Double Consciousness: Kathrine Ærtebjerg

Barry Schwabsky

I first encountered the work of Kathrine Aertebjerg in 2006 when I was invited to contribute to the catalogue for the group show “Girlpower and Boyhood” in Odense and Edinburgh. I normally shy away from writing for catalogues for group shows, but I made an exception this time because this exhibition had an important theme that had otherwise been strangely overlooked. Our present culture has maintained the fascination with the creativity of the child that Modernism inherited from the Romantics, and added to it something new: an equal fascination with the child’s successor, the adolescent, whose turmoil and volatility has become one model of authenticity. Although I hadn’t seen Aertebjerg’s work before, her paintings became, for me, some of the paradigmatic works of the exhibition and its theme.

That Aertebjerg’s work is concerned with childhood is self-evident. Not only do the figures she depicts often look childlike, but they are befriended by animal familiars like the protagonists of fairy tales and cartoons. We can allow this childlike aspect to charm us but that does not mean that as viewers we can ourselves afford to adopt a false naïveté in our own approach to the paintings. What would constitute such a naïve approach? Two possibilities: either to approach the paintings with an affected innocence, as if they were inviting us to play some beguiling but inconsequential game with them; or to approach them in the pompous spirit of a pretentious maturity that imagines that it is above all these childish concerns. One approach misses the point as much as the other—although at least the first might be more fun. But either one would miss the subtle ambivalence of the work. That’s the perspective that allows one to enter the work—as perhaps its maker did—in a spirit that is at once sophisticated and innocent, earnest and whimsical, analytical and imaginative, adult and childlike. And the contrary spirit of the adolescent is not entirely absent from them either. Aertebjerg’s are paintings for people who have forgotten neither that have grown up nor that they have been children. From this perspective, maturity does not distance us from the children we were so much as it deepens our understanding of them. We experience childhood only in retrospect.

This double perspective is of the essence of Aertebjerg’s art. It has been well said that in her work, “We are not presented with a clearly defined meaning but rather the possible, the undecided and the ambiguous.”

 I would only add this important proviso: that the ambiguity that emerges from these paintings has nothing to do with vagueness; it is the kind of ambiguity in which two distinct levels of experience come together in a complex unity. Another example of this complexity of attitude in Aertebjerg’s work: The coexistence of emotional intensity and humor, lyricism and irony. Shouldn’t they interfere with one another, each undermining the effect of the other? So we expect. But I don’t see that happening. Instead, the co-presence of seemingly contradictory qualities helps imbue the paintings with a sense of enigma. Aertebjerg’s humor somehow both disrupts the oneiric atmosphere that otherwise enwraps the paintings and at the same time—or rather, in a second take, perhaps even in retrospect—intensifies it.

This humor is most often, it seems to me, conveyed by means of the human faces depicted in the paintings—or rather the human face, singular, for usually there is just one in each painting. One of the constants in this work is a contrast (which is also a dialogue) between painterly and linear modes of representation; the face is almost always among the most purely linear passages in any of Aertebjerg’s paintings and this partly accounts for the fact that in each painting the face is also among the passages that are most strongly reminiscent of children’s book illustrations or cartoons. They embody a point of apparent simplicity or straightforwardness within the image, in comparison with which the strange goings-on appear most patently in their strangeness. And that juxtaposition of strange doings and a straightforward viewpoint can easily give rise to humor. But there’s another thing: Very often (though there are important exceptions) the face looks outward; implicitly, it engages (or, let us say, it is open to engaging) the gaze of the viewer in a sort of mutual acknowledgement. The face is where is the painting becomes conscious it is being looked at. And in that self-consciousness lies the humor of the painting.

Here, Aertebjerg’s paintings engage with the problematic of absorption, which Michael Fried has dealt with so insistently, above all in his 1980 book Absorption and Theatricality, though he is still continuing to pursue it today, as can be seen in his recent work on photography.

 But she does so in a way that Fried would never countenance, since this acknowledgement of the viewer’s gaze is a paradigmatic case of what he denounces as theatricality. The fact is, Aertebjerg’s paintings contain both. Perhaps this qualifies them as neither purely absorptive nor purely theatrical, but ironic: endowed with a double consciousness.

If the face acknowledges the viewer and partakes of theatricality, the landscape represents the painting’s unconsciousness of the viewer and therefore what Fried would call its absorption, that is to say, its autonomy, the fact of its being taken up wholly with itself. In fact, even to speak of a landscape here can be slightly misleading. The spaces in which these figures find themselves contain other representational elements, to be sure, but the space itself tends to be more abstract than descriptive. A strange expression, come to think of it—“these figures find themselves.” One might recount a dream, saying, “I found myself on a train with a dwarf sharing my compartment…” or “I found myself in my neighbor’s kitchen—I knew it was my neighbor’s even though I’ve never actually been inside his apartment…” or “I found myself in the midst of a field where strangely large flowers were blooming…” And so on. Actually that last one could be the start of a description of one of Aertebjerg’s paintings, if one had dreamed it rather than seen it (and I sometimes think I have). This “finding oneself” is something like losing oneself: It has to do with being in a location without location, a place that has no place, and with not knowing how one got there, as if there were no “before” to the story. It’s a lot like being in a painting, for the figures in a painting have no “before” (and no “after”) but only their present state, and the place they are in reaches only to the edge of the canvas; beyond that border they could be anywhere. 

