morocco. She apprehensively approaches — the protagonist we have been waiting for. Surprisingly, she, not the man, is the focal point of the painting, the embodiment of cautious sassiness and a gender-based counterculture in an environment heavy with a history that does not often encourage that initiative in women. Wulff’s show, I think, is in part about loving certain aspects of a particular culture while wishing dearly that you could change others. Sound familiar?
It Was Just This Moment continues at Greene Naftali (508 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 22.
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