San Francisco

Katharina Wulff, Die Verbindung (The Connection), 2008, oil on canvas, 48 x 68 1/2".

Katharina Wulff, Die Verbindung (The Connection), 2008, oil on canvas, 48 x 68 1/2".

Katharina Wulff

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

Katharina Wulff, Die Verbindung (The Connection), 2008, oil on canvas, 48 x 68 1/2".

In Sheila Heti’s recent book How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life, the central character culls a list of international cities most populated by “Important Artists” from a digest of biographies. Finding that New York, natch, tops the tally, she promptly hops a bus from Toronto to Manhattan. I thought of this episode—and the novel’s attendant musings on the self-consciousness of creative ambition—while viewing this intimate exhibition of paintings by Katharina Wulff, who has, with as much apparent deliberation as Heti’s protagonist, charted a reverse tack. Born in East Germany in 1968, Wulff attended art school in post-Soviet Berlin, but left in 2004 for Marrakech, Morocco, where she has since worked, with contented detachment, apart from contemporary-art-world beehives. Comprising seventeen canvases from the past six years, this show was her first solo presentation in an American museum.

“Otherworldly” is, as it happens, the most immediate descriptor for these weird, fantastical works, all biographical front-loading aside. Yet the difficulty of fixing Wulff’s art in a practical or theoretical context has less to do with external circumstances than with features intrinsic to the paintings, which court frames of reference both categorical (of genre) and specific (certain lineages, even certain artists) only to nullify, through profusion and hybridization, any grounding those models might otherwise bestow. Working in both portraiture and landscape, Wulff often composites the two, frequently with a liberal admixture of abstraction and a seemingly willed bastardization of motley art-historical invocations. (She can summon companions as unlikely as Florine Stettheimer and Yves Tanguy, or George Grosz and Elizabeth Peyton, in a single picture.) Such feints at connection are overtly thematized in tightly cropped portraits that gesture at, but ultimately refuse, communication: The female half of a couple in Harald, 2007, has a gray slapdash smear in place of lips, and the lower part of a man’s face in a contemporaneous painting (Untitled, 2007) remains unfinished. Eyes, when open, gaze blankly, and irises are too pale for complexions, which look either irradiated or hypothermic. Areas of minute, overworked detail abut unmodulated passages with visible canvas weave; we can count the strands of hair on the head of Señor Blanco, 2008, yet glean little from his poker face or a bluntly limned craggy backdrop.

In Wulff’s landscapes, too, pictorial incident swings between insufficiency and surfeit (a dynamic seconded by her titles, which either give nothing away—almost half the selections were called Untitled—or hint at elaborate, private narratives, as in Nach dem Dreißigjährigen Krieg [After the Thirty Years War], 2007, and Landscape for Happy Witches, 2008). This technical oscillation again underscores one of content. What seem to be sedate enough views of sea or countryside are unhinged by elements that don’t add up: Barren trees sprout from fields of lush grass in one 2007 Untitled, while another Untitled from the same year shows a rocky coastline near which lies a supine body that might be floating or submerged, swimming or drowning. The terrain of the large Der Vergessene Kontinent (The Forgotten Continent), 2007, feels lunar, its meandering river and masses of pastel rocks providing the setting for an inscrutable drama between a faceless woman in frilly period dress and a shirtless man in sunglasses and jeans who takes her hand.

Realism alongside indistinctness; mismatches of style, epoch, and technique; signifiers with no place to go; morphing creatures and muted voices—Wulff’s visual logic is oneiric, and has become more explicitly so of late. The foregrounded figure in a 2012 composition might be a stand-in for the viewer, his vacant mien a cipher for our inability to sort out scale or meaning in a scene involving a sailor whose body stretches around a building, a swan, plumed horses pulling a carriage containing an aristocratic couple, and, yes, a Magrittean bowler hat. Yet if recent works are allegorically denser, risking aimless symbolism (see the hulking shadow and skeletal female in a 2011 Untitled painting), they have also aired out a bit: Perspectives are less flat, with points of entry to medina alleyways offered. Wulff’s outlook may be getting darker, but she appears open to the possibility of company.

Lisa Turvey