Mickey Mouse Club

The most interesting aspect of Eliza Douglas’s exhibition at VI, VII in Oslo is how little the artist labours for it.

Eliza Douglas, Untitled, 2022. Oil on canvas, 210 x 160 x 4,5 cm. Courtesy of VI, VII, Oslo. Photo: Christian Tunge.

Disney is one of the world’s most recognisable registered trademarks. Regardless of how an artist manipulates their motifs, they will be able to take advantage of the immediate identification that Disney also benefits from when appealing to customers and audiences. New York-and-Berlin-based artist Eliza Douglas’s first solo presentation in Scandinavia is currently on view at the gallery VI, VII in Oslo. Similar to Douglas’s earlier paintings, these images are based on printed T-shirts, scrunched up and photographed. In previous iterations, the artist has sourced her subjects from anime and metal band merchandise, mirroring the Y2K-aesthetics currently haunting the fashion industry. For the exhibition The Whitney Biennial, her samples are limited to images of Mickey, Goofy, Pluto, and Minnie; all the works are untitled and from 2022. The paintings are hung in front of large vinyl photo prints depicting the exhibition spaces and views from the Whitney Museum of American (by which it means US) Art in New York City.

As far as art about other visual cultures goes, a reference in the European context could be the Luxembourger artist Michel Majerus (1967–2002). Majerus co-opted designs from anime, video games, and advertising in large-scale paintings. A North American and extreme counterpart is Jeff Koons, with his unsophisticated and highly profitable insistence on white kitsch as something underrepresented within the art institution, as well as the hordes of artists following Koons’s example, albeit with more humble production budgets.

Douglas is one of many who has used so-called Dafen-painting. Dafen is a Chinese village whose economy is largely based on skilled craftspeople making paintings from sketches provided by commercial clients such as hotels, cruise lines, and theme parks, in addition to Western artists who may not have the time – or ability – to make the paintings they want to exhibit. The paintings in The Whitney Biennial are not produced in Dafen, however, but are made by the artist’s own studio assistants, based in China. Douglas’s approach to oil on canvas is decidedly conceptual. Much like paintings, concepts must be fabricated; they have to be produced if they’re to exist and are best served fresh. Concepts don’t have long shelf-lives after being conceived and circulated; they quickly slip into the fabric of the mundane and eventually appear as stiffened matrixes for uncontroversial reproduction.

Eliza Douglas, Untitled, 2022. Oil on canvas, 130 x 100 cm. Courtesy of VI, VII, Oslo. Photo: Christian Tunge.

The Whitney Biennial at VI, VII is a highly photogenic exhibition, probably catering more to digital circulation than intimate studies in the gallery, considering its subjects, exhibition design, and title. It’s quite a trek from New York’s Meatpacking District to Oslo’s Bjørvika. Presumably, it’s this distance that Douglas is playing with in the show’s title, which alludes to the Whitney’s massive spectacle of “emergers.” Ironically inscribing oneself in the canon or career-making institutions is its own genre in Western contemporary art. Douglas has played this game in previous exhibitions by using similar vinyl banners featuring manipulated installation views from an exhibition that she participated in at Palais de Tokyo in Paris, with all works removed except her own.

In interviews, Douglas frequently mentions that she felt like an outsider while trying to succeed as an artist in her hometown New York. Since then, she has become a close collaborator of her partner, the German art star Anne Imhof. During one of Imhof’s gesamt-performances Nature Morte, shown at Palais de Tokyo in 2021, Douglas was one of the performers, uttering “I am an animal, and I will always be displaced until I die.” We might wonder if there are not other human animals employed by Palais de Tokyo more acutely alienated.

That the Whitney is an institution with the power to validate and exclude artists and their work is a plain fact, and pontificating on this truism is a curious ploy coming from Douglas, who has established herself as an icon of repressive tolerance in US and Western European in-institutions during recent years. The most interesting aspect of The Whitney Biennial in the most barren neighbourhood in Oslo, is how the exhibition seems to exist independently of the gallery space and its address, roaming the streams via digital reproduction without the artist needing to labour for it.

Eliza Douglas, The Whitney Biennial, 2022. Installation view from VI, VII in Oslo. Courtesy of VI, VII, Oslo. Photo: Christian Tunge.

The article is translated from Norwegian by Nora Joung.

The article was changed on 30 March at 17.25 pm.