The figure that finds itself in a painting—or, since we are speaking of Aertebjerg here, we should say, “the figure who finds herself in a painting”—is like someone finding herself in a dream. Like a painting, the dream comprehends no “before” (though there may be a “next”) and no “outside”—only the present, or a sequence of presents, and what is present. And its space is abstract. It is not like a photograph in which every detail of the scene has been registered, even the details one hadn’t noticed at the moment on took the picture. In the dream, only what is noticed is registered, because in a dream, to notice something is to produce it then and there—nothing exists before being noticed. In Aertebjerg’s paintings, only certain significant details of the setting are actually depicted, the ones we can imagine the protagonist noticing. 

This points to an important difference between her work and most other representational painting. Normally, in a representational painting with human figures in a setting, whether realistically rendered or stylized, the setting is not entirely congruent with the implied field of consciousness of the figure. Imagine a painting of a woman in a wooded landscape; it can be easily imagined that one might paint, say, a dangerous-looking snake coiled behind a tree, unnoticed by the figure but about to bite her. Perhaps this would be an allegory of ignorance. In any case, the painting easily supports the notion that it contains an element unnoticed by the figure, not part of the conscious awareness that the viewer projects as hers in the skeletal narrative one constructs in order to grasp the relations of the various figurative elements to one another. But with Aertebjerg, this is not the case. If there is a snake shown in the painting, it must be one that her protagonist is aware of. If there is a tree, she sees it, if there is a flower, she sees it, if there is a bird, she sees it—in some peculiar sense of the word “see,” admittedly, a sense peculiar to this painted world, where the protagonist need not be looking at something in order to see it. It is a mind’s-eye kind of seeing.

But aside from the figure and the other represented things of which we hold her to be aware, there are other important elements, all of which form part of what I’ve called the scene or the setting or the landscape yet which do not represent particular nameable elements of that setting. What are these elements? They are the purely painterly elements—more or less autonomous patches of color, brush strokes, all the lyrical, nonrepresentational markings of the canvas that cannot be accounted for by the narrative of relations among represented persons, animals, and objects but which are nevertheless salient ingredients of the paintings that contain them. These abstract elements have become even more important in Aertebjerg’s work of late. Indeed, some of her recent paintings could well be described as abstraction with a figure inserted—as if now the only “place” imaginable for her protagonists (that is, for represented awareness) could be painting itself. If the figure, or rather the face of the figure, is the place where the painting becomes conscious of itself, the landscape, and above all the landscape-turned-abstract of more recent work, is the place of unselfconsciousness in the painting, of pure presence—as I’ve said, of something like what Fried has called absorption. These paintings would not be what they are if they did not contain both.

But the question still remains: Who is this protagonist, this figure of awareness? She is always somehow the same, yet always a little different, always in some way or other transformed. She has no name. She is always, simply, “She.” Read the titles of the paintings: She could not sleep. She wanted to hear the story again and again. She looked up. She was a cunt. She leaked. Was she really supposed to be a girl all her life? She was ready. She was unreachable. She brought the light. Those are a few of Aertebjerg’s titles, chosen at random. Eventually they could be strung together into a sort of essay of their own, possibly even obviating the need for commentators such as myself to verbalize our responses, Writing them by hand on the gallery walls, as she typically does, she lends the titles an independent existence that is unusual in the practice of painters—as if each title were a little one-line poem in a series. Such titles open a doorway into a different, perhaps otherwise unsuspected set of implications in the painting, just as the paintings concretize implications in the words of the title that would otherwise be overlooked; image and title are like separate equations in a mathematical problem with two variables, a problem that could never be solved with just one of the two independent equations. The word “she” is one of those variables, like the x in the equation. So it is not accidental that “she” bears no name. She is not an individual, but a series of possible individuals.

We are back, it will have been noted, in the realm of “the possible, the undecided and the ambiguous.” Some would simply call that realm: Life. Others would prefer to name it: Art. Actually those are probably nothing other than two more simultaneous equations that can only be solved together while maintaining their autonomy. If the two equations are muddled together the larger problem will never be solved, perhaps not even noticed. At least that is what I would reply to anyone who might object to my “abstraction” of the word “She” here. I too have noticed that in a rare piece of published writing by the artist, a text called “The silent war” that appeared in the 2007 catalogue Among the living, the dead and the unborn, Aertebjerg uses this same third person in a way that seems to be autobiographical: It was clearly inspired by her own pregnancy. Here, one might say, the third person is merely a ruse, an indirect way of indicating the first person, oneself—and therefore shouldn’t we think the same about its use in Aertebjerg’s titles, and therefore, perhaps, of the depicted “she” in the paintings themselves? Doesn’t this oeuvre add up to a kind of fantasy diary, the symbolic dream-sequence of one individual’s life?

No doubt. But when one looks into such a statement one realizes that it contains a contradiction. When the diary takes fantastic form, when the life story becomes a dream sequence, anything like what we call the individual is left behind. Recall the last words of Aertebjerg’s text: “She was being transformed.”

Indeed, whatever enters the realm of her art is transformed. The numinous atmosphere her paintings is uncontrived. It is the product of the double consciousness with which they have been made, and which they elicit, in turn, in their viewer.


1 Anna Kielgast, “Of Another World,” Kathrine Aertebjerg: Se hvor store mine blomster er, svarede hun (Copenhagen: GL Strand, 2006), p. 57.

2 Michael Fried, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

3 Kathrine Aertebjerg, “The silent war,” Among the living, the dead and the unborn  (Poulsen Publish, 2007).


Barry Schwabsky is an American art critic and poet living in London. He writes regularly for The Nation and Artforum, among others, and also co-edits Artforum's international reviews section. His books include The Widening Circle: Consequences of Modernism in Contemporary Art (Cambridge University Press) and Vitamin P: New Perspectives in Painting (Phaidon Press) and he has contributed to catalogues and monographs on artists such as Henri Matisse, Alighiero Boetti, and Jessica Stockholder.