05 March 2016

Adriana Czernin: A New Artist Takes on Old Vienna

A woman and flower petals.  Simple elements, perhaps, but worked out with a curious equipoise.  Where in the world is she?  Afloat or pinned on a flat surface? Regardless of the settings we find her in, her face is always enigmatic, as is her situation.   The artist seems to be nudging to ask whether this woman is engaged in contemplation or a mute struggle; she has called these images "attempts at portraits."

Her work is not well known in North America but Adriana Czernin's drawings evoke thoughts of  familiar Austrian artists from a century ago, particularly Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, both of whom coincidentally died in the same year of 1918.  Klimt's decorative aesthetic with its masonic eyes and spermatozoa rendered in gold leaf was the beautiful facade that temporarily  obscured a ruinous set of social problems, poverty and its attendants, decrepit housing, low wages,  and poor sanitation,  venereal diseases and out of wedlock births visited on women by well to do men, and an impotent political system.  To the extent that fin de siecle Vienna had ideals, they were worn threadbare by these insupportable contradictions.  

Czernin has taken the decorative trappings of misogyny and retooled them for her own purposes.  That the Bulgarian born Czernin (Sofia, 1969) lives and works in Vienna, a city that has become a museum of that era in itself, virtually assures comparisons with predecessors and suggests an arrtist unintimidated by them.
Czernin works with ordinary artist's materials: watercolor, pencil, and India ink; she has applied her pictures directly onto gallery walls in the manner of Klimt's notorious murals commissioned by the University of Vienna (1900-1907).  At Galerie Martin Janda she drew herself into an alcove, a protected space that she both inhabited and burst out of, being at the same time self-possessed and assertive.  Here ornament may function as a line between public and private space, but exactly where that line is, is difficult to pin down.

To the mix of art nouveau elements, organic forms such as flower petals, leaves, and branches, Czernin introduces  mashrabiya, a pattern used in Arabic architecture that dates back to 12th century Baghdad.
A latticework pattern, mashrabiya is used as a window covering.  It allows those inside to observe without being seen, preserving privacy and also, for women, signifying their restricted domestic lives.  Using a geometric pattern has allowed Czernin to highlight the abstract elements hat have always been part of her work. Her  distortion and the dismantling of perspective are more obvious.

Since 2008 Czernin has been working on a project she calls Investigations of the Inside in which she works with  increasingly spiky natural forms to embody her faceless or face-obscuring stand-ins.  If this project is about women and nature, it upends the platitude: man does, woman is.  As Czernin continues to create picture-puzzles, her messages have become increasingly urgent. I like to think that Czernin is the New Eve confronting the Old Adam.  Her works may be enigmatic but they are well worth your attention.

For further reading: Adriana Czernin, Vienna, Distanz Verlag: 2013 (in German)
Images: courtesy Galerie Martin Janda, Vienna.
1. Adriana Czernin - untitled, 2001.
2. Adriana Czernin - untitled, 2004.
3. Adriana Czernin, untitled, 2006.
4. Adriana Czernin - Self-portrait from Investigations of the Inside, 2009.


Tania said...

Beautiful flowerswoman ! I read here for the first time the name of Adriana Czernin - to follow.

Jane said...

Tania, I'm so glad that you like her work, too. You might get to see it in person before we do in North America, since Brussels has a direct connection to the Vienna Secession in the Palais Stoclet! I'm looking forward to seeing what Czernin does next.