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Jürgen Schilling (2009)

The „Seventh Ornament“ – on the Work of Kristina Girke

Kristina Girke has remained faithful to her artistic principles: in her most recent cycle of paintings, The Seventh Ornament, she combines inspirations drawn from the unexhaustable treasure of classic art history with comtemporary strategies of painting and composition to reach her own unconventional and unique style. However, the new cycle represents a shift with respect to the weight accorded to abstract elements in the overall composition. Had these elements played the role of separating or combining formal inlets in Kristina’s previous works, they now attain a dominant character in her work going beyond formal composition. Kristina Girke uses a technique which combines ink, acryllic and oil paints as well as varnish, and facilitates the special effects characterizing her work, namely the carefully calculated arrangement of layers of different motives, one over another. The shift in her artistic expression results from the use of ornamental signs, which are placed either partially or as all-over structures over the scenery. In her previous work, Girke’s narrative scenes stimulate the imagination of the beholder with allegories of a world of dreams and fairytales, with creatures and mountainous landscapes drawn from sources as diverse as christian iconography and historic Asian paintings. While those types of scenes are still present, they are being pushed to the background, sometimes quietly, sometimes radically.


The impression of fantastic picture riddles remains nonetheless – not least due to the richness of heteromorphous details, which want to be read and brought in relation to one another; it seems the artist is almost overcome with a flood of imagery, which wants to be seen and fixed in paint for others to share. Any attempt to interpret these symbolisms holistically must fail. There is no imaginary story being told as in her previous work. In the new cycle, Girke focuses only on a short scene or on a clearly demarked central character, whose figures stand apart from the contextual background, or seem to float softly, their bodily contours fraying and their gracious movements forming a clear contrast against the bulky grid of multiple shapes and forms surrounding the scene. Occasionally this grid is broken, highlighting specific fragments; then again the individual elements are wrought into the grid, or indeed almost completely disappear behind an impermeable barrier, reinforced by repetitively placed, similarly shaped ornaments. In this way, the composition creates the impression of a spacial ordering of its different elements into those „in front“ and „in the back“, even though a classical perspective is not utilized. The figurative parts, which are painted lightly, even sketchingly, optically either retreat into the background behind the system of hermetic, abstract formulations or explode into the front. The thus created spacial context extends beyond the frame of the painting; the borders seem randomly placed, within which the fantastic and clearly demarked figures meet with the geometrically ordered motives, refusing to comply with generally accepted stylistic principles. The confrontation of formal segments is further accentuated by the use of sometimes krass colouring.


The verdict of the Viennese architect Adold Loos, who in his polemic essay Ornament and Crime condemned the use of decorative elementary art forms as uncultured primitivism and equated ornaments with kitsch and superfluous decor, over decades almost prevented their use by artists. Nonetheless, as a stylistic tool they were never eliminated. The interest of artists as varied as Eduardo Paolozzi, Dieter Roth, David Salle, Sigmar Polke, Keith Haring, Philipp Taaffe, Shirin Neshat, Sarah Morris or Daniel Buren clearly demonstrates that these stylistic elements are alive and relevant. This is not the place to provide a detailed overview over the history of ornamental art forms, which can be seen as one of the most original forms of artistic expression by humans, and has had significant influence over the development of modern art. A short summary must suffice. In the 20th century, Wilhelm Worringer, Henry van de Velde, Siegfried Kracauer and Ernst H. Gombrich all studied the phenomenon of the ornament and its roots from different angles. Before them, John Ruskin warned in his Stones of Venice, published in 1851, to avoid a qualitative and quantitative abuse of the ornament, but stated nonetheless: „(...) we should note that the ornament has the task to make us happy. (...) We should be made happy by the ornament. (...) you cannot get enough of it (...) if it is good, that is if it is completely combined and brought into consonnance with the rules. (...) with each additional ordering of ornaments their mastery becomes more difficult.“


This challenge is accepted and met by Kristina Girke: she allows the ornament to play a functionally independent role and releases it from the constraints of a subordinate, accompanying element, merely there to fill out otherwise empty space. In her paintings, the ornament is an integral yet independent entity, contrasting rather than complementing figurative and abstract elements. Kristina’s ornaments no longer decorate and structure an object which is seen as more important. They instead stand for themselves and meet all other elements of the composition at the same level. At short distance, forms derived from geometrical archetypes confront vegetative shapes and those which have evolved from the contemplation of animal organisms or the four elements. Girke does not restrict herself to the use of framing ornamental decorations or friezes, but instead places dominant structures - which may be limited or expansive - next to or even over others which are centrifugally or aconcentrically placed. The conflict between these contrasting systems and their consistentally asymmetric positioning are central to the attractiveness and originality of the composition.


Girke’s method is the systematic destruction of the regularity and rhythm of sequences, a basic principle of any ornamental decoration, regardless whether it appears in architecture, tapistry, design, tatoo or fashion. She abruptly interrupts the sequences of fine-membered maureskes, massive diamond patterns or interwoven branches, to give space to a non-related motive, or indeed to integrate it into the pattern, thus creating artistic tension. Girke relentlessly creates disharmonies, for example when she places an element from her vocabulary or forms, such as an opulent, twisting rocaille at a prominent place in the painting, without balancing it with a proportional corresponding second element. Exotic-magical emblems are left uncommented and the title of the exhibition, the Seventh Ornament, reminds us that ornaments were given magical and ritual meanings as symbols in antique and ethnic artforms. These irritations have a particular intensity because they defy the expectation towards an artist that thematises ornamental forms, that these ought to follow the traditionally accepted rules and convey harmony and order rather than lively and sensul excitement. The impact of ornaments as an expressive vehicle should not be underestimated: „With the help of ornaments the plane becomes an optical sound, which can be quiet or loud, nice or irritating.“


Kristina Girke is not concerned with representing objective reality; her work appeals to the receptiveness of her audience, who are left to combine for themselves the fragments, presented in multi-layered labyrynthic forms, and thus interpret Girke’s probing of the limits of expression. Girke’s painterly style is „insufficiently described if one were to see it only as a formal variation. The way she paints is in itself part of the substance of her expression and the interpretation of all the signs in the picture.“ Without losing the sense of figurative meaning, the artist in her recent work increasingly explores the chances provided by the incorporation of surreal and abstract tendencies all the way to op-art into her work, in representing the multiplicity of transitory episodes. In enriching her language she draws on Francis Picabia, who is said to have stated: “one should be a nomad, moving through the ideas as one moves across countries and cities.“


 © Jürgen Schilling, 2009

Translation: Martin Raiser

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