A tension between the silly and the sombre runs throughout Falkenrot Prize winner Jana Gunstheimer’s exhibition ‘Luft nach oben’ at Künstlerhaus Bethanien. The artist employs formal and controlled elements of drawing, painting and sculpture as a framework and imbues them with a sense of wit and playfulness, that is then occasionally belied by darkness or melancholy.
Predominantly black and white, Gunstheimer’s graphite drawings have both a straightforward simplicity and shadowy, enigmatic quality. Similar to pages of an educational children’s book, they are rectangular in format with an image and caption below. While the text often illuminates the images, for others it only serves to highlight what is lost in translation from word to image—and back again. Gunstheimer revels in references to film and art history and uses them to hint at a more personal life that can only be accessed through these very public, popular references. For example, exhibited alongside each other are two drawings titled ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ and ‘Breakfast at Stefanie’; the image of a single cigarette within a holder is juxtaposed with that of a full ashtray.
The works’ more serious tones are extracted from the very same everyday sources of which the artist highlights the lightness and absurdity. A subtle undercurrent of Gunstheimer’s socio-political concerns about the structure of employment and leisure could be seen in the drawing of an overworked man titled ‘Under the Yoke’. The idea of struggle within the workplace or domestic sphere is extended to gender politics through sculptures of an elongated man’s shirt and woman’s apron, which reference stereotypical masculine and feminine roles. They are made from untreated canvas and wood, which give the impression of being somehow nude or raw, despite their very existence as “dressed” stretcher frames.
This strange materiality continues to complicate our perception of visual language, yet on different level from the written and pictorial. Gunstheimer incorporates figures into her drawings based on clumsy plasticine models, which are therefore exaggerated, humorous and entirely at odds with the pace and time held within their finely detailed renderings. Her larger drawings on stretched canvases—often of gestural marks or handwritten text and the negative space of its erasure—also evade their own materiality; their shape and size reference historical representations of language upon tablets, giving charcoal the appearance of a laborious tool used to etch into a canvas as if it were stone.
In the rooms containing the work ‘Skins, ÖI’ and her series ‘Scratches’, the exhibition opens up and out in terms of colour, gesture and form. In striking contrast to the drawings, Gunstheimer’s larger scale canvases are covered in loose blue scratches inflicted at varied pressures to produce a simultaneously wispy and violent mixture of marks. Recalling abstract expressionism, they are not paintings as such but reference painting and its processes. Along with ‘Skins’—a row of canvases displayed as if they’ve been hung out to dry against a blue linear drawing directly on the wall—these works bring together individual aspects of Gunstheimer’s practise; both her marks and sculptural gestures are magnified, extended and drawn into conversation not only with each other, but with the gallery space itself.