Skin by skin

Good calves – this expression is traditionally used to give cyclists luck at the beginning of a race. Calves is what the works and hence the title of the exhibition by Marina Schulze is all about.

On entering the exhibition in the Cuxhavener Kunstverein one feels like being in a wood of coloured tree-trunks, which are partly patterned and partly intertwined, reaching from the floor to the ceiling. They are set up in front of the visitor making evasion or escape impossible. However, on closer observation this first impression changes. The curved strips of colour gain in plasticity, one becomes aware of the shading and little by little one discovers that what one is looking at is limbs, legs in different positions to be more precise. And it is not only the stance, which varies but also the shapes of the lower legs differ: the spectrum of the views of the legs moves from naked and hair-covered through to net stockings and fibrously ragged surfaces. If you look at the work more closely still, an interesting effect can be seen – the clarity one has just gained concerning the work begins to falter, this new view dissolves the multiply enlarged leg paintings into pure structures, into ornaments. In front of the eyes of the beholder they become abstract creations, realism loses itself. Always visible is only a cut part of the leg, mostly the whole lower leg, whereby the impression is created of stumps or trunks surrounding the observer. The mostly pronounced large formats of the pictures stretch over the entire height of the room and therefore encroach upon the architecture of the room. They behave almost like installations, have the effect of pillars and gain, from the resulting supporting function, a relevance for the whole building comparable with the importance of the calf which as part of the leg is required for erect human gait.

Marina Schulze finds her models in every day life, sometimes at a red trafficlight or when waiting at a tram stop, occasionally does she go on a special trip e.g. to the Tour Of Germany to photograph Jan Ullrich’s calves. Equipped with a camera she captures every possible manifestation of legs, which appeals to her. When she transfers the material onto paper at a later point, she distances herself from an exactly detailed adaption of the photography by determining the cut and view anew. Shape and pattern of the limbs are the crux of her work and here the absolutely exactly meticulousness of her working method is what distinguishes her. The artist ruthlessly takes every greatly enlarged shaped muscle, strings in a ladder, every vein and transfers them to paper. As if viewing through a microscope, the organic surfaces are zoomed-in to extreme close-up and the normally unimportant or unseen details gain in meaning sharpening our eyes both for the trivial and for the varieties of physiognomy. Through hanging the work without frames and the limitation of an overriding motive it acquires something of the “studylike” or “serieslike”. One technical speciality seen here is the application of oil paint on deprimed paper. The artist consciously works without canvas in order to save destroying her own motive through a second structure. In addition, an interesting effect is created: the paper absorbs the oil in the paint better than a canvas would do. Because of this, light, yellowybrown edges become visible on the borderlines of the legs which on the one hand frame the painting and on the other hand also create a softer contrast to the snow-white paper. With age, they become darker giving the impression of the aspect of temporality and transitoriness. But not only the exterior manifestation of the picture changes according to nature, but also the shown objects appear to pass through and document differing circumstances.

A leg in a white, coarsely meshed net stocking is painfully reddened. It appears that not skin but raw, bleeding flesh which is possibly rooting too can be seen between the meshes. Or the leg of a sportsman – although sinewy and muscular, the flesh colour is pale and dull as if a hint of decay were present. We see a neglected, almost sloppy looking leg in a black stocking. The stocking can not conceal the stripes and veins, a wide ladder extends from the heel to the back of the knee. Occasionally, a leg even seems to become subverted in its own skin layers and pores. The rotting process resp. the dissection is already so far advanced that every skin opening stands out. It becomes quite clear that Marina Schulze is not creating only purely aesthetic parts of the body. On the contrary her work is characterised by the demand for a ruthlessly-unprotected representation technique which detects every flaw. From time to time the work reacts to our feelings for beauty and ideals of beauty contrarily. Beauty is relative as well as many-faceted. Right at the moment in which it begins to topple Schulze finds it most stimulating – from the repulsive an attraction is created, from disgust, beauty. She analyzes our idea of perfection, the observer develops a new awareness for the strange appearance of aesthetics.

Even more far-reaching is the assertion that the artist shows transitory bodies in different stages, giving the work a procedural moment, which documents the natural decaying process. However, the course of decay is not being shown, but more an exact moment within this process is frozen and fixed – morbid pictures blend with the fascination of the human body and its manifestations. The expression nature morte, the French term for still-life can be experienced in its literal form. And actually at a content level something still-lifelike is inherent in the painted calves, albeit in a strongly reduced manner. The term still-life characterises a genre, which pictures the lifeless, unmoving things such as plants, fruit, dead animals, but also basic commodities. Through arrangement, lighting and a particular closeness to reality in its form, it tries to evoke the illusion of reality. A special form of still-life is the Vanitas still-life and Marina Schulze’s calf pictures can be put into this exact field. Vanitas still-life symbolises the fleetingness of time, it makes us aware of the fragility and shortness of life. Schulze’s work does this too. Although they do not symbolise the calling towards memento mori or a Christian life-style, as the Vanitas theme does in its original form, the transitoriness of the flesh and its differing characteristics and forms of appearance are a decisive factor in the work of the artist.

The human body, all of life is subordinated within the dimension of time. This however, does not only find expression in the changes, conditioned by time, of the skin, the muscles etc., but also in the outward appearance of humans where the “sign of the times” e.g., in the form of trends in clothing, an unusual style, are clearly discernible. Diverse varieties of these manifestations are prevelant in the exhibited calf pictures. The sex of the person in the picture, is clear at least through shape and character, stockings or tattoos show, on the one hand, the possibilities of “leg-clothing” and the individual, sometimes very unusual taste of the wearer, they are however at the same time the impersonal mass produced goods of people who remain anonymous. The wearer simply puts, similar to a faceless model, his leg at the artists disposal, mostly without being aware of having done so.

The ornamental character of the work stands out in particular through the selection of a small part of the calf and its extreme enlargement. It seems as though one is looking at a page of a pattern book, the form slips into the background in favour of the decoration. As a handbook or a collection of sketches for legclothing it would not only be suitable for the retail trade and all different tastes but also appropriate for social studies.

What at first appears to be a documentary process by the artist shows itself as being much more complex and far reaching than first assumed. Marina Schulze’s work goes literally “under the skin”. The pictures show several structures set on top of each other. Through the surface deeper lying layers shimmer emerging as underlying fabric. The inside in this way turns outwards. The impression that we are dealing with covers can not really be verified as these are not hiding anything, but rather through their transparent layering are relentlessly uncovering. The presented studies, appears as shades of thinskinnedness.

We call the skin the “mirror of the soul”. Things emerge through it and its changes which normally would remain hidden from the eye and which make conclusions concerning the state of mind of a human being possible. Much can be deduced from the appearance of the skin. The work by Marina Schulze can be read as a mirror of the hidden and the most inner – it exposes and veils simultaneously, it is exceptionally specific and at the same time universally valid.

Stefanie böttcher