London

Rosa Loy

Entwistle Gallery

“What is the flesh? What is the physical being of man? What exactly is he made of? Tell us this afternoon, Herr Hofrat, tell us exactly, and once and for all, so that we may know!” demands Hans Castorp, protagonist of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Unsatisfied by the Hofrat’s reply—“Water”—he embarks on his own research. Swaddled in fur and wool on his sickbed, he scours volumes on anatomy, biochemistry, and pathology. Scientific facts inexorably segue into metaphysical speculation; Castorp sinks into perverse, voluptuous hallucinations that mix the cosmological, the theological, and the erotic. “Life itself?” he starts to wonder. “Was it perhaps only an infection, a sickening of matter?”

Like Castorp, the identical twins who feature in Rosa Loy’s paintings inhabit a separate, hallucinatory world: a maybe utopian, maybe dystopian testing ground that is part spa, part sanatorium, part laboratory, part collective farm. It’s also a distinctly antiquated place. Now resident in Leipzig, Loy was born, raised, and educated in Communist-era East Germany. Her paintings’ details (dress, interior elements, etc.) are unmistakably retrospective in character. Loy’s twins by turn play the parts of patient, scientist, and ancillary worker: In Unterhaltung (Conversation), 1999, one twin reclines on a couch, her eyes masked by blue goggles, her head and body encased in brown, podlike cocoons. She is undergoing some bizarre therapeutic process of incubation, mutation or gestation; her sibling’s head hovers over her like the angel in a Renaissance Annunciation. In Ernte (Harvest), 2000, the twins work together in a sludge green and mustard yellow institutional kitchen, apparently bottling flames in glass jars. In Züchtung (Fertilization), 1998, wearing pristine lab coats and dainty blue gloves, they peer down microscopes; in Schnecken kommen (The snails are coming), 2000, the pair hoe cabbages while unpleasantly large, shell-less, mutant snails wriggle around their shiny boots. The association of biology and monstrosity recurs in Loy’s outsize studies of flowers and fruit: These add something bloated and faintly menacing to the O’Keeffe formula.

Loy’s technical choices are interesting, sometimes puzzling. Her use of casein explains the slightly waxy, sickly luminosity of her figures’ skin. It also returns the work, by association, to the dialectic of health and sickness, since casein is based on milk, which is the ultimate “natural” mammalian nutrient, but might also put viewers in mind of industrial farming methods, tuberculosis, or the use of hormones and antibiotics on dairy herds. Loy’s style is noticeably, and oddly, inconsistent: Delicate, elegantly worked effects (often, but not always, in her characters’ faces) sit right next to seemingly carelessly applied areas of flat color. These built-in stylistic anomalies replace the unitary “I am” of Expressionist mythology with an ambiguous, decentered “we might be.” Loy’s twins, a veiled self-portrait, might be understood psychoanalytically, as an exploration of split subjectivity or a working through of the mother-daughter or sister-sister relationship, but they might also be interpreted as clones: duplicated women, representing a fundamentally unproductive, dead-end kind of (re)production.

The more ailing a man is, the more human he is, declares Naphta, the mouthpiece of Fascism on Mann’s Zauberberg. German Romanticism, moreover, closely aligned sickness with creativity and genius. Resurrecting allegory, German neo-expressionism of the ’70s and ’80s fed heartily off a collection of regressive myths about artistic production. Loy’s choice of an allegorical, nostalgic register certainly relates her painting to hotly contested traditions. But there is no hint of bombast in her economical, expedient technique, and her imaginary universe, in all its retrostyled peculiarity, resists tidy interpretation. At one level, it could be argued that the work’s oblique, equivocal alignment of an extinct social model (state Communism) with a now-historic representational language (allegorical painting) serves to pose questions about the possibilities that may have been lost with the demise of the viability of both.

Rachel Withers