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Josef Strau

Exploration of the self On Birgit Megerle

Birgit Megerle, "Das Phantom", 2006 Birgit Megerle, "Das Phantom", 2006

The paintings of Birgit Megerle are characterized by a calculated effect of immersion resulting from the constellation of figures in her subjectively toned pictures. They approach the viewer like on a stage, fashionably dressed and yet lost in reverie, relating to each other and yet introverted, clearly contoured and yet seemingly trapped behind a grey veil. The feeling as if the motifs, despite their contemporary references, had fallen out of time is encouraged by surreal details.

These painting unfold an all but intoxicating effect in the context of the social and economic reality of an art fair – at any rate, Josef Strau was enthusiastic.

Whenever I am looking back on this certain day of my life, it now feels like a very particular day. I suddenly no longer looked at an art fair as a moving visitor – as a nomadic commentator in endless corridors – but as an immobile host fixated to my own territory, being a gallerist myself, acting in a slightly uncanny role. The first excitement of my subjective transformation was slowly replaced and I merely felt like being a camera, which was no longer moving and carried around, no longer determined by the perception of manifold stage like space units which display endlessly floating discourses. I felt like being attached instead as if on some stable tripod, left in some corner relegated to mental immobility. I was the owner of Galerie Meerrettich and I was screwed to my table and, instead of observing works of art, I suddenly had to observe the moving observers. I looked through the corridor at the slowly floating visitors into the booth on the other side, and my gaze was always determined, initially unbeknownst even to me, to look particularily at one small dark painting far away on the opposite wall. The painting displayed some figures in grey and brown colours, almost looking similar to some of the visitors of the art fair, the ones which would be slowing down for some moment, often moving as couples, their eyes directed to different directions, like being cameras themselves, as if their eyes were moving automatically for later editing, hoping to detect special objects of a certain gravitation, a gravitation reflecting most likely their subjective preconceived preferences. The painting seemed to be almost made for this particular art fair observer situation, first of all to function simply as mirror of the observers themselves, by holding for a moment certain gestures, as if they would be like actors, avoiding each other, like slightly uncomfortable visitors of a profane church. But secondly and more importantly the painting seemed to be made for le condition artfairean since it was a gaze attractor. It was one of the few, which brings the certain magnetic power to the surrounding space. It directs you to get closer and then makes you stay. It was magic. In the case of the “art fair” painting made by Birgit Megerle I assumed the gaze power was a result of the puzzling and very codified correlation of the displayed figures, but it must have been more than that, since I remembered, that the same thing happened to me once at a party in the house of a gallerist with a very small abstract painting of Mondrian himself, another magician in the world of mundane religion.

The third reason for my (mistaken) assumption that the painting must have had a special quality to serve as an object dedicated to the particular world of art fair presentation was that it appeared like an assault on the phenomenology of certain hegemonic models of visual contemporariness dominating the spaces of the galleries. In Europe in particular this is often either an elitist institutionalism of a conceptual high art attitude – actually often posing as conceptualism or intellectualism deprived of original intellect – or as funny neo pop, deprived of the intention of destroying the masterpiece commodity. Birgit Megerle recreates a new context by determining the gaze, the attitude and even the mind of a certain audience. Somehow her impact results from her decision to use as models for the displayed scenes and narratives the people of her surrounding context. For the theaterlike scenes she explores the models inherent possibilities of psychological transformations for instance.

During the following days I arrived at the art fair in the morning and after swallowing the notorious art fair aspirins, I was saluting to the mirror-like image on the opposite wall. My former comrades – the artists – had already left the city, time to exchange words with other gallerists. Collectors stood around as well, showing each other the “decisions” they made, while I was still obsessing with “my” particular painting, and instead of fulfilling the task of directing the trade of my own booth, I became confusedly eager to learn, once and for all and to conceive of their ways of value making. So I started leading them to my favourite object in the booth on the other side.

