On Longings

 

About paintings by Elisabeth Mehrl

Longings are something of a paradox, being both concrete and intangible at once. Coming from the unconscious they become material by attaching themselves to things. This process has gone on for as long as human beings have had longings. Longings need things in order to find fulfillment. In becoming material, they also seem to become tangible, yet in the final analysis this appearance proves deceptive.

Longings charge things, which thus become more than just objects, acquiring an aura of high and even highest importance, something that makes itself felt intensely while it simultaneously eludes conceptual thinking and is hard to put into words. Objects have turned into signs, symbols of a yearned-for state of being into which one enters on obtaining them. Thus they may even become magic objects or fetishes in the literal sense, objects of religious adoration to which supernatural powers are ascribed. For in the end longings do not find fulfillment in the realm of things, however much they may cling to them.

Longing aims at something that is not here, that has no place in this world, at least not yet, and perhaps never will. Those generations that believed the fulfillment of longings lay in the realm of the political called this "utopia."

For years Elisabeth Mehrl has been tracking longings in her work. More precisely, she has been searching for their apparent materialization within things. Again and again she conjures in paintings the thingness of perfectly shaped objects. With great consequence she highlights the moment of their auratic charge, stripping objects from any concrete context and presenting them without any narrative apparatus. Subjects she chooses are surrounded by this aura to a high degree: rings, bracelets, strings of beads, in short: jewellery in the most varied forms. Often they appear before the viewer over life-sized in their isolation. They may stand out sharply contoured and almost corporeal from their background, yet they also may surface on the apparent monochrome of a blue or yellow plane and evoke the impression of a dream-like and unfathomable depth of space and time. An encounter with Elisabeth Mehrl's paintings is a sensual and emotional experience that leads deep into one's own interior. In that, her works differ fundamentally from Pop Art, which sought to transform everyday objects into sacred icons. The aura that Elisabeth Mehrl's paintings create is of another sort.

Jewellery seems always to have been fascinating. There is hardly anybody totally immune to its magic. Human societies that can get on entirely without adornment have not yet been discovered. Human beings decorate whatever they manufacture, and above all they decorate themselves with painting, tattooing, and hair dressing or by wearing objects like necklaces, rings on fingers and ears and nose, brooches and the like. We can safely designate the need for adornment as an anthropological constant in Homo sapiens. Adornment already appears in the Palaeolithic: bones, shells or animal teeth with drilled holes for making into necklaces, bracelets, and anklets.

The question of why people adorn themselves has many answers. Jewellery fulfills more than just one function. It will not have been pure and purposeless rejoicing in beauty that drove people in early cultures to string and to wear seed pods or shells. Aesthetics, a rather late "accomplishment" of Western humanity, may well have been inseparable from the signifying and symbolic character of these first trinkets. The Spanish palaeoanthropologist Juan Luis Arsuaga formulates it thus: "The individual transfers his identity to the objects of adornment, which in turn are worn on the body, thus reinforcing that body's expression." (1) The importance of this function shows, among other things, in the rarity and costliness of material that seems early on to have begun playing an important role. The history of jewellery is also the history of raw materials that are precious or at least hard to get and thus highly prized.

Amber, which in Europe is found mainly on the shores of the Baltic, has been a favourite material for jewellery like beads and pendants since the Neolithic, and during the Bronze Age even became a top export from north-central Europe, finding consumers across the entire Mediterranean. Gold, silver, precious and semi-precious stones remained the principal materials from which jewellery was made until the advent of costume and designer jewellery.

Jewellery marks the person who wears it. It increases one's attraction - especially, but not solely, one's eroticism - and it signals individuality. It embodies to a high degree the longing for love and being loved, for recognition, for security and prestige. Connected with and overlying this is another function: For thousands of years jewellery also signaled messages about its bearer's social rank and status. Its purely decorative function only stepped into the foreground roughly 200 years ago; one can more or less designate the French Revolution of 1789 as the watershed. Only since then do primarily fashion, personal taste and financial means decide who wears what kind of jewellery. That today a given person's rank and status can be read only conditionally from his or her rings or necklaces does not mean, however, that nowadays jewellery is nothing but adornment. It still can be a sign of recognition for the like-minded and for initiates or for members of subcultures.

