Amelie von Wulffen, Untitled, 2022, oil on canvas, 39 3⁄8 × 31 1⁄2".

Amelie von Wulffen, Untitled, 2022, oil on canvas, 39 3⁄8 × 31 1⁄2".

Amelie von Wulffen

If there is such a thing as painterly autofiction—fictionalized autobiographical painting that explores representation’s effect on the “I”—then the work of Amelie von Wulffen fits the bill. In an eclectic accumulation of styles and references, the artist maneuvers her way through art history, feeling out the possibilities of a voice that could speak about a contemporaneity shadowed by the past, while also reflecting her own position within that present context.

For her 2021 retrospective at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, von Wulffen transformed the exhibition space into a traumatic cabinet of curiosities that featured paintings, drawings, sculptures, and pieces of furniture. In her recent exhibition at Galerie Meyer Kainer, the artist alluded to that presentation by rearranging some of those paintings and sculptures and supplementing them with others. For instance, in Vienna the eccentric seashell creatures that look like contemporary versions of Hieronymus Bosch figures once again sat on wooden plinths embellished with nautical imagery. The painting Untitled, 2019, features images of well-known ice cream classics and trigger childhood memories before the viewer’s eye falls on a sleeping man with a huge erect penis who has snuck in between the Popsicles. In another Untitled, 2019, old photographs of clumsily posing teenagers, presumably the artist’s siblings, decorate the surface of a painting of a tabletop behind which hangs a painting of a pseudo-dramatic seascape complete with sailing ship—a painting within a painting. The rustic German brown that used to dominate many of von Wulffen’s paintings has given way to an almost maritime palette in many of the artist’s more recent works. But the nostalgic register these paintings evoke only draws us deeper into the atmosphere of alienation that continues to haunt von Wulffen’s work.

Right at the entrance to the exhibition sat a papier-mâché sculpture of children’s-book heroine Maya the Bee in a puddle of urine. She guarded an abstract painting that alludes to the Amber Room, which was formerly in a palace near Saint Petersburg but was famously dismantled and relocated by the Nazis; missing after the war, its pieces have never been found. Condensed in this pairing, Bernsteinzimmer und Biene Maja (Amber Room and Maya the Bee), 2019–20, are the familiar motifs of von Wulffen’s art: the personal and the suppressed, art history’s symbolism reappearing in cartoon cuteness, and psychoanalytic clichés presented tongue in cheek. Verwandtschaft / groß (Relatives/Large), 2022, depicts von Wulffen and her extended family gathered for a group portrait. Everyone is trying to look casual and relaxed, but the depths and unspoken trials of family life resonate from the canvas. Other works turned the darkness of Brothers Grimm–like tales into grotesque scenarios. In Musische Mutter (Artistic Mother), 2019, the artist places a crudely painted copy of Vermeer’s lute player in a corner of the canvas, with an audience of nattily dressed piglets. It is not so much that a combination such as this stages an aesthetic conflict as that it articulates a disunity designed to elicit new formal possibilities.

Von Wulffen often combines two genres in one painting, for instance, landscape and portrait, or landscape and allegory. The longer you look at the details, the more references become apparent, ranging from baroque vanitas symbols to mass-culture icons. In a self-portrait, Untitled, 2022, the artist is seen sitting in front of what seems to be a large window. To the viewer’s left, it appears to open out onto the city, while on the right we see a rural landscape with horses. She holds a butterfly in her hand—a symbol of transcendence, regeneration, or fragile beauty, and, in classical thought, the soul. She is the protagonist of a fiction composed of fragments of her reality.