Thanks for checking out CanvasAndCrumpets. As you may know, I just got back from my Euro Trip and I’ve been posting about the exhibits I saw in order. I recently posted about three different exhibitions I saw in England. You can check them out here, here, and here. After a week of museuming and eating bangers and mash with my English cousins, I flew to the Netherlands. On my flight I was seated in the middle of a large bachelor party, next to the groom-to-be-himself. If you have the chance to travel with a very drunk bachelor party you absolutely must take it because it was the best flight I’ve ever had. There was also a large party of middle-aged-women wearing shirts that said “F*** off, I’m with the birthday boy” and a rather emo looking high school student wearing a shirt that said “F*** off, I’m the birthday boy.” All of the women were screaming.
And so, I arrived in Amsterdam slightly tipsy and very excited. The city did not disappoint (as always!) At the absolute top of my list was a trip to the Stedelijk Museum. The Stedelijk is where I fell in love with Dutch art, and where I did much of my research for my senior thesis. I’m obsessed with the art, the building, the library, and the now deceased museum director Willem Sandberg. (I’m currently reading a compilation of Sandberg interviews).
On view at the Stedelijk right now is the exhibition, “Jana Euler: High in Amsterdam. The Sky of Amsterdam.” While it is difficult to read that sentence without immediately thinking of Dutch drug policy, it would be remiss to read off the German artists’ trippy canvases as mere mushroom-inspired dreamscapes. Euler’s works are explorations of different genres. She takes the concepts and strategies associates with each and plays with them, bending them inside-out. The Stedelijk describes Euler’s work as being “recognizable not by how it looks, but by its effect.” Let’s take a look at my favorite work from this show and see Euler’s process in action.
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Here is the ethereal Understanding Doubts and Logic (2017):
For this work Euler airbrushed acrylic paint onto the surface of the canvas and then used oil paint on top. The two layers operate as separate paintings as well as aspects of a finished whole. The airbrushed layer features a multi-limbed and multi-breasted female figure resting in a garden filled with flowers. The oil layer features shoes, nail polish, and fake eyelashes. If you look closely, you’ll also see that there are tiny pictures of men sitting at a table with a bottle of wine painted in thin brushstrokes of oil paint. Stranger yet is the fact that white breastmilk from each of the figure’s many breasts pours into the bottles at the men’s tables. Oil is also used to spell the phrase “understanding doubts and logic” and to connect this phrase to a yellow sun by way of a thin yellow line.
Now, I have a lot of thoughts about this painting and what it might “mean.” So I’ll begin by saying that Jana Euler’s work is not explicitly symbolic. It does not fit into an allegorical box that matches icon with signification. Rather, it suggests a multiplicity of signification for various images across the canvas. It points to potential interpretations without maintaining that it must be read a specific way. And so, my reading should be seen as one angle of many that fit Euler’s multifaceted work.
I see Understanding Doubts and Logic as a blend of two genres: the female nude, and the sort of impressionistic cafe paintings that were popular in late 19th-century Parisian art. The airbrushed painting is the nude, as the naked figure takes up the majority of the canvas. Her head heads several inches below the top of the canvas, and her many feet end slightly before it, or have their toes chopped off by the bottom of the canvas. Because she fills the canvas, the focus of the painting is on her. The viewer’s eyes are free to travel across the surface of the painting, consuming different parts of her body at every turn. We as viewers fill the role of the voyeur in the relationship between viewer and subject in this genre. Euler is keenly aware of this dynamic and playfully mocks it by multiplying the subject’s breasts. Euler seems to be saying, “I know you’re going to look at this woman, so why don’t I give you a lot more to look at!” The artist has also multiplied the amount of feet in the painting. I find this very amusing, as it is clear to all that feet were never the focus of the viewer’s gaze.
Another way that Euler plays into this genre is through the figure’s gaze. In classic female nudes like this and this the female figure looks away from the viewer, allowing him to consume her without confrontation. Making eye contact would break the illusion that she wants to be consumed and is there for male consumption. She would be individualized. No longer staring at an anonymous doll, the viewer would feel confronted by the figure and embarrassed by his blatant ogling. And so, restricting eye contact allows the viewer to consume the figure in peace. Like the academic nudes do, Euler’s figure looks away demurely, allowing the viewer to get lost in her multitude of breasts and legs.
However, the longer we stare at the figure, the more we begin to feel that we are being made fun of. Not only has Euler multiplied the significance of the figure’s gender through the multiplication of breasts, but she has also aggressively emphasized other aspects of femininity. The long, curling eyelashes added over the airbrushed layer of paint are so ludicrously long it would be difficult for the figure to open her eyes. There are many kiss imprints haphazardly stamped on the surface of the painting. The figure’s red fingernails are half the size of her fingers themselves. Her breasts are many different colors, as if the figure is somehow able to be many ethnicities at once and therefore satisfy the male viewer’s many racial fantasies. Euler has created a woman who screams “WOMAN” so loudly that she becomes a parody of what the voyeuristic male wants– and expects– women to be.
This interpretation is supported by the second layer of the painting that I find resembles the cafe scenes in impressionistic France. Men outlined in black paint sit around a table drinking from proportionally enormous bottles of wine. I am reminded of 19th century cafe scenes because of the leisurely, gendered nature of each tableau. I find it comical that the female figure has been so artfully constructed with layers of paint and bright, vibrant colors, while the males are designated to mere outlines of form. While painterly attention to the female body is often objectifying, Euler’s self-conscious multiplication of gendered body parts is actually empowering. Thus, the contrast between the colorful female figure and the haphazard outlines of teeny male figures renders the male characters inferior. Euler further emasculates them by unknowingly serving them wine bottles filled with breastmilk. Droplets of white paint spill from each nipple into a bottle on each table. This is perhaps the most amusing aspect of this painting. Euler has taken the sexist notion that a woman’s role is as a wife and mother alone and used it to turn the power dynamic between men and women on its head. The men are infantilized by their small size, simplistic depiction, and the hysterical fact that they are drinking a woman’s breastmilk.
Here are Lara (my travel pal) and I, very amused at this:
So what do we take away from Understanding Doubts and Logic? I quite like the interpretation I just presented, though I am not sure how the title fits in. Perhaps the female creature, whose forehead bears this phrase, is somehow all-knowing in her female genius. She can understand both the understandable and what we doubt we can comprehend. I come away from this painting feeling empowered and amused. Euler has turned gender dynamics on their head with a coy smile. Her belittling depiction of men is not a statement that women are actually superior, but a commentary on the way the reverse is so prevalent in our society.
I recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath. The point of this book is that the so-called weaknesses attributed to underdogs are actually qualities that give them an advantage against their opponent. Euler has taken the “weaknesses” of women that the patriarchy attributes to the “fairer gender” and turned them into symbols of power. Breastmilk and long eyelashes signify greatness and strength.
Until next time!