Power and Eroticism in Katherina Olschbaur’s Paintings

Article by Elizabeth Schippers // May 15, 2020

Katherina Olschbaur’s compositions melt human bodies, objects, formal elements and animals in a cluster of different parts, creating assemblages that suggest malleability and possibilities for change. By distorting proportion and perspective she blurs the lines between representation and abstraction. Applying tactics derived from Surrealism, her expressive, gestural strokes are reflective of her approach to her subject matter. Olschbaur comes from Bregenz, Austria, and graduated from the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. She now lives and works between Vienna and Los Angeles.

In her practice, Olschbaur provides a female perspective on the patriarchal art historical canon from which she simultaneously pulls, as she explores the possibility for the subversion of these oppressive structures. In her recent exhibition ‘Dirty Elements’ at Contemporary Arts Center Gallery in Irvine, California, she investigated the power dynamics of the patriarchal order and its systematic and violent denial of the female body and sexuality.

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Katherina Olschbaur: ‘Sub Red,’ 2019, Oil on Linen, 200x200cm // Courtesy of the artist and Nicodim Gallery

Olschbaur’s practice draws on themes from mythology, as well as religious and historical artworks, which she transforms into sensual spaces and provocative scenes that examine concepts like devotion, submission, adoration and worship, and explore the possibility for a subversion of a patriarchal approach to power, gender and sexuality. ‘Sub Red’ (2019), for example, depicts a man nude, except for his socks and a single glove, lying lifeless on the floor. The man’s crimson torso blends in with the red interior of the room, and his sickly-green head is merely suggested by a light brushstroke fading into the dark background. The soft blending and subtle transparencies are in stark contrast with the subject matter, as the painting implies a scene of violent agitation.

Olschbaur, here, reflects on the art historical canon, emulating a photographic series by Martin Kippenberger in which the artist ironically imitates the subjects in ‘The Raft of the Medusa’ (1819) by Théodore Géricault. In one of the photographs, Kippenberger imitates a headless corpse in the bottom right corner of the painting. Draped over his bed, wearing only his socks and a watch, the artist’s lively body and prosaic setting play with the original drama and romanticism present in Géricault’s painting. With ’Sub Red’ (2019), Olschbaur pulls this discourse in the direction of violence and sexuality, especially as it reflects the tensions within and between these themes.

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Katherina Olschbaur: ‘Into the Open,’ 2019, Oil on Linen, Diptych, 200x350cm // Courtesy of the artist and Nicodim Gallery

‘Into the Open’ (2019) portrays a woman slanted on the ground, appearing to have fallen off her horse. She is resting the weight of her body on an oversized prosthetic arm. Her face turned away from us, she looks off in the distance, where a tornado is taking shape. Olschbaur’s work is characterised by stark contrasts between subdued backgrounds and neon-like highlights, here most prominent on the bucking horse. Horses are a common motif in Olschbaur’s work and often represent strength and power while also symbolising passion and sexuality.

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Katherina Olschbaur: ‘Me, Him or the Angel,’ 2019, Oil on Linen, 210x200cm // Courtesy of the artist and Nicodim Gallery

The painting is built up with loose brushstrokes and, by working with a wet-on-wet process, Olschbaur creates a space of constant malleability on her canvas that results in dream-like landscapes, which disallow any singular perspective and instead promote a multiplicity of moving parts. This sense of disorder is central to her work, and Olschbaur highlights this tension by focussing on representations of the body as a site of repressed desire. Figures are often depicted fallen, bound, or in otherwise precarious positions, while simultaneously blending in with the other figures. With gestural and disruptive strokes, Olschbaur suggests room for abstraction outside of established structures. In her paintings, faces blur, limbs are represented as negative spaces and bodies merge with abstract shapes.

In this way, Olschbaur reflects on the tension between patriarchal power structures and erotic practices, while simultaneously creating a surreal landscape that, rather than being prescriptive, highlights the possibility for constant re-assemblage.

This article is part of our BLINK series, which introduces the practices of artists around the world. To read more BLINK articles, click here.

Artist Info


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Katherina Olschbaur: ‘Vision, or How i became part of society,’ 2019, Oil on Linen, 210x200cm // Courtesy of the artist and Nicodim Gallery

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