Jana Euler - Unform - Artists Space - February 21 - April 19, 2020
Contemporary art is in a crisis of meaning. Not a lack of meaning, but an excessive multiplicity of meanings, whether through an endlessly rotating matrix of involuting aesthetic references, art with explicitly sociopolitical messaging, or an ironic meta-critique of anything and everything. This is a problem not because of the proliferation of ideas but because these ideas themselves misapprehend the locus of actual meaning in art. When art has meaning it ocurs not as a fixed subject, like in the unfortunate art school convention of "my work investigates the relationship between technology and contemporary sexual relationships..." but in fact precisely at the point where a fixated literal reading of the work becomes impossible. This point is the entrance of a work into the realm of affect, where an emotive response exceeds the bounds of language and can only be gestured towards through a subjective use of qualitative terms: beautiful, funny, harmonious, terrifying, genius, etc. The excess of literal meaning provokes a crisis because it drowns out the affective depths of a work that come from a consideration of art as a thing, not an idea. Which is not to say that art should be an intuitive anti-intellectual process, because ignoring the problem of meaning does not extricate oneself from it. Our need to construct meaning arises from our lack of faith, an inability to believe in any idea as resolved and unquestionable, as it was with Christianity in Medieval art, or as a new development, as with the art movements of the 20th century. What those ideologies provided was a structure to allow artists to work without thinking and to focus on the affective dimension of their work. Having "freed" ourselves from ideological structures, we find ourselves lost in the wilderness, unsure of what to do and where to turn. Unlike us, though, Jana Euler has learned to run in the woods, a Diana with her hounds, exulting in her freedom and the thrill of the hunt.
In other words, this show is great. Euler's paintings evoke a bewildering range of associations: social, symbolic, sexual, psychological, art historical, painterly, lowbrow, highbrow, stupid, smart, all delivered with a humor that undercuts any risk of heavy-handed appeals to profundity without, on the other hand, descending into a full-on irony that would negate the content by reducing it to a joke. Take for instance the painting Under Distraction, a brutishly airbrushed face where each eye has five pupils spread radially, staring at a laptop screen, and a mouth with seven holes ingesting pizza, cocktails, cigarettes, and pills. The idea in itself is an idiotically trite Banksy-tier social commentary piece, but its careless execution and nauseatingly psychedelic density make it abundantly clear that she is in on the joke. But what's the joke? Naturally she's not subverting the content, because there's no denying the pervasiveness of self-medicating distraction, and it's not referential enough to be making fun of anyone else. It seems to be irony for the sake of irony, a consciously unreflected idea for a painting that she thought would be funny. And it is, but oddly the effect is that by making it into a joke it underscores the darkness of the subject matter much more than if it had been treated solemnly. Most of the other paintings also contain a similar semi-ironic seriousness; an entwined green couple as a representation of a mental illness, a Vitruvian Man-cum-Kippenberger reference with handles on the frame for rotating the painting, two mirrored paintings of a man boxed in the frame, one in oil, one airbrushed. None of them feel particularly serious, but they enact a process of splitting/doubling identities that interact seriously with one another. Central to the show are painting-sculptures, unstretched canvas filled with bubble wrap, shaped and painted to look like slugs and deployed in various arrangements relative to the gallery's central columns. If Euler's recent shark paintings were overtly phallic, the slugs are hermaphroditic, polyvalent desiring-machines (pardon my French) that mutate into different sexual roles, as evident in their titles like Unstretched, ramming force, Unstretched, masturbation on column, Unstretched, on couples. The press release oddly puts forth an encompassing reading of the show and the slugs in particular as an exploration of artist's tactics for engagement with institutions, which is certainly not Euler's own interpretation and likely little more than an imposed framework for the writer to discuss the works. When I see a title with masturbation in the name, I generally take it to mean the piece has something to do with masturbation, not a masturbatory refusal to engage with art institutions, whatever that means. Rather, given the context of the shark paintings, Euler's work with animals perpetuate a libidinal metaphor where the biological qualities of the creatures are symbolically invested with sexual subtext. What such a subtext specifically means, whether a specific slug symbolizes masturbation or intercourse, is not particularly important because the works articulate different variations of a fundamentally image-based dynamic. The slug is being instrumentalized as a symbol and therefore invested with a non-specific content, a visual meaning irreducible to simply a slug or simply sex.
What Euler has accomplished is a symbolic logic that she can now productively pursue wherever it goes, and it is precisely this ability to create her own systems without being referential or pedantic that makes her work so startlingly potent. In a climate where everyone is paralyzed with an inability to adequately convey our contemporary situation, Euler has constructed a method of playing with the fundaments of art and life in a way that is supremely confident, free, even joyous in its unrestrained inventiveness. The issue of a lack of faith that I mentioned earlier is, for the artist, a problem of this need for construction. In the absence of cultural givens to anchor our development, the arts impose a pressure on artists to create self-branding narratives that emphasize a supposed artistic individuality. But Euler's work is not particularly individualized, she has her stylistic touchpoints but no limitations of consistency. Her distinctiveness comes from her ability to paint representational images in a way that generates metaphor and symbols, which necessarily implies something of the non-individual, a meaning that relates back to the unbounded domain of life itself, the wellspring of the affects. This is what most art lacks at present, an avenue that reaches past all of our referential cultural networks and touches on an elemental aspect of reality. That Euler can manage to do so with such consistency is astounding, and a testament to the realms of possibility that art still holds.