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"Still Lifes" by Marianna Gartner on view at Galerie Michael Haas in Berlin
The Bewlay Brothers, 2013. Oil on canvas, 170 x 340 cm.

By: Anna Hellner

BERLIN.- Laughing skeletons, bright pumpkins, flies with fishtails and a circle of dignified gentlemen at a large white table, on which a peculiar formation of arteries, veins and bits of bone is appearing. What does this represent?

What are the black-and-white men, with the different decorations on their chests, discussing? The art crisis, life itself, or the conquering of time? In Christian iconography, every symbol in a still life has a set meaning. In the new paintings by Canadian artist Marianna Gartner, which are exponents of this traditional art form, little is clear or unequivocal – but much is more interesting for that.

The title of the work The Bewlay Brothers could be a reference to the song of the same name from the album Hunky Dory (1971), by no less that David Bowie, which is also about ghosts: "...there are layers of ghosts within it..." as Bowie said in 2008. This also applies to Gartner and her figurative paintings, which seem so harmless at first glance. The particularities of her painting only become apparent to the observer on closer inspection, such as for example the view of the interior anatomy of a foot in the children's portrait, or the tattoos on a baby's skin.

The artist was born in 1963 in Winnipegand lives in Victoria, and was described as an „exceptional artist“ by Agnes Husslein-Arco, the Director of the Belvedere in Vienna. In 2011, she had a large and fascinating exhibition or intervention with the masterpieces there. She often works with old photographs, which she finds at flea markets or in antique shops.

The stiffness, detachment and isolation of early, staged portrait photographs, with their long exposure times, slip surreptitiously into her paintings, so that a curious allure emanates from them. The dialogue between painting and photography begins, where painting can seem more authentic than the people imitating photography, who appear like artificial quotations or empty foreign bodies. Gartner weaves these two media together, whose characteristics she studied in Calgary. She uses motifs and often also textures, independently of time and space, to create a kind of “paper theatre”, as Margrit Brehm noted, where “what is found” exists alongside “what is created” and the “brokenness of the image” – the lack of a common location, a unified time or a compelling plot – creates confusion. Yet despite the confusion and the bleak references, in still life, to the classical symbols of vanitas, such as the skull or the fly, which are connected to the thought of Memento Mori (remember, you are mortal!), the artist still manages time and again to wink at her observers. For example, the small skeleton holding a towel to its nose, turns away from the indefinable image behind it, as though the image reeked.

Marianna Gartner sums things up thus: “I paint pictures, and combinations always arise: beauty and ugliness, happiness and terror, life and death, all of the simple contradictions we find in our lives”. (2010)

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September 26, 2013

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