Exorcising Images of the American West

A review of Katherina Olschbaur's 'The Divine Hermaphrodite'



The Mantle Image Katherina Olschbaur Elysian Park
Katherina Olschbaur, Elysian Park (Diptych), 2019, oil on canvas



Could images ever be illegitimate? The American West has always had an ambiguous relationship to pictorial images, as it was practically invented by the European eye, under whose influence and inspecting gaze it remains. This isn't an exaggeration: the metaphysical dimension in the vision of Caspar David Friedrich and the German romantic movement traveled from Dusseldorf to California, in the person of Alfred Bierstadt, a German-American painter, who in the middle of the 19th century, was commissioned to travel to the Yosemite National Park in California's Sierra Nevada mountains, to depict the West. Bierstadt, for his part, like Turner, was a painter of the industrial revolution and where Friedrich saw the Sublime, Bierstadt saw the Gold Rush. In his famous painting “Glacier Point Trail” (1873), he wanted the viewer to see actual gold. In an exhibition of his work a few years ago at the Yale University Art Gallery, the curator writes that in the 19th century, people from the American Northeast, living in cities, found in Bierstadt's work the vicarious pleasure of communing with nature, a landscape 'untouched by civilization', and an American frontier, “forever pristine.”


That was the first (self)image of the American West. A mythical barren land with no people, almost waiting to be conquered. That this image endured for so long, at the expense of the real ones, comes as no surprise: The real image of the California Gold Rush was one of exploitation, expropriation, and genocide. But this parasitic relationship between California and European, “German(ic)” images has outlived the colonial imagination, and become a sort of parallel imaginary of modernity. The American West, commodified by the East as a binary, this outer border of reality codified by the sensibility of Romanticism, and yet wildly capitalist, paradoxically suffers from a traumatic amnesia, as if its history began with Bierstadt's images and not with geological deep time. It is blocked from direct access to history – and also far away from the pastiche neoclassical architecture of Capitol Hill and the Jewish irony of New York – therefore it seeks historical images in order to reinsert itself in tradition. When Katherina Olschbaur, an Austrian painter trained in the Viennese academy, relocated to Los Angeles in 2017, it would become obvious that white flight also took place in the opposite direction.



The Mantle Image Katherine Olschbaur The Divine Hermaphrodite



As an artist never fully indoctrinated in the orthodoxy of German expressionism – the pictorial image had to be cleared up completely after all – Olschbaur still sought narrative points inside ruined painterly architectures of the 20th century and found these to be constantly collapsing, either abandoned sites of history (Jerusalem, Walter Benjamin, the Holocaust) or too ambiguous to be called memory (obscure literary references, exile, belonging). Olschbaur's painterly solution to the dead end of (mostly male) Newmanesque but painfully crafted and rather emotionless canvases of European academic painting, at a time when post-internet wasn't heard of outside the United States, was not a return to history - that would be a false melancholy. Instead, she abstractly circumvented the apolitical space of color fields by means of re-activating spatiality in general, and problematizing its modernist positions. As an artist, without a specific sense of temporality embedded in her practice, she engaged in a kind of surface painting with sculptural notes, highly innovative, but that still nevertheless, reeked of tradition. And by tradition we mean not just the past, but also the borders of history: Greece, Rome, empire.


The artist's arrival in California signaled a transition that would find its richest manifestation yet in “The Divine Hermaphrodite,” an exhibition that following the broken trail of a Janus-faced image, would take place in Berlin – perhaps the place where it would be understood the least. For Olschbaur, in the years prior to this exhibition, working in California meant acquiring a cinematic eye, and by cinematic we mean not only the self-referential cycle of images on a loop, but also the possibility, forever denied to Europeans given their role as the victimizers of the world, to view history as popular culture or literary genre: entertainment, fantasy, drama. And this is a process that has been repeated in every generation with cultural production from Europe. When German filmmakers, or actually Eastern European with Austrian passport, such as Curtiz or Lubitsch arrived in Hollywood they brought with them the political theater of the world, and what they encountered was primarily an audience. It's not that El Dorado didn't come from Europe after all, but the difference was that the status of higher culture had been demolished and only entertainment remained.  


The Mantle Image Katherine Olschbaur The Divine Hermaphrodite



So from this point onward it was possible, Olschbaur found, to paint from nothing, whatever one wanted and without foundations. There's also a risk of collapse here, a risk of failure but it is modernity, there was nothing under the foundation after all. And without carrying the superstructure of Western civilization on your shoulders, it would become possible to be liberated especially from oneself. And with this great anxiety, with the vertigo and the eventual fall, one would learn to stroll in daytime as if under the Arcades, experiencing advertising and pleasure, the deepest capitalist alienation, without the authority of the museum, without the authority of the world. But here we return to the American West's longing for European modernism: The lack of historicity translated into a puritan American ideal of transparency and directness, a certain inviolable ethics of seeing—the square, the line, the grid, a mathematical ideal of abstraction where everything is under control—demanded from the European image, its ancestor, a dramatic angle, high-contrast lightning and episodic narrative in cinema. 


