Sunday, 23 September 2007



(First published 5th June 2007)

Suzanne Kühn’s paintings and drawings belong to the New Leipzig School in terms of style; share a strong graphic influence, the use of a stock illustrational style to more complex and unusual ends. The school declares its distance from both realism and more spontaneous or rugged expressionism, instead cultivates sophisticated stylization and design, a more restrained abstraction. Kuhn does not draw the attention of Neo Rauch, Tim Eitel or Tilo Baumgärtel, perhaps, her work seems more conservative for taking nature as its theme, seems less German for her seven year sojourn in the US, two years as a post-graduate at Hunter College (although this period now omitted from her biography). Kühn’s very linear style is shared by others in the US, such as Jon Rappeleye, her comic strip exaggeration, with Arturo Herrera, for example. Her recent show at Goff and Rosenthal NY continued her themes, shifted focus to youth in figures.

Kühn’s clean, spare style is also notable for variety of stylisation, cleverly played across objects and depth, animal, vegetable and mineral. Earlier work tended to reduce some objects and parts of a picture to strict volumes, relate them to more elaborate or concrete parts, as in Bergblick (2005) or Sunrise (2005). The rocks and foliage ‘frame’ the distant peaks, are cultivated just for that, architecturally and pictorially, while a sunrise similarly makes concessions to depiction of light and contrasting surroundings. In other examples, trees are never quite ‘natural’ or realistic in any case, might be trimmed or cultivated to some degree, while accompanying basic volumes in turn look more like processed lumber or quarried masonry for their relation to such trees. Style here stresses the relativity of nature to culture, a continuum rather than dichotomy.

Stylistically, this gives the pictures far more scope than perhaps Kühn appreciates. But her interests lie with firstly contrasting very flat and decorative treatments (often recalling Japanese art) with more depth and tonally inflected versions. In works like Quarry (2005) and Valley (2005) design and landscape offer an unlikely blend of Cubism and Romanticism, calculation and the sublime. Later works compound this and view the landscape, usually forest and mountains, from within architecture. Stylised treatment of architecture is also a trait of the New Leipzig School, and in fact of other current German artists, such as Stefan Kurten.

Secondly, Kühn contrasts nature, in any of its phases, against the single figure and the figure is invariably female. Crucially, the figure remains strictly realistic, sensible and unadorned, shares none of the scope for stylisation and integration offered by surroundings, indeed, seems either to flatten the possibilities to mere illusion, as in Anna prepared the wash (2005) where suds/snow falls hover around her like diminished thoughts, or the figure resolutely negotiates the maze of depth and scale as in Picnic at the fence (2005). Elsewhere she turns away, dissatisfied, perhaps already pregnant with her own ambivalence.

Kühn’s treatment of water in this respect is telling. Where forest and mountain are rendered spiky and brittle, straight and upright, water is structured in bold comic-strip curves, is at once rain, waterfall, river and lake, flooding and cleansing. In a work like Anna goes swimming (2005) we glimpse a tentative, rather prim conjunction. The structuralist or Freudian (or both) might have a field day or trip with Kühn’s differences, but ultimately it pictures a lonely and frustrating place, confused between nature and nurture, fate and freedom.

Her latest show was notable for the introduction of a young girl, who is measured against toys and décor, in lieu of anything more. In Kinderzimmer fenster (2006) her presence colours a gleaming (and slightly skewed) interior, with a bittersweet indulgence. Understandably, Kühn also turns to the theme of melancholia in two of the larger works, Katje Melancholia (2007) and Melanie Melancholia (2007) these too are not without problems, such as the foreground rack to the left of Katje, the yellow chair to the right of Melanie. But again we have figures immersed in an intensely controlled prism and prison of style, in a picture that revels in so much intricacy and possibility, lightness of touch and clarity, unless you happen to be caught in it.

Kühn is an interesting counterpoint to Neo Rauch in terms of the New Leipzig School. She is the woman who cannot quite connect with nature, in any of its phases; he is the man who finds the connection never lasts long.

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