There is a widespread and well-attested belief, by no means belonging to the past, that jewellery attracts the gaze of any enemy, be he spirit or man, deflecting it from the wearer (2). In Arab countries blue beads avert evil from children, brides, pets and even automobiles. A whole row of magical and superstitious ideas is connected with rings. Their origin has been attributed to the ring form, "the circular line mysteriously returning into itself" which suggested the transfer to the ring of the notions about the magic circle. And already in antiquity the ring was interpreted as a basic symbol of binding (3). There is yet another addition to the enduring charm of jewellery: the element of perfection that hints at durability, even eternity. True jewellery has always embodied perfection through its precious materials and high standards of craftsmanship, as well as through its harmonious forms. That precious pieces of jewellery have always been passed from one generation to the next as heirlooms is perhaps also a telling expression of the longing for permanence.

Remaining to this day is the objects' aura, in which the symbolic unconsciously resonates. Inundated by a daily flood of images and signs, we are often no longer able to notice it. Yet Elisabeth Mehrl's paintings seduce us into precise observation, a requirement of becoming aware. They achieve this in their rejection of all illustrative or anecdotal moments and without nudged hints at hidden meanings. They emphasize the physicality of objects, so that the strings of beads, bracelets and rings gain an almost uncanny presence. Paradoxically, she achieves this feat not primarily through any hyper-naturalism but through strategies of alienation. Objects present themselves larger than life or in enlarged details, as if through a camera lens, in front of or enclosed in coloured spaces that give them an unreal appearance. Thus they gain an almost abstract quality that sometimes makes you uncertain about what you are actually looking at. Is it, for example, a bundle of entangled rings or the representation of a plant akin to the photographs Karl Blossfeldt composed in the first half of the 20th century, making organic tissue look like metal sculptures? Depending on whether you see them from up close or at a distance, beads may appear to be sculpted objects or almost fleshly, and that may be the basis of the belief in their apotropaic effect. In another painting, steeped in green, you may think you see living snakes - or is it just an uncoiling metallic wire of which rings or bracelets are still to be made? It may be remarked in passing that snakes are a frequent motif in jewellery, charged with religious and magical concepts.

Or the objects are small, alternating in pictures constructed like chess-boards with structures that meander and confuse the gaze that tries to discover their rules. The status of the juxtaposed objects is often dubious: are they pendants; have they a meaning that does wish to not reveal itself to the viewer; or are they just some sort of toy? Their existence, at any rate, is beyond doubt. Elisabeth Mehrl proves herself to be an artist in whose brushstroke you believe. The pictorial worlds that she creates stand in no mimetic relation to so-called exterior reality, no matter how in love with detail and illusionistically touchable the rings and chains may be represented. The reality she is after is the reality within us, the world of our hopes and imagination. Things hover ambiguously in her paintings - enticing and beautiful, close enough to touch and yet elusive. Clinging to them is an element of timelessness: It might prove hard to assign Elisabeth Mehrl's rings, with their bezels and profiles full of character, to any particular artistic period. This takes none of their vividness from her paintings, but strengthens us in the conviction that they are neither an affirmative nor an ironic evocation of the world of consumption in which we live. Ralph Waldo Emerson's dictum of "things are in the saddle and ride mankind" illuminates only one side of Elisabeth Mehrl's jewellery cosmos. The other is described by the title of a play by Calderón: "Life is a dream".

Andreas Kühne and Christoph Sorger
Translation: Lisa Kirch


Notes:

(1) Juan Luis Arsuaga, Der Schmuck des Neandertalers (Hamburg, Vienna: Europa Verlag 2003), 317.

(2) "Schmuck," in Hanns Bächtold-Stäubli, ed., Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens (Berlin: Walther de Gruyter, 1987), vol. 7, 1255-64.

(3) "Ring," in ibid., 702-724.