New York

Amelia von Wulffen

It’s been argued that thirty-eight-year-old Berlin-based artist Amelie von Wulffen is working in something like a “new German Romantic” vein, and, in her first solo show in New York, any number of her photo-and-paint collages hinted at an urge to recycle the well-known aesthetic strategies of the early nineteenth century. Swapping Sturm und Drang for more recent cultural imperatives, Untitled (Sunset/ Fax Machine/Schiele) (all works 2003) shows a Friedrich-meets-Monet seaside sunset casting its inspissated rays over an unexpected range of subjects including, as the title suggests, a fax machine and a Schiele nude. The image, like most of the works on view here, comprises photographs and elements of photographs that give way to, and whose imagery is extended by, expressionistic strokes of watery acrylic paint. Both representational means are thereby rendered equally mutable, epistemologically unreliable, and symbolically suggestive.

It’s easy to see why von Wulffen is put forward by some as a descendant of the German Romantic tradition. Yet the most interesting aspect of her work might have to do with a second kind of romantic impulse, this one decidedly lowercase and lower culture. The title of the exhibition—“Paare. Möbel. Landschaften. (Couples. Furniture. Landscapes.)”—hints that alongside vistas brimming with pathos and chilly chattels culled from anonymous postwar dwellings is a liberal sprinkling of adolescence-driven love objects. An image of a naked man and woman locked in an embrace that appears in two of the collages could easily be illustrating a perfume ad or Harlequin novel. One can read this duo as self-consciously inhabiting that space between the hot and cold poles von Wulffen straddles so consistently, and their pose of passion can’t help but be read as simultaneously titillating and tired, an effect the artist seemingly prizes.

Perhaps most telling in this respect is the fact that of the artist’s two muses, one—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize–winning Soviet novelist whose dissident views led to imprisonment and then exile—is decidedly Romantic, a solitary victim who, year after year, levied his lonely voice against social oppression (and lived out years of hard-won individualism in the Vermont woods before returning to the Motherland), while the other—John Travolta, America’s quintessential blue-collar sex symbol—is “merely” romantic. Von Wulffen’s willingness to let wild enthusiasm confuse them is key. Here, the lowercase romantic overrides—or at least complicates—the now clichéd heroics accompanying the Romantic. In Untitled (John Travolta), a beefcake mug shot of the Saturday Night Fever star is montaged into a glossy reproduction of a painted countryside, his fantastic feathered hair giving way to rocky crags and penetrating sunbeams. Solzhenitsyn, much of whose writing details his grueling years spent in labor camps, appears in Untitled (Sunset and man) as though he, too, were being subsumed into, or birthed from, a sublime, orange- and red-infused landscape.

Von Wulffen’s new Romanticism, then, deftly blends art-historical, political, and social contexts with what is generally recognized as far less cultivated puerile pleasure. The artist’s interest in exposing the links between serious Romanticism and asinine romance not only begets some fantastically strange imagery but also lays bare centuries-old mechanisms of, say, male genius that have designated certain obsessive, sensually directed tendencies as capital and others as lowercase.

Johanna Burton