Yesim Akdeniz Graf

The notion of authentic experience no longer enjoys the status it once did, not even in art. Even the word authenticity sounds a bit odd in today’s cultural climate. Perhaps it was Giorgio di Chirico, the painter of pittura metafisica, who first drew attention to the modern loss of authentic experience in his depictions of a primordial human nature grown obsolete. This loss, which can produce either melancholy or a sense of freedom, calls for new approaches to art. According to Yesim Akdeniz Graf, the only thing that can give us “a feeling of difference” today is “biography and referentiality.” For out there in history, beyond the realm of an art in which everything has already been said, there are still differences to be discovered, areas in which new questions are still possible.

Graf is not intimidated by the heavy hitters: In the past her paintings have dealt with figures such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and G. I. Gurdjieff. As seen in her current show, “Sterblichkeit hat ihren Preis” (Being Mortal Has Its Price), this ponderous historical matter is tempered by other elements. One is Graf’s use of a consciously “impoverished” aesthetic. An entire series of male portraits, including actors and other media personalities, are done as oil sketches, reducing the genre, with its implicit ambitions, to the level of a rough draft. In other works, cardboard boxes glued to the canvas transform paintings into studies for stage sets: Mutters Haus (Mother’s House), 2007, which features the architecture of Robert Venturi and a woman in white knitting a colorful cloth, is framed like a stage with a curtain and has a shallow depth of field. This brings us to Graf’s other saving grace: her elegant way of juxtaposing her diverse references. The various sources are not the point—it’s the resulting image that counts. The quotes become motifs, like the tulips and roses, lemons and grapes that coexist in a still-life painting.

Graf paradoxically combines rapidity of style, at times recalling the simplicity of film posters, with a peculiar weightiness of motif. Two women shown almost as silhouettes are walking in a landscape with the Eiffel Tower. A man on horseback, also rendered in black, appears against the darkness of the night before the ruins of an ancient temple, in wide, spreading circles of light emanating from a moon whose colors modulate from red to blue. In another picture, we see two empty, mismatched chairs arranged in front of a nocturnal urban backdrop; apparently these are the sole witnesses to a drama that once took place here—as if a rendezvous in this luxury apartment had ended in spiritual abandonment. One senses a latent isolation of the sexes from each other, in the bizarre juxtaposition of female nude and modern abstract sculpture. Often, questions of gender come to the fore in Graf’s imagery—questions whose import lies not in the search for an answer but rather in the possibility of a narrative that just might keep the image alive.

Wolf Jahn

Translated from German by Susan Bernofsky.