Artificial Spaces. The Return of the Aesthetic


Hannah Stegmayer

Looking at the development of the artist Elisabeth Mehrl during the last decade it is possible to observe two major aspects: the arrangement of the artist's works tends towards installations and the artist employs an almost technical aesthetic which barely reminds one of the elementary depictions of receptacles which the young artist painted. These are two formally and conceptually expressed facts. They are both the result as well as the basis of her work and have given rise to major cyclic works which develop these. They play with the expectations of the spectators. They satisfy and disappoint them. They wake desires and frustrate their satisfaction.

In 1999 the installation rosegarden has been created, a work which opens a clandestine view into the garden of desire. The artist opens the look onto a fenced off and otherwise visually closed off gallery garden through a slit. Through this one can have a look onto a piece of wild lawn with systematically arranged artificial roses. The garden is thus reinterpreted as a paradise garden, a place of beauty, of peace, and of temptation. The restricted visual field turns the visible into a paradisiacal phantasm the access to which remains locked. In this case the borderline between reality and artificiality gets blurred and the artificially created and staged panorama remains a deceptive depiction. In addition to the iconographic hint to the St. Mary's garden or the rose hedge the use of the rose stands iconographical for the aesthetic and the ideal. In connection with voyeurism the rose tempts the spectator into an artificial space which stands symbolically for wishful thinking, for desires, for frustrated yearning, and for the dream. This symbolic connection is only complete once one identifies the idea of deception and illusion which is part of the artist's concept. Elisabeth Mehrl shows this by working with theatre elements which serve as a scenery and stages the theatre of deception. She thus succeeds to manipulate the viewer who thinks about the subjects to which his attention is directed. This idea of authority of the artist is already present in Marcel Duchamp's works. He works with similar means - the glance through a slit in a door - to direct the viewer.

By completely carpeting the floor of the Kunstverein Rosenheim with a red carpet and by painting major parts of the wall red for her installation Ideale she transforms the exhibition space into an artificial space which is an exceptional scene and differs from ordinary space. The viewer enters a different world. By stepping onto the carpet he is inside the artwork and becomes part of it. The experience is different to the experience one gets from looking at an artwork from a distance. Also the exhibits, panels of different size and fixed to the wall in differing heights, ornamented with pieces of jewelry, change their quality in this environment. They are details that are isolated and float on the red surfaces of the wall and thus seem alienated and move into a distance which does not allow for any tangibility. They vanish to a certain extent and reappear as surrogates of our desires. Thus they are merely replacements, elude any further interpretation and speculation and demonstrate, with an incredible degree of perfection of the material and spatial their illusory character. On a formal level this is expressed through the multiple layers of the colouring which models the depicted objects both illusory as plastic objects and also creates a real spatiality. The viewer does not only perceive a depth in the picture which has been artificially created with technical means but the panels have a true three-dimensionality. Elisabeth Mehrl achieves this effect by repeatedly painting over and remodeling the objects which she depicts in her panels. The view thus immerses in the pictorial space. This multiplicity of layers is thus a refined way to deceive with pictorial space and real space or spatiality. What happens here is the interplay between visual deception and reference with regards to the content of the paintings which are first seen as pure ornament or decorative objects. Then they might be seen as hints towards female desires and after one increasingly focuses upon the way the paintings have been made, which means looking at pictorial means, the paintings reveal to be illusions. In the depiction of needless objects with no function, which can only be described as ornaments and decorum, one can find an excess over the commonplace. However this excess also increasingly leads to disillusionment.

One can think of examples from behavioural psychology, which states similar phenomena concerning the mating habits of living creatures. Here an excess of genetically positive traits signals a continuity of the progeny. For humans this is expressed in status symbols which are designed to compensate for genetic deficits and to simulate an excess of these.

When depicting the beautiful she uses the two symbols ring and rose. Both seem to be easily graspable at first. They carry the attributes of pureness, love, and faithfulness and are widely used in our culture. If, however, a symbol was to be unambiguous it would cease to be one. The wall painting Jede Geduld hat ein Ende consists of rose flowers which are arranged in a circle to form a text. The connection between text and picture with the motive of the rose creates a surplus of meaning. In the context of a feminine aesthetic this is reminiscent of embroideries or the omen of plucked rose leaves but it is also reminiscent of the delaying tactics of astute lovers. Here every interpretation is legitimate. Each is meant to be present by the artist. However each is only restrictedly available because even in this case Elisabeth Mehrl makes a statement which, beyond the romantic transfiguration, refers to the banal and already disillusioned reality in a sober and factual way.

