View of “Jutta Koether,” 2014. From left: Fiorentino Rosso Sansepolcro, 2014; Cosimo Piero Gemäldegalerie, 2014.

View of “Jutta Koether,” 2014. From left: Fiorentino Rosso Sansepolcro, 2014; Cosimo Piero Gemäldegalerie, 2014.

Jutta Koether

Galerie Francesca Pia

View of “Jutta Koether,” 2014. From left: Fiorentino Rosso Sansepolcro, 2014; Cosimo Piero Gemäldegalerie, 2014.

The paintings in Jutta Koether’s recent exhibition “Maquis” could be hard to bear, not least because they are so overloaded with history. Nearly all of them refer to works of art from the past, ranging from Botticelli and Piero di Cosimo to Mondrian, Balthus, Florine Stettheimer, and—perhaps most unlikely in this strategically inconsistent list—Lucian Freud. At the center of the show were three horizontal paintings, each installed on a pillar, thereby creating a series of cross shapes, which could be walked around. Koether does not shy away from religious connotations. One of these paintings, Fiorentino Rosso Sansepolcro (all works 2014), even cites a Mannerist deposition. Koether laid bare such references in a leaflet that accompanied the show. Yet she also dissolved them in literary prose, which, in this case, tellingly inverted the painter’s nickname, Rosso Fiorentino, which points to his red hair. For Koether, the moniker marks his preference for a certain tonal range: the same one now flooding her own work, which is limited to reds of various, mostly incompatible hues, ranging from dark burgundy to neon.

Just as her restricted tonal range is marked by biting contrasts, the history it conjures up is incoherent and slippery. It does not speak of an art-historical canon, but solely of affections. How might we understand, then, her quixotic identification of her paintings with the body of Christ—a body that, in the case of the deposition, is a dead image, about to be taken down? Such allegorical abasements are central to Koether’s praxis. The mostly male painters she takes on are transposed into her own vocabulary of thinly painted marks and sketchy, dilettantish style. She pierces and bleeds their closed historic tableaux to make them hers. Koether allows the laws of eroticism to take over, profaning the sacred, as clearly demonstrated by the second theme appropriated in this tripartite crucifixion: di Cosimo’s Venus, Cupid, and Mars, ca. 1495–1505. Exemplifying history filtered through fandom, the works posses a persistent ugliness that contains a violence that should not be underestimated. Koether’s diaphanous red paint is thinner than skin. Like a wound that never allows itself to heal, it refuses to produce a coherent gestalt. To be sure, such an interpretation conjures a compendium of threadbare tropes. Koether’s own writing underlines this heady atmosphere, which at times reads as somewhat self-congratulatory: She speaks of a “radical intensifying,” of paintings that are “queer” and “lawless,” that offer “diverse possibilities to touch and transgress.” The claim that painting could hold such powers runs the palpable risk of becoming itself conservative revisionism. The frankness of these assertions makes them vulnerable, but remains their only disturbing strength.

As a synchronic counterpart to the diachrony of a fucked-up history the exhibition laid out, what Koether has to offer is the figure of the grid. It can cushion figural apparitions. Yet, as it has been deployed by the artist in various ways since 2000, it can also articulate whole paintings. It is most consistently used in Maquis Berlin Boogie. That this grid is “bruised”—as Koether says with reference to other works of hers—might not only point to its somatic inflection. It could also refer to the historical impasses against which her insistence on an expressionist way out necessarily collides. The filling-in of the grid her paintings display recalls so little of Mondrian and so much of Klee. Yet such pasts are not her works’ only obstacles. The grid’s final overdetermination via digital imaging makes these little tiles look no less fragile. Whereas within modernism the grid could still figure as the opposite of an unruly flesh, today’s image grids effortlessly disseminate in the cloud, whose main function, it seems, is to produce the feverish iconic presence of ourselves as bodies caught up in capital’s eroticism. It must be these paintings’ true enemy.

Simon Baier