Kamilla Bischof, Showgirls, 2016, acrylic and oil on canvas, 59 × 70 7/8".

Kamilla Bischof, Showgirls, 2016, acrylic and oil on canvas, 59 × 70 7/8".

Kamilla Bischof

Kamilla Bischof, Showgirls, 2016, acrylic and oil on canvas, 59 × 70 7/8".

The six paintings in Kamilla Bischof’s exhibition “Cosmetic Songs” were accompanied by a story. And the works themselves tell multilayered stories, too. Carried by a mercurial and ebullient figuration, they are peopled by various gods, humans, and animals, as well as by siren-like hybrids and fantastical creatures. It is fitting that the short press release, penned by the artist, reads like an excerpt from a novel: Oneiric and picturesque, it’s nothing like the boilerplate you usually get. You could almost think of it as another painting that just happens to have taken the form of writing. A first-person narrator experiences strange metamorphoses while going for a walk and taking a taxi, encountering a bearded lobster and other bizarre creatures. The language again and again evokes the act of painting. We read, for example, that “a wave of burnt sienna flooded the landscape and enveloped me in darkness” or about “a splash of the red of dawn.” At one point, “a drop of mineral spirits slowly began to dissolve his backpack. All his belongings sank to the gesso ground.” And at the end of the piece, “we all gradually became more and more deeply caught up in the canvas threads.” It makes sense to wander through Bischof’s paintings with a similar associative mind-set while following the painterly transformations of her figures. “I like imposing scenes,” Bischof says, “figures with fire—spewing hands and trembling little animals hiding in the corners of a picture. But a banal scene, for example a woman sitting at a table with a bowl of fruit, should not be underestimated, either. You never know what fateful plan she might be quietly cooking up.”

In her first solo exhibition in Berlin, where the Austrian-born artist now lives, Bischof’s works were installed to form a kind of theatrical architecture made up of images, surrounding the viewer on all sides. Large paintings—Stream, 2017; Cool Cat, 2017; Delphi, 2017; and Showgirls, 2016—were hung on three walls and in the street-facing storefront window. In the center of the gallery were two white leather daybeds; if you lay on them and looked up you could see a fifth painting, Babysitter, 2017, suspended from the ceiling. A further piece was half-hidden in a hallway: Prosecco Tour,2017, which depicts a somewhat melancholy group of small animals in a garish and dismal landscape delineated in agitated brushwork and washes of color.

The intensity of the pictorial drama was, however, greatest in Showgirls, whose forms are defined by accumulations of nervous lines, sometimes by haphazard or spiraling scrawls. Here and there, you can make out the dark beige of the unprimed canvas. In the center, two female figures—curvy, scantily clad, wearing lipstick—recline on what might be a chaise longue. With a black-gloved hand, one of them clasps the other’s chin, whether in an act of tenderness or force one can’t tell. A third face unexpectedly pops up at hip height, apparently another reclining figure, but one that is extremely foreshortened: From below, one looks straight into her nostrils. A hand—whose pure green contrasts starkly with the orange of a skirt—reaches out carefully toward one of her nipples, while a succession of largening ovals could be a reference to the pleasures of smoking. By fragmenting figuration in various ways—sometimes emphasizing the line and other techniques of drawing, as in Stream, or using color and the techniques of painting, as in Delphi and Cool Cat—Bischof stakes out a refreshing freedom for her work through its unlikely combination of impetuous energy and precision.

Jens Asthoff

Translated from German by Alexander Scrimgeour.