Volcanism and feminism have a kinship that goes beyond merely sharing a suffix. A volcano is a kind of gateway into the deeper layers of the earth, into the eternal primordial heat, a fissure in the crust of the planet that may be regarded as a release valve for the raging geological turmoil within. During a sojourn on the volcanic island of Lanzarote, German-Danish artist Ursula Reuter Christiansen (b. 1943) saw an allegorical kinship between the island’s volcanism and the sheer strength and power of woman. Since the 1960s, the artist has contributed to activating such powers in the realm of art, supporting women’s liberation from patriarchy’s perfidious dominance in the 20th century, and making her a voice to be reckoned with.
Today, Lanzarote has cooled down a great deal and become tightly packed with holiday and sports activities, but the underground forces of nature, which the inhabitants of the island have naturally learned to suppress, are still smouldering just a few feet beneath the surface. At any time, the earth might crack open, spraying us all with a fresh spurt of disaster. Fortunately, the primeval feminist forces have not cooled within the realm of Reuter Christiansen’s Expressionist art, and the artist eloquently asserts this second-wave feminist drive with the exhibition Volcano Woman at the Copenhagen gallery Sabsay.
As I step into the dimly lit exhibition space, I come across an island of fine dark silicon lying on the floor in the centre of the room. A small, semi-transparent, red glass building perches atop the heap. Glass House (1986–2019) emits a soft glow from within, suggesting some sacred architecture or magmatic mushroom popping up from the earth. The gallery walls carry paintings, all of which portray female figures in various situations.
Two of the paintings, Leipzig Vulcan Woman, Is this my town? Eine Wunde, Viele Wunden I and II (2019) both feature colourfully depicted women who look poised for battle, their gestures loud and insistent. The women have just broken out of German city volcanoes, and now find themselves among tall buildings and post-war times. Maybe they are bleeding from their thighs and shoulders; maybe it’s just paint. We certainly see that the canvas has been slashed and gashed with a knife in several places, causing the paintings’ subject and medium to converge. The figures resemble Central European Amazon warriors in a rainforest of new concrete and glass façades.
In another work, Menneskeværn (Human grinder, 2003-19), we see a red human figure swallowed up and crushed by a rusty workshop grinder. The theme is manifested not only in a painting, but also in a sculpture which appears almost as if it were pulled from the painting, reproducing the beautiful brutality in three dimensions. In the latter, the human figure is made of blown glass, with flakes and shards of glass placed illustratively and instructively underneath the grinder. An exceptionally direct logic governs this work, but the translation from planar flatness to in-the-round spatiality prevents the glowing figure in the painting from becoming an interesting narrative.
The colour red is featured in many of the works. Red is one of the two colours that the human body can easily produce itself; we can use it to paint our surroundings with if harm is done to us, or if we just want to give something of ourselves. The colour also facilitates a direct and very corporeal manifestation of the highest peaks of the emotional spectrum: grief, anger, pain. Emotions which Reuter Christiansen employs very directly in her fierce emancipated figurations.
Most of the new paintings appear to have been executed with great speed, as if a single work-through was sufficient. At the same time, the palette demonstrates a wild and insensitive blend of natural colours mixed with something brash and synthetic – choices which initially obscure and confuse our impression of the paintings’ subjects, yet also help to affirm the anger embedded in the scenes. Hence, we become uncertain about the true meaning of that anger. Is it general and controlled, or personal and rampant? Or perhaps such doubts and questions are irrelevant?
The titles of the paintings of volcanic women all contain questions associated with origins. Is this my star? (2019) asks the dark woman insistently gazing down at the Hollywood-walk-of-fame-like terrazzo star she’s standing on amid a barren volcanic landscape. Is this my planet? (2019) asks a blue person stretching out in a brown forest.
These condensed, carefully delimited questions shore up Reuter Christiansen’s powerful position and the vehicles she uses for making her pronouncements. One thing and one thing only is said in each picture, and an unwavering banality is employed to palpable effect. It feels honest and anti-cryptic. Indeed, one of the things she’s remarkably good at is making paintings that say: No to war; No to oppression; No to predetermined roles; Yes to equality and freedom; Yes to mythology; Yes to impossible love. Thus declares the woman in Hertil og ikke videre (This far and no further, 2019), whose arms stretch out across the canvas as if to impede the viewer’s transgressive behaviour, or perhaps just to protect the familiar Christiansen-esque poppies that grow in her paintings as on the battlefields of World War I. The poppies mourn spilled blood, draw it up into themselves and transform loss into beauty. Here, woman guards the symbolic space, and this time we can just fuck off.
Reuter Christiansen is obviously on a ceaseless quest for symbols and mythological subjects which can be brought into play as agents in the narrative she has helped create throughout her life. Nor can there be any doubt that her art has made an invaluable contribution to the history of feminism. The fact that she is currently experiencing something of a renaissance simply reaffirms her place in this canon. At the same time, it also reaffirms the relatively Romantic idea of art as a release valve for the building pressure of social indignation and unjust norms. Ursula Reuter Christiansen is poised between compelling narratives and banal painterly and sculptural representations, and this balancing act is precisely the thing that creates a dual impression of political outcry and exalted mysticism.