The conceptual works which consist of serially arranged names of important rose breeds understand the rose as a biological and scientific object which at first seems to be overly categorized and cataloged and would thus be at loss of its poetic value. However it retrieves this poetical value thanks to the denomination. Being dedicated to and named after "Jeanne d'Arc" or "Casanova" or even the "Princess of Wales" restores the aura of the analyzed object which transcends this object. Amongst these names Elisabeth Mehrl puts attributes one wouldn't usually link to roses like "Pretty Bad" or "Just Ugly". This discrepancy relativises the absolute poetry of the object and sets it back to a factual position. Irony thus goes along with the poetry of the rose. It is a piece of romantic irony which doesn't leave any room for doubts.

Within each series Elisabeth Mehrl finds numerous variations of the main subjects which are hardly exhaustible.
Truncated ornaments which seem to disappear from the painting lead the spectator beyond the pictorial space in an imaginary space which transcends the picture and its representative character. As sections the panels function like windows.
Multi-part paintings have repeating patterns next to illusory depictions. Almost identical structures want to be tested for uniformity by the viewer. Here the interplay between mimetic plasticity and ornamental flatness is redeveloped yet again. The work Im Reich der Dinge I combines painting and screenprint. As regards content it plays with searching and desire. The labyrinth remains a constant source of irritation when one tries to access the depicted objects. In the 14-partite work XXXX the ornament structure which one knows to be an artful invention emerges as a cell structure and forces the viewer to rethink the relation between reality and artistic invention. Multipartite works within Elisabeth Mehrl's oeuvre are often to be seen as a reflex of different layers of reality.

The aesthetic as an artistic category has largely disappeared from art and has been replaced by the depiction of the real. Political art, the increase of artistic means, the expression of the authentic, the creatural or existential have replaced the aesthetic. So what happens if, as is the case for Elisabeth Mehrl's works, this category reappears? Without further reflection it would not be more than mere kitsch. As an artistic concept however it picks this fact out as a central theme. Elisabeth Mehrl can revert to the baroque trompe l'oeuil which is explicitly conceptual. Nothing is left for chance. The viewer is utterly manipulated and deceived. If he experiences this with delight he is conscious of his weaknesses and able to accept them. Art always exaggerates reality and only because of this is able to display it in sharp contours. The return to an aestheticism of representation, the l'art pour l'art of Elisabeth Mehrl's wall paintings, is no reference to the real but distracts from it. Essentially it is an art of existence, an artificial game which resembles a role or mask play.

The fact that Elisabeth Mehrl does not present her works as single and independent exhibits but stages whole rooms enables her to play this game with the pictorial possibilities which strikes the unprepared viewer and overwhelms him. In her exhibition in the Städtische Galerie Rosenheim all the rooms are adventure spaces which challenge the visitor. The reception of art turns into a happening. Already in the main room the view is directed onto large drop curtains. A scene is staged which works with backdrops, with tools of illusion and deception, a scene which evokes performative action. The artist does not deviate from this principle in any of the separate rooms. An interaction with the viewer is wanted. The viewer feels his way from one room to the other to find himself confronted with the full impact of painting. He deciphers structures, tests, the ideal distance towards the painting, experiences the effect of intensive colour, different formats, and different room situations. In the end the viewer has to find out how he is animated and manipulated by the carefully and artfully arranged totality of the rooms.

In the current exhibition the strikingly illusionist works communicate the effect of deception most acutely, which is an astonishing phenomenon. Especially where the pictorial is relatively distinctively present, where plasticity is created through simple tricks which are evidently strokes of the brush and colour, is where deception comes across in a strikingly direct way. Round pearls and snake-like shapes are stunningly present and open a new perspective in Elisabeth Mehrl's painting. Ultimately this reversal has to be equally surprising for both the viewer and the artist. This reversal permits a transition into large formats, guarantees a strong distant effect, and leads from miniature or minutious detail to grand gesture.

Kiefersfelden, September 2006