Ellen Gronemeyer, Liebe Liese (Dear Liese), 2015, oil on canvas, 62 1/2 × 47 1/4".

Ellen Gronemeyer, Liebe Liese (Dear Liese), 2015, oil on canvas, 62 1/2 × 47 1/4".

Ellen Gronemeyer

Ellen Gronemeyer, Liebe Liese (Dear Liese), 2015, oil on canvas, 62 1/2 × 47 1/4".

Keine Minute Ruhe” (Not a Moment’s Rest) was the title of Ellen Gronemeyer’s recent solo exhibition, and it served as an apt description of any encounter with her paintings. Reminiscent in style of both James Ensor and Jean Dubuffet, the twelve richly encrusted figurative paintings in this show, with a predominantly black palette, possessed a cloying charm.

For example, Liebe Liese (Dear Liese; all works 2015) one of the larger pieces, shows two roundheaded, porcelain-faced children, seated with their arms bent around their legs; depicted in a cartoonlike manner, they fit snugly into the picture plane. With bold, black outlines and round, doll-like eyes, the cute Nara-esque imagery seems at odds with the work’s abject paint quality. It is full of splatter and congealed, scabby pigment, as if Gronemeyer had used the canvas to clean her brushes. In fact, Liebe Liese is more like a cave painting; one can imagine the artist picking the form out from this topography of colorful, built-up paint just as the artists of the Paleolithic era used the texture of the walls they worked on for formal cues. Her way of working up an image from paint is more deliberate than first meets the eye. In that regard, her painterliness is akin to that of the crusty veneer of an early Frank Auerbach or a late Lucien Freud, in which zones of paint help accentuate space, represent flesh, and suggest surface. Nonetheless, it is this tension between paint-clogged surface, subdued color, and cute imagery that is part of the work’s appeal.

Over the past decade, Gronemeyer has veered closer to a comic-book style of representation, in contrast to the more sober figuration of her earlier paintings. Faces, some as simple as two dots and a line, are present in most works, and bring out an emotive element. For example, Comates depicts a somber grouping of black-petaled sunflowers with white faces bearing largely bemused or unhappy expressions. Sehen am Fließband (Seeing on the Assembly Line) shows a single Disneyesque canine, all black with big, round ears, sleepy eyes, and an entirely bored look. Other paintings suggest the act of looking, with characters depicted using cameras; the figure in Camera Obscura is photographing a field of flower faces. Strawberryfield pictures a wavy sequence of Ensoresque faces and heads, like a floating compendium of strange expressions. Are they intended to suggest a druggy alternative reality? Or simply that of an infantile or even artistic absorption?

As kooky as Gronemeyer’s imagery may seem, the overall effect of her paintings is neither humorous nor witty; instead, as in Ensor’s paintings, there is a pervasive gloominess. Their cuteness at first seems corny, or else suggests a naive art brut sensibility at work. But the near-abject surfaces, built around quantities of paint, give the images, particularly the larger paintings of doe-eyed kids, an unsettling affect. Cuteness tends to be associated with a refined Pop-art aesthetic, all shiny and slick, rather than with a painterly struggle with matter. Here, an illusory sweetness is shattered by the very stuff through which the illusion is conveyed. Could Gronemeyer be hinting at a nostalgia for painterly expressionism? She leaves the viewer with an experience of restlessness or agitation, a disquieting oscillation between attraction and repulsion.

Sherman Sam