Elke Krystufek

Centre Genevois de Gravure Contemporaine

Elke Krystufek’s art gives a contemporary twist to that nineteenth-century notion of the artist as narcissist. Over the past several years she has produced a seemingly endless stream of close-up self-portraits, made by photographing her face, naked body, or torso—always reflected in a mirror—and then copying the images onto canvas in an aggressively expressionist style. Clearly indebted to women’s body art from the ’70s as well as the exhibitionism of the Viennese Actionists, Krystufek also shares affinities with the more confessional art of a contemporary like Tracey Emin, who likewise lays bare her angst about her own sexuality with an unflinching eye and brutal self-scrutiny.

In her latest work, Krystufek appears to be looking into the roots of a critical period of psychosexual development, the passage from childhood to adolescence. For this exhibition, “In the Arms of Luck,” she presents more than forty new works—all from 1999—including photographs, videos, and paintings, but also a group of store mannequins (infants, children, and adolescents) dressed in various combinations of wigs and flea-market finds along with T-shirts designed by the artist. On the shirts, Krystufek has printed photographs of herself, often in poses suggestive of amateur pornography and sporting the same wig as the mannequin. The shirts also carry phrases like “stop pressurin’ me” or “make me wanna scream,” taken from songs by pop idol Michael Jackson and evoking cliché visions of adolescent alienation. The mannequins and the video monitors have been placed in front of or next to paintings and photographs, some of which bear the same images as the shirts, but this time montaged onto reproductions of kitschy, painted sea- and landscapes or photographs by other artists, such as Rineke Dijkstra or Zoe Leonard.

The sheer visual bulimia of the exhibition and the continual cross-referencing among media suggest that Krystufek conceived the show as a multi-room installation rather than a selection of individual pieces, a point also reinforced by the videos. In one, titled It’s a Small World, the artist is shown setting up a photo shoot with a naked doll on her bed as the title song plays in the background. In another, TV footage from a documentary on a Viennese collector of pornographic memorabilia is mixed with the artist’s tape of her own visit to Disneyland. Moving through the exhibition, there is a constant shift between a feeling of sexual tension (as well as a vague undercurrent of pedophilia) and one of boredom with the utterly banal images of childhood innocence, which together create a clash that even Dr. Freud would have appreciated.

Krystufek has completely ingested American popular culture and infused it with the now legendary Viennese tendency toward jarring theatrical excess. She then spits out the results in the form of her own peculiar brand of contemporary iconography. Psychological implications aside, it is a vision imbued with some of the lessons of second-wave feminism, particularly those taught by predecessors like Valie Export, who contested the sublimation of male fears of female sexuality. Yet Krystufek doesn’t seem to buy into the movement’s politics. This ambivalence is what makes her work compelling. It raises questions about the pertinence of using one’s own private anxieties to make the rest of us confront ours.

Elizabeth Janus