Below Us, the Sea

Kinga Bartis’s works speak into the dominant feminisms and surrealisms of our time, but successfully evades all the words.

Installation view, Kinga Bartis, Shores of Selves, Tranen, 2022. Photo: David Stjernholm.

Everything flows in Kinga Bartis’s works. Bodies flow out into waves. Foamy peaks on waves slide up into the skies and become clouds. Clouds stretch their wings like seabirds hovering or diving down below the surface of the water, where they become streams and currents that cause the underwater plants to sway and kiss the women’s toes.

These are bodies with no clear-cut boundaries, spilling out beyond their own contours, rather like when we see our own reflection in rippling water. These are wafting, lapping, gurgling contours that let foreground and background flow into and out of each other upon the almost monochrome canvases, where even the paint appears to have been washed away by gently crashing waves. 

These are also bodies that multiply themselves: hands with just a few too many fingers, fingers with rather too many nails, and a body that appears to have three heads. Or perhaps just a single head in motion, either because the woman lets herself drift along with the water or because her reflection is broken up by the waves coming up against the beach.

Shore of Selves is Kinga Bartis’s first institutional solo show, and it’s quite fitting and funny that it should be set at Tranen at all places, an exhibition venue directly connected to the Gentofte Main Library. Funny, because the works roll across the pebbles of the sandy seabed, touching and kissing all the words, books, and theories before retiring with the tide, wanting to be themselves, all their own.

If we were to capture them in words, we might say that they have certain Surrealist traits. The movements of the bodies leave traces on the canvases, meaning that we see the body at several different points in time within this otherwise static medium. We might also say that they suggest an alternative, ecological approach to the world, one in which humans and nature are one and where each figure carries oceans within itself as the moon pushes the images back and forth between high and low tide. 

The works speak to the more dominant offshoots of current feminist thought, especially hydrofeminism, which posits a fluid transition between woman and sea. Here, the skin is a membrane that inhales and exhales the world through the water that both flows in rivulets across the woman and runs through her body. Rather than a single, clearly delimited, and controlled body, Bartis’s bodies are in states of orgasmic exchange, not with one or more selected others, but as equal parts of an ecosystem that encompasses the entire world.

The exhibition text at Tranen proposes a biographical point of entry into Bartis’s world, a reading that is also about language. Bartis grew up as part of the Hungarian minority in Transylvania, Romania, and eventually moved to Denmark, where she graduated from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in 2018. The text quotes the sociologist Georg Simmel’s concept of the stranger who feels extraneous in his immediate surroundings, suggesting that the works represent a fluent and fluid language that can take the place of a mother tongue no longer applicable to the artist’s current lifeworld.

It would not be wrong to say that Bartis speaks fluent picturesque. Even so, it feels as if neither biography, nor Surrealism, nor hydrofeminism really capture that intangible something in these works that is constantly flowing away from us. I imagine that ‘something’ as a kind of painterly state of being in which the painting itself runs through the artist, like  water through a woman: a state of connectedness with one’s chosen material in which there is no clear demarcation between the hand directing the brush and the painting directing the hand. The other things come later – the language, the theory, the books.

The exhibition at Tranen inscribes seven of Bartis’s works in an immersive installation that creates a seamless whole. On the floor is a thick rug resplendent in different shades of blue, as if the sea were just below us. Around the exhibition’s three most striking works – three large rectangular representations of women and the sea in bluish hues – the paintings seep out onto the wall in the form of small brushstrokes suggesting that the works might potentially take over the entire space. These echoes on the wall hint at what the works themselves draw attention to: the fact that the spaces evoked in these paintings are not delimited, separate worlds; they are connected to each other, to the room, to our bodies and the water below us. It is a gentle hint rather than an overt approach, and it is successful.

Not that the works actually need an extra layer of installation-art sensibilities superimposed upon them. In themselves, they already come across as part of a non-hierarchical and wordless whole. These are works that we can approach without any preambles or preconceptions, letting them wash over and through us. These are works that do not speak about the bodies of the subject matter, the bodies of painting, but about our bodies. Let us be trickled through and through; let us be embraced by the water and come out again on the other side refreshed and drenched, but not drowned.

Kinga Bartis, slow breather for now, 2022. Watercolour, pigment and rabbit-skin glue on canvas, Tranen, 2022. Photo: David Stjernholm.