Birgit Megerle, Kid Woolf, 2018, oil on linen, 27 5/8 x 22 3/8".

Birgit Megerle, Kid Woolf, 2018, oil on linen, 27 5/8 x 22 3/8".

Birgit Megerle

Birgit Megerle, Kid Woolf, 2018, oil on linen, 27 5/8 x 22 3/8".

Birgit Megerle’s exhibition “Soft Power” contained some memorable works, but one in particular has stayed with me. Kid Woolf, 2018, is one of several paintings by Megerle based on the covers of the magazine Emma; it shows Nicole Kidman in the role of Virginia Woolf in the 2002 film The Hours. Here, the literary icon has become precisely that: an icon, an image, an actor’s impersonation gracing the cover of one of Germany’s oldest and most widely circulated feminist magazines. Megerle’s show demonstrated that the iconic is not necessarily the superficial, and that becoming an icon is not necessarily something to be bemoaned.

“Soft Power” included ten small to medium-size paintings hung both across the gallery’s walls and on a centrally installed partition that was painted mint green and divided into two small booths. The other images based on covers of Emma were C.B., 2017, showing the French comic artist Claire Bretécher, whom Megerle has also painted in earlier works, and Elles, 2018, which features an anonymous lesbian couple who appeared on the cover in 2015. The exhibition could be read as a commentary on representations of female identity from punk to business chic, as well as on perceptions of “strong female figures,” which the apparent softness of the two male figures depicted in the show only served to underline. The paintings point to the different ways of visualizing what can be read as feminist (and also evinces how different feminisms still confront each other in the magazine today, in divergent positions on sex work and pornography, for example). The only text to be found in any of the works appears in Kid Woolf: a detail of a protest banner with WOMEN OPPOSING WAR written on it. But is this to be understood as a call for more militant protest, or as a comment on the perception of women as peace-loving creatures? Ambiguities of this kind are clearly deliberate. Compared to those in the photographs they’re based on, the colors in these paintings are muted; a range of pastel hues lends everything a deceptive softness. In this sense, the show was ultimately about the seductive power of images and the inherent ability of art, and of painting in particular, to bundle together our projections and desires.

This quality could also be seen in two large paintings of orchids—Orchid Nr. 1, 2016, and Connection, 2018. After Georgia O’Keeffe, can detailed studies of flowers ever be read as anything other than metaphors for vulvas—even when rendered less explicitly than here? Although a couple of the portraits were set in what appeared to be private spaces, with figures who, seemingly absorbed in their own thoughts, did not gaze out of the picture, most of them gave the viewer the impression that the subject was looking back—that the viewer was being watched. At no point did you ever feel alone in the exhibition, or able to contemplatively sink into observing an isolated work of art. While standing in front of Jungleworld, 2018, a self-portrait showing the artist as a half-nude with a big cat, you could feel the eyes of a red-clad businesswoman burning into your back, while from the entrance, Megerle’s self-portrait as Lauren Bacall in Radiation, 2018, seemed to survey everything. In this show, painting appeared as a Lacanian object of desire: We longed for it to answer our gaze, but it remained forever unattainable.

Hanna Magauer

Translated from German by Nathaniel McBride.