It is a common compulsion of the art historian to try and pin down an artist and their work to a certain current, or a certain theme. One often attempts to read, or rather write, one’s own interests onto the artist’s oeuvre. However, especially if the artist is a contemporary, this often proves difficult, as they energetically oppose all easy labels. While this makes the critic’s work more challenging, it also insures deeper reflection on, say, a painting’s iconography.
When looking at German artist Katja Seib’s paintings, one might be facing similar obstacles: her utterly feminine works, weaving narratives of desire and aggression, might easily induce the viewer to detect a feminist scope in her practice. While the braided hair, voluptuous hips and hip-hop bling of some of her characters might suggest an interest on issues of minorities and race. While direct confrontation with the artist rapidly undercuts such temptations, it doesn’t offer any clear alternative either.
Therefore, one returns to the painting, to the visual material, and looks harder. Seib’s skilfully balanced compositions enlace domestic settings and an eerie atmosphere. Similarly to dreams, they surprise the viewer in medias res and call for an interpretation of their symbols. By being given no definite guidance by the author, the audience is seemingly encouraged to draw their own conclusions.
But what does it mean when an artwork, or an artist, resists all explications? Opacity, or the right not to be understood, is a discourse stemming from the pen of the Creole poet Édouard Glissant. The poet intended opacity, in a post-colonial context, as an active strategy of resistance towards oppression and objectification. He advocated the use of a language that simultaneously proclaimed and obscured its own meaning.
Seib’s visual vocabulary, delicate and rough, grotesque and seductive, draws the viewer in with the promise of familiarity, in both images and narratives, only to inhibit all such speculations with a wall of denial. Her paintings are extremely intimate, the artist states: they emanate from dreams, are inspired by acquaintances, are based on personal experiences. The claim to understanding, truly, their deeper meaning is a violent act of objectification. The colonising gaze of the spectator. And yet, Seib’s works still speak to a universal sensitivity; even if one acknowledges their opacity and, thus, the impossibility of truly understanding them.
Where it is not possible to firmly grasp the meaning of a painting’s iconography, the observer must turn, once again, to the images as such. What do they suggest? In 1925 the German art critic Franz Roh coined a term, Magical Realism, which was shortly later to acquire an independent identity and detach itself from, if not subvert, its creator’s original ideas. Nebulously described to begin with, Magical Realism has maintained a protean character: from its inception as a description for German Post-Expressionists, it came to signify a trend in Latin-American and then Japanese literature. It still eludes a clear definition and its identity is in flux.
While the current prevailing perception of Magical Realism is very far from Roh’s first definition, it is still relevant to revisit the original essay. The German critic was writing in a moment of art history that, for certain aspects, was not too far from today’s: the return to representational, figurative painting. “Humanity seems destined to oscillate forever between devotion to the world of dreams and adherence to the world of reality”, Roh writes. For this ‘new direction’ in painting, he envisaged a celebration of the mundane and a renewed wonder for the materiality of the object: “techniques that endow all things with a deeper meaning and reveal mysteries that always threaten the secure tranquillity of simple and ingenuous things”.
In fact, Katja Seib’s paintings seem to capture such oscillation in fieri. Her works depict the banal and the everyday alongside the oneiric and the mysterious. More recently, Magical Realism has been described as “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe” (Matthew Stretcher), which allows to access a deeper understanding of reality. The outlandish characters in Seib’s works cohabitate with the ‘normal’ and shed a different light on it. The trivial is perceived as more uncanny (unheimlich) than the fantastic and throbs with “that radiation of magic, that spirituality, that lugubrious quality” described by Roh.
Branded items, pink bubble baths and popular icons are suffused with melancholy and a sense of the grotesque. Nonetheless, her characters are radiant, of a beauty that emanates from the “feeling [of] existence, of making it stand out of the void; [of] a solidly modelled figure […] emerging form the most obscure source”.