Karin Kneffel

Galerie Sophia Ungers

Karin Kneffel’s paintings negotiate the boundaries of painting—not that they are not paintings—they are unequivocally paintings and good ones at that. But this is the kind of painting that initially makes you wonder. Are these portraits of cows, sheep, dogs, or poultry, which have a vaguely human gaze; are these herds of cattle peacefully placed under a tree in a mountainous landscape; are these paintings and not sentimental kitsch? They are rendered realistically, with energetic brushstrokes. Details such as the eyes or ears of cows and the feathers of chickens are carefully and lovingly worked. The colors are toned down, muted, recalling genre paintings of the 19th century.

Kneffel picks motifs that have been standard pictorial components of paintings since Flemish painters employed them in the 17th century, provoking us to question whether one can still make such paintings today. Kneffel thinks so. She paints a series of animal portraits, in which the animals stare at us with their gaping eyes, nostrils wide open, ears drooping, almost smirking. These animal faces project something human, almost dignified. For this reason the small portraits, hung salon-style, look like a gallery of ancestors. Through this projected humanity they mobilize a sentimemality in us that brings them close to kitsch. For the hallmark of kitsch is its appeal to sentimental structures that slumber inside each and every one of us.

Kneffel’s animal portraits graze these structures, but go no further than that. Before the sentimental feeling can take possession of us, it turns into an ironic detachment. The thought flashes through our minds: she can’t mean it. The eyes are simply the eyes of a cow gaping stupidly at us, the mouth isn’t smirking, it is merely distorted, and the nostrils are disgustingly damp. This realization restores our objectivity. But we do not so quickly forgive these paintings for making us feel insecure. Thus, our regained security has simultaneously a touch of annoyance, because these paintings evoke feelings that exist in us, but that are taboo; hence they force us to take a stand. This alone is their justification.

In this exhibition, two new works are displayed. These are paintings of landscapes, not animals. One canvas shows a burning countryside with ominously rising flames and dramatic clouds of dark soot. The other canvas, hinting at a fire that is blazing somewhere far away, alludes to it with soot clouds that occupy almost the entire pictorial surface. Both paintings reveal a dramatic grandiloquence that is initially seductive. Kneffel, however, then makes it clear that this is not what she means. Or is it? And once again, we are annoyed, first at the paintings, then at ourselves, and once again we admit that such paintings can challenge us even today.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.