A Trenchant Hand and a Skeptical Eye
Julia Kissina was born in the Ukraine and studied dramatic writing in Moscow. She then moved to Germany, where she took a degree from the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. One of her more innovative projects was to bring a herd of sheep inside the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt. She has performed in a German prison and published two novels with Suhrkamp, a leading German publisher. Most recently, she has been dividing her time in New York and Berlin, working on a group of ink drawings that develop her interest in the undercurrents of eroticism and even violence in supposedly polite society: people, half-human creatures, and strange animals populate cocktail parties whose participants are partly taken from vintage film noir and partly derived from Kissina’s unusual, telling ability to describe the inherent complexities of contemporary social life.
Social mores are currently in a crisis; identity in art has taken on an importance very few people would have imagined even a generation ago. Kissina, in her art, knows the human predicament–the gap between our public self and our prejudicial desire–very well. The artist’s ongoing question, “How can this gap be described?”, is central to Kissina’s skepticism regarding social posing, part of cultivated life for a long time now. How do we make sense of a façade that remains one, especially in the world of art, which is supposedly given to a trenchant, truthful analysis of human behavior? While Kissina’s work cannot easily be compared, in stylistic terms, to the German expressionism of the first third of the 20th century, perhaps its goal, namely the interrogation of hierarchical positioning within polite society, and the themes are closer in purpose than it seems.
Given our current penchant for populism–the leveling of distinction between high and low culture–these forays into social structures are often fraught with the anxiety caused by people’s demand that one’s opinions are “correct.” Yet Kissina seems confident that the culture she addresses, which might range in time from as early as the 1940s to the present, consists of black-tie associates who, beneath the stringent social rules they necessarily follow, are prey to human wishes and desires that are biological and impolite. Thus, her cocktail party themes serve not only as a view of privileged mingling, but they also account for the human condition driving us all into situations of discomfort, disrepute, and dismay. It is nothing less than humanity she wishes to portray–humanity with all its warts. Yet Kissina’s buoyant energies also suggest that these tasks of climbing have a humanity and even a comic energy that is intriguing if not entirely attractive. At a time when we are trying to perfect human behavior–a hopeless task! –it seems inevitable that a gifted artist like Kissina would point out, in no uncertain terms, the ambiguities we take on in our pursuit of success.
The drawings themselves are mostly crowded scenarios of figures, not always entirely human, mingling together at what might be a high-level art opening or a toast for the preview of a big movie. If it were not for the presence of not fully human invitées, the aristocratic air of the imagery and the black-tie attire of the party participants would be just another record of wealthy people celebrating culture. But, in fact, something else is happening: the people are arranged in an attitude of irony, in which Kissina takes her considerable drawing skills and delivers a judgment, far from benign, on the pretensions of men and women. It is true enough that all the world is a stage, but who would have thought that the actors would be so openly possessed of unkempt desire. Still, Kissina’s judgment is neither final nor absolute; she is recording the undercurrents of a need for recognition as well as human closeness in a way that stays away from judgment.
In “Hand-Kiss” (all the drawings mentioned are from 2020 and 2021), a small man in a crowd, wearing a coat very much like the coat of a bird, is kissing the hand of a tall platinum blonde, whose buttocks are visible in a circle cut from the front of the dress. Other members of the crowd include a large figure in the likeness of David Lynch, his shock of light-colored hair high above the crowd, and a moon-faced owl set low between the couple. On the bottom right an aging man with an actor’s features looks directly at Kissina’s audience, while in the upper left two small ladders appear: exact representations of the metaphor of social climbing. Irony, to the point of sarcasm, abounds in this set of drawings, which turn a sharp eye on people determined to make a splash. Kissina is an artist whose patience for the foibles of people is more complex, though, than it would seem. She commands a sharp view of the superficial mores of her subjects, who seem stuck in a time slightly before ours. But she also finds this comic, enabling her to comment with accuracy on our projection of an inoffensive persona when our deeper desires, not always so attractive or acceptable, lurk just beneath the surface.
Other drawings are equally sharp toned. “Enlightenment” shows a man drinking coffee with his back to us. Facing him are a pack of leopards–or jaguars, it is hard to tell–many of them with halos, an attribute of the anonymous man himself. The animal’s small heads are nearly overwhelmed by their large bodies and bellies. But the idea of leopards with halos is interesting; it means that animals are just as much possessors of spiritual enlightenment as they are examples of untamable wildness. Kissina is working out a scenario, a hopeful one, in which the visionary maintains its presence despite nature’s aggressive impulse, human or otherwise. The gods governing over this outlook acknowledge distress and corruption, but this in the artist’s work, human gesturing, or the transcendence of animals, is also seen in a humorous light. As a result, truth takes over what otherwise might be seen as a dark presentation of behavior.
Odd, hybrid creatures embellish Kissina’s belief that all is transitory and strange beyond thought. “Batdogs” is a group of three animals with the heads of bats, faces and wings included, grafted on to the bodies of dogs. Behind them are four teepee-like structures; it is hard to tell if they are from nature or made by people. It is, inevitably, an odd, psychologically complex scene that moves in the direction of surrealism, in which the mismatch of body parts is meant to serve as an emblem of a mismatched approach to life, as well as a nod to the biological tinkering we have been drawn to. All in all, it is a disturbing image–but are we meant to leave the picture without hope? The situation is more complex than it seems. The sheer strangeness of the image is a challenge to our imagination, even to our ethics. This is the future, in which the scientific is capable of almost anything, including the merging of species. Kissina does not address the problem directly, but in this drawing the possibility is there.
The political implications of a fragmented, partially animal society cannot be denied. In one drawing, she makes this clear. In “Demonstration”, two groups of people wearing workers’ caps, one striding in line toward the left in the foreground, carry a flag in apparent resistance to something--but we don’t know what the theme is since the flag is emblazoned with a smiley face. This is a view, on the lowest level, of the impotence we face considering our wish to make a difference, to achieve a public point of view. We can do no better than to make harmless gestures that are reworked into the acceptance of social aspects of the world we are in fact in deep disagreement with. Indeed, revolution has been debased to the point of becoming a smiley face–surely the most banal of icons permeating our culture now (and we remember that Kissina is originally Russian). Thus, the darkness in these drawings is both a description and a call to arms–if only we knew what to do! Again, though, a comic humanity resurrects itself; the smiley face is absurd and funny and perhaps meant to lessen our determination to change life, which mostly doesn’t go very far.
Beyond humor, the liberating attitude associated with irony, Kissina offers little in the way of a future. It doesn’t mean she is acceptant of the situation, only that her visual outbursts demonstrate the hopeless anger of integrity. Despite their comic aspect, these drawings are brilliant descriptions of a world gone wrong. But we remember we are looking at art–at a version of the real. Our hope is based on the simple pursuit of art. If there is something inherently grim within Kissina’s vision, there is also the human comedy softening our impulse to dismiss human motives. For example, considering the woman whose buttocks are placed so that they are facing us, and considering hybrid creatures whose imaginative existence, let alone their reality, gives us pause, our only remedy may be a tragicomic response. The question of what to do remains, but the answer is not immediately available. Indeed, it doesn’t look like the quandary can be solved–even the “enlightened” pursuit of art is in doubt, although Kissina’s use of that word gives us a hope we deserve to have. Her trenchant hand and skeptical eye offer us a mirror reflecting the way we are, disposed as we are to desire, power, creatures beyond imagining. and the imagination that publicly recognizes them.
- Jonathan Goodman