Cologne

Christa Näher

Galerie Janine Mautsch

All of a sudden it’s pigs. While collectors, critics, and the public muse over the obsessive violence in images of wounded horses and dogs roaming through gloomy vaulted passageways, Christa Näher, driven by an inner force, feels compelled to unloose a herd of swine in a monumental triptych. To expect Näher to offer a well modulated explanation of this switch from the noble horse to the pig would be to misunderstand both the artist and her work. It would be easy to assume that the pigs are just more of the novelties the art world constantly demands, but this is precisely what they aren’t, at least not in the superficial sense of the novelty as a mixture of mercantile and formalistic imperatives.

Since Näher’s appearance on the art scene barely two years ago, each of her shows, whether solo or in a group, has noticeably broken with the previous ones. The path leads from her initial, violently erotic duels between man and beast—works glowing with color, the expressive flow of the paint melding dramatically with the stamping rhythm of animal movements—through the graphic spareness of the monumental canvases that followed, to the unimaginable blackness that currently dominates her imagination. Black is everywhere triumphant. Light, mysteriously glowing, enters the paintings from an untraceable source, but rather than illuminating the pictorial space it contributes to the menace of the atmosphere, actually intensifying the impression of darkness and night. Näher’s first black paintings were endless landscapes, life-absorbent marshlands, but soon suggestions of architectural form began to create a new, unsettling sense of space and of physical presence. Where bodies in motion defined the space in the earlier works, walls and vaults do so now, in a dialectic between open, endless space (light) and architectonic construction.

Compositionally, Triptychon, 1984, is similar to these recent dark works. It shows a development only in regard to its icons. Why pigs? Näher has remarked, “I can’t really say. I had to paint them. Maybe because pigs are the only creatures that feel at home in the mud!” Näher’s overwhelming images clearly describe a violent, traumatic experience of reality, an obsessive vision of life as in extremis. Her compulsive expression of this vision forces itself, with an inner logic, into swelling, baroque compositions situated between expressive realism and a tenebrous romanticism. There’s no mannerist calculation here, though there is a recurring element of reflection on painting. The raw, undigested, radical violence of the image is painting gone wild—become a battle for survival.

Smaller in size, blackened with a thick overlay of marks which pit the figures in a duel between heavy charcoal and white ground, Näher’s drawings here make it clear that the impact of her work results from the violence of its content rather than from the paintings’ monumental size. Yet despite all the blackness, what we have here is a depiction neither of the universal apocalypse nor of a personal, self-contained torture chamber. The work shows an ambivalence between the menacing dark and a voracious hunger for life. The indolent throng of pigs in Triptychon’s left and center panel is balanced in the righthand panel by an architectural structure with projecting spires on its roof, a building modeled on a Russian chapel. Between animals and chapel lies a diffuse, menacing space—whether a vast architectural vault or an unbounded stretch of nature, of Lebensraum, is unclear. The herd of swine is characterized by a sensual sloth, a fleshiness which exudes lust, even in the mud. In the animals’ imperturbability they radiate an undeniably erotic comedy that mocks the heaven-storming spires of the chapel, even if, to some viewers, its roof inescapably suggests a row of meat skewers.

Triptychon has the climactic air, as if an obsessive inner vision has been conquered through paint, that has often characterized Näher’s works in the past. Yet the artist speaks not for a form of therapy, a catharsis and exorcism of a private nightmare or fear, but for a confrontation with a life energy that is experienced and recognized as threatened. The confrontation of light and color with night and blackness, of beast and nature with humanity and culture, is a metaphor in Näher’s work for an existential struggle, and not a means of self-gratification in spontaneous, expressive splashing of paint. The image-world of these paintings has a mythic energy, and their menace is of a different sort than indulgent, end-of-the-world despondency. It is unsettling, vulgar, provocative, and aggressive, and it concocts no political recipes.

We’ve become accustomed to speaking in terms of the zeitgeist when faced with paintings that don’t concern themselves with the noble and beautiful. Yet every age has its own vision of death, of the end of things. Näher’s work is timeless in that it addresses the inevitable death of nature, and it is contemporary, for death constantly forces life into rebellion. Mixing obsessive subject matter, painterly strength, and subversive provocation, her paintings simultaneously repel and exercise an irresistible fascination.

Annelie Pohlen

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.