Similarly, in Olschbaur's work, the grandiose buildings of the past disappeared with the past itself, and gave way to a suspended state outside of world-time, as if on the long roads of Wim Wenders, without destination at all; a sort of cyclical repetition of food, sex, capitalism, law enforcement and estrangement. Once the Baroque ruin no longer needed to be traumatically re-enacted again and again, absurd mythologies begin to emerge in Olschbaur's painting, but yet these characters are not necessarily new. In her earlier tableaux, the derelict theatrical stages were a unified narrative about conservative politics in general and the abyss of memory in Europe in particular; now with the stage destroyed (here making a vague reference about Sontag and Sarajevo, a reading that we have shared for over a decade), there's no stratagem at the artist's disposal but to release the actors. These actors, nevertheless, are not American, they're neither Hopper's loners nor the overtly aestheticized depictions of Mary Cassatt; these half-bodies are characters in an Elizabethan drama, with limited freedom of movement, and always facing the audience, at the very opposite end of introspection.


What is required from artists in the tradition is innovations within a classical framework – this translated here into flashbacks, dream sequences and deceptive narration. Anything that could counter the linearity and in a way, the immortality of American democracy. Once physical space is completely deconstructed (the Greek temple disappears in the highway), an ambivalence about psychic spaces remains, and this is where Olschbaur, instead of releasing her hermaphrodite characters into the freedom of the streets, more tightly controls their appearance into dialectics of domination and submission. It is here where power and the absence of power can be presented in a clearer manner than in the ruin, and the impossibility of a resolution leaves us with something infinitely less than high-art: pure seduction. But this hyper-sexuality is counter intuitive to the puritanism of the new world. On the stage, or in this case on the canvas, the gestural and body spontaneity, so central to American cinema, gives way in Olschbaur, to a highly formalist construction of images. And great formalism, comes at the expense of great tensions. Contemporary anxiety is translated in reverse; embodied onto archetypes.



The Mantle Image Katherine Olschbaur The Divine Hermaphrodite



Two strange dissimilar forces are in conversation here: the provincial cosmopolitism of Central Europe and the globalized provincialism of the Americas. While these powers are not comparable, it is the impossibility to reach out for history's beginning from the perspective of the technological imaginary, what enables the artist to break out from the ghosts of Gombrich and Panofsky, and imagine the past and the history of art not as the teleology of Greece and Rome (via the Christian Renaissance) toward modernity and colonialism at the deep heart of European expressionism, but as a more primeval, violent and irrational history, with cycles of progress and decay. It is in this sense of ambiguity that entirely subjective painting becomes ultimately possible, but as Olschbaur sets to prove, not without conditioning. An open-ended narrative, such as that of the diptych “Elysian Park,” a centerpiece in the exhibition, fluctuating between animal and human, male and female, violence and submission, requires a complex mythology and cannot simply be explained away by accounting for its constituting parts.  


There's a taxonomy of abstraction always at work here, the temptation of universals is just too big to avoid. It brings the work almost to the point of dissolution, but the aspect of narration still stands tall. It is no coincidence that a new wave of migration would bring European artists to the American West again, at the same time that zombie formalism was charting the map for yet another end of painting. It was a part and parcel of the necessity to abandon abstraction as a language in order to escape from the aesthetics of ultra high network architecture, to which all of minimalism has been condemned for eternity for two decades now. The Elizabethan drama in Olschbaur's work, like a puppet theater, set up at a drive-in cinema, serves to simultaneously humiliate the roots of expressionism by bringing it down to the most simplistic, popular and cinematic pictorial language available, while at the same time, it pays reverence to this selfsame tradition, by handing over the reconstitution of the language of painting to the European eye and sensibility once again, and having exhausted the limits of abstraction twice in a row.   



The Mantle Image Katherine Olschbaur The Divine Hermaphrodite



“The Divine Hermaphrodite,” on the other hand, and according to Aaron Moulton, is also a fallout from grace, or at least from a heightened state of both sexuality and consciousness; something that is calling for the 'occult'. To reveal in this case, is not necessarily to manifest or to make apparent, but to shift the symbolic order. If the Minotaur is no longer in the labyrinth of the palace, if he were to be no longer a threat, who would he/she be? What would be their gender? What story would they tell about themselves in the absence of Theseus? Paradoxically, again, the primitivism is a sign of both the artist's distance from the Greco-Roman past of European art, and of her place in tradition – the art historical references here are too obvious to mention. One knows the basic strokes of this language to be regal, and almost legalistic in the tradition of the masters, but the palette has gone berserk, between night diners, traffic jams, caravans, the casual and colorful racism of contemporary America and the false dawns of Olschbaur's friend, the painter Robert Yarber. Painting as negotiating, as compromising, and distributing grief, without healing, without power and without cure. 


It is impossible to live through this. It's Los Angeles after all, without an element of magic, but because magic exists only on television, we are left with the basics: witchcraft, ritual, and hope. It is of course not known to the audience that like a Baldwin in Istanbul, Olschbaur becomes a white painter, and an ambassador of tradition, only on the shores of the Americas, where everything is possible, and one could never be white enough for Austria, regardless. In this movement across different cultures there's a constant creation of newer identities and personae in the artist's work that mesmerize the audience, and for good reason. It is in this Dionysiac intoxication of Olschbaur's Golems, like when Medea is about to murder her children, that we live for a moment in complexity. Different truths are possible, and so are complicated lives, incomplete origins, absurd deaths, terrifying destinations. We have lived as ambiguously, irrationally, rapidly as we possibly could have. Nothing else remains – the remaining hours are empty time.



"The Divine Hermaphrodite" was on show at GNYP Gallery, Berlin, March 16 - April 20, 2019.



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Art, Painting, The West, American West