In the late 18th century, when the first hot-air balloons rose into the sky and one unmanned prototype suffered a lynching at the hands of alarmed French villagers who took it for a celestial monster, production of the printed fabric 'Toile de Jouy' was gathering pace. Appreciated by both Marie Antoinette and Napoleon for its striking combination of single colours, such as red, blue or green, on bleached calico, the material is chiefly associated with pastoral and floral motifs, but its creators also celebrated topical subjects in designs such as Le Ballon de Gonesse (1784), commemorating the Robert brothers' first manned balloon flight.
Looking at Kerstin Kartscher's When Life Is Most Worth Sharing (2002), it's easy to imagine her beavering away at the innovative fabric factory in Jouy. Her most recent work, it consists of drawings on a six-panel, cloth-covered screen with a few fragrant oranges hanging from it. The screen is exactly the kind of medium for which the classic French textile might have been used. It also shares the plain colour scheme and graphic drawing style that characterize the material, as well as its use of whimsical and exotic motifs. Like the creator of Le Ballon de Gonesse, Kartscher is captivated by the idea of transporting her viewers to other worlds.
In When Life is Most Worth Sharing, as in most of her works, Kartscher offers an imaginary journey to a fantastic place where familiar things have been rearranged in the most improbable ways. Open fields and stretches of ocean or sky are recurrent elements in the screen's various compositions, with a variety of epochs, cultures, characters and curiosities appearing cheek by jowl in a sketchily defined space. In one panel, for example, there is a mechanical-looking globe hovering above rolling hills. This mysterious sphere is based on Albrecht Dürer's Die Armillarsphäre (The Armilla, 1525), a wood engraving of nothing less than the entire known universe, but you could be forgiven for taking it as early evidence of the existence of UFOs.
It might be helpful to know that Kartscher was raised in Nuremberg. During the Renaissance, long before it acquired notoriety for hosting rallies and war crime trials, the city was also Dürer's home town. Although known in his lifetime as an author, mathematician and designer of fortifications, today Dürer represents a sort of acme of draughtsmanship: countless reproductions of his praying hands now exist, not to mention his beautiful hare. How many aspiring artists, one wonders, have sat down to copy his works in response to a challenge from well-meaning relatives, anxious to dissuade them from a dangerous ambition? Kartscher admires many things about Dürer, including his skill, his interest in new worlds and his desire to make his art more available through reproduction (although she takes computer-aided liberties with the rules of perspective that he imported from Italy). Apart from the globe, her screen also has an image from The Flight into Egypt (c.1502-5), for which Dürer was apparently asked to illustrate one half of a palm tree, without ever having seen one. The idea of basing a drawing of a real object on nothing more than written descriptions and a healthy imagination fascinates Kartscher, who demonstrates her affinity with the German master's oeuvre, and her own accomplishments as a draughtswoman, by supplying the missing half of the tree.
Kartscher's drawings in marker pen on paper are in a sense explorations of linear time as well as space. While ostensibly landscapes, they're more about the subject who makes or views them than about conquest or ownership, themes that, as Craig Owens pointed out in an essay on Lothar Baumgarten entitled 'Improper Names', characterize much Western topographical painting of 'new worlds' in the colonial era.1 The places and sometimes bizarre terrain she draws may be frontiers, but they are personal ones. Kartscher describes her work as expressing 'the conflict between rebellion and capitulation - the same conflict we experience when we find a controlled landscape extremely beautiful, and at the same time start longing in an almost nostalgic way for a wild and virgin space'. The journeys in her drawings are to the edge of another more liberated state of being rather than to another place. So it seems appropriate that some of them, such as those based on Herman Melville's Moby Dick (1851), are packed with moody psychological skies, colossal waves and perilous rocks. Flow and Arrest of Thoughts (2001), for example, depicts a girl sitting strumming a guitar, hovering above a red ocean into which enormous chains are dangling. Of course, both Surrealists and Romantics used similar combinations of figures in strange landscapes, often to express a yearning for fulfilment and freedom, but while both movements (in particular figures such as the Romantic illustrator Gustave Doré) are visible reference points in Kartscher's work, her symbolism is never heavy-handed or mechanical. Her drawings do not convey a sense of sublime or spiritual union with the natural world, or of liberation through the expression of subconscious inner truth; what she is trying to express is possibly more an atmosphere in which freedom might be possible than a programme for achieving it.
This is clearer perhaps with her drawings of female subjects, who all seem calmly assertive of their independence and freedom. Although dressed in their evening gowns - like Mrs Radio (2001) - or with their classical instruments - as in Refuse to Know (2001) and Riderless (2001) - they may not look like freedom fighters or activists, that's exactly what they are. Kartscher's images posit architecture (read 'society') against the wild (read 'freedom') and suggest that history needs to be constantly redrawn. In The History of Architecture (2001) a kneeling figure is absorbed in drawing, perhaps pondering the inspiration behind the piece: Doris Cole's book From Tipi to Skyscraper (1978), which argues that women, as the makers and owners of the tepee, were North America's first architects. Kartscher's recurring images of improvised, portable and provisional shelters - tents, sunshades, hammocks - offer an alternative to being constrained by bricks and mortar. Our own limitations are defined for us in terms of what we are not. And if there is a hint of melancholy about this realization, Kartscher's response is to insist that we should at least attempt to express a different state, either through drawings or in our imaginations. Better still, we could launch our own balloon trips into the unknown, without worrying how bumpy the ride ahead may turn out to be.
1. Craig Owens, 'Improper Names', Art in America, vol 10, October, 1986, pp. 126-134.
First published in Issue 72