Many of Birgit Megerle’s figurative paintings indicate that she is not just portraying some person, but that she changes the representations of its obvious natural features in order to explore inherent but not realized qualities of the portrayed persons. These persons often happen to be friends of hers, members of her certain artistic environment. This particular exploration of the self – a risky, radical psychoanalytical process – results in transformative visual narratives. It is not only an attribution of some form of role- playing; it is introducing into art the means of literature by including a strong mechanism of fictionalization. The inclusion of any element of fiction is a dangerous game in an art context, where one might quickly ask, if these are just real creatures of the painters sexual fantasies. Her recreation of some real person is produced through the alteration of his appearance, through the appropriation of another dressing style, his hair or through the artificial gesture and as well through the referential objects in the surrounding scene. Sometimes earlier I supposed that Megerle’s images are more creating a general atmosphere of meaningfulness or of “narrativeness” instead of providing real narratives in the sense of literary narratives, a kind of mimicry of narrative painting. The observer, I thought, would see that there might be some story told, the relation between the figure as well its background objects. That would be already exciting enough to keep the observer magnetized by them, but the point is, that they are linked to something inherent in the real person but extended by means of fictional transformation. To produce exactly this fictional alteration of the real within the field of art practice means that an objective problem of art making has to be solved as well. Megerle has to deal with the general lack of awareness for fictionalization of real subjects in general high art practice or with the common denial of psychoanalytical models. The mode of fictionalization of the real has to be strongly differentiated to the very common narrative mode of pure referentiality. Both fictional and psychoanalytical models are thus often categorised as secondary or minor art forms.

The frequent attribution of the classic term “dandy” to Birgit Megerle and to her work is probably refering to the obvious “dandy”- like motives and the contents of her imagined world, but it might be more importantly fitting to her risky operation to actually conceal her literary intentions in a painting style, which might commonly be perceived as a secondary form of expression. She might appear even more dandyish, risking the misinterpretation, as she exhibits her works in a gesture of conscious refusal of accepting simple categories, preferring all sorts of ambivalences instead. Ambivalence is characterising the painted figures and is, less obviously, determining her different painting styles. The painting which I saw at the art fair is one of these ambivalent paintings. The first moment it appears to be painted quite “functional”, its colours pretend to just obey to the representation of the figure. Instead these colours actually did not obey to the order of the figures but obey to the representation of the order of the styles of painting, resulting in the flatpainted police man. Comiclike he is displayed by clear contours, but without any light or shadow, somehow unreal, as if coming in from an undefined darkness. The painting of the figure in the centre is illuminated, three dimensional. One cannot be sure, if he even recognises the closeness of the policeman, he not even looks away from him, his gaze is fixed on something outside, but showing no effort to focus on it, a modernist grid of minimal style architecture behind him. But both the figures resembled by coincidence the real world around, where they were displayed, the art fair, its visitors next to it almost echoing their appearance. The painting magnetic gravitation determined not only my gaze, but even the transformation of my acting in the role of new gallery owner during all the days of “my” first art fair. It dominates still most of my remembrance of many of the beautiful meetings and unforgettable chance encounters, this whole time, while I was learning a lot about the roles and the thoughts of very different visitors of the art fair. Once we stood before the gaze catching painting of the two people, a (German) collector and me. But paradoxically he, instead, never did actually look at the painting. I often observed during this day that to my great disappointment visitors showed each other some simple drawings on the wall on the left side next to it, but not the magic painting. Like the (German) collector was just looking at me instead. He looked even down at my shoes and up again. I wanted the short moments of this special occasion to have a conversation on the painting qualities. But he was merely interested in the question of identity, in what I was now, asking “Are you an artist now or a gallerist?”. I told him that now, as he might see, in the space of the gallery, I am working as a gallerist, but in other occasions, I might be an artist instead. But he did not accept and insisted, saying that, I should better know what he meant, that he was asking, if I was really a gallerist or if I really was an artist. I made some gestures towards the image. In our narrow and close position, I was trying to make the painting the centre of both our gazes, make it the evidence of my argument, but it did not work. He looked at my shoes again and I again hesitated to answer, that sometimes we are that, what we perform, we sometimes even become the roles we ascribe to ourselves, we reveal in the transformation inherent unrealized qualities. Silent aggression of resistance moved in. He said, that he does not think that I really could become a gallerist and then slowly concluded, that I can probably not be a good artist then either and we both left the place next to the gravitating painting.