Jakob Lena Knebl Galerie Georg Kargl / Vienna by

by March 19, 2020

The plush schemes of Jakob Lena Knebl are fanciful camp depictions, embellished mise-en-scènes of fantasia in the manner of commedia dell’arte. Outrageous they are, and each installation is an island unto itself, a schism of episodic moments from and of performance. This gender-bender artist is a ham with a plan. She knows her dramaturgy well and lures you into her scripted world. The videos, sculptural prosthetics, photographic media, and readymades all get tweaked and combined with an added ambiance. Things get pimped up, especially in a customized waterbed with textile accessories and woven yarn patterns mounted and made by Knebl herself. Clever is her chromatic use of various shades of pleather and felt, the kind used in banners, pennants, platforms, and, in the case of a long unfurling one, a red carpet. She isn’t shy an iota, and her largesse can be found shimmying everywhere. One can roam from settee to settee and enjoy these animate props interacting with real sculptural dexterity. Objects of modernist design are not just the decor of her set designs and displays; they’re a specific style choice, the shag rugs and lamps of the stylish demimonde. But somewhere something is amiss, and we find ourselves alone with her recurring image. She is the genie let out of the bottle, typically one of the players in her photographic setups: tableaux vivants in self-designed costumes. Some of the photos show an array of stock symbols — entwining candles, quartz crystals, skulls, etc. — that she bewitchingly uses as extensions of her persona. She casts a spell on the cognoscenti, inside the Rubik’s cube of a fecund imagination in the mold of a madcap Molière.

For Jakob Lena Knebl is a contrarian who knowingly shows refinement while pugnaciously assaulting middlebrow taste. She is a Trecartin gone to finishing school, upending the low and high of Viennese modernity. Like Trecartin, she has a symbiotic collaborator in mayhem — the ambidextrous artist-performer muse Ashley Hans Scheirl. With this symbiosis in mind, Jakob’s precise installs are the final artifacts of a thought-out event that took place in the figment of dual alter egos.

A natural comedienne, her big platform shoes are firmly planted in the various media at her disposal. Some garish tropes take their cue from Cindy Sherman’s lurid clown pictures. One is also reminded of the cool sophisto-interiors found in 1960–70s shelter mags. There is an air of decadence both in the softness of her form and the unbridled subcultural witchy milieu absorbed into the new Geist. Each multimedia combine of emblematic forms is anchored in the sculptural and the body — even when flattened to two dimensions. Weirdly, her deconstructions are in line with a current thread of figurative painting; Christina Quarles and Eliza Douglas come to mind. Yet Knebl is rooted in the levers of performance rather than a passive two-dimensional view of the body. She revels in her corporeality, as emphasized the jiggle of déclassé garments. If one understands that distinctly Viennese exchange of the applied art with the plastic fine one (the now classic adaptive) it’s not just a context but a way of thinking. Pedagogical structure counts here. Her structures are open vitrines without glass boxes — dispensing with the fourth wall of a Zobernig theatrical proscenium. There are no barriers. You enter her arena, walk around and into it, and become another prop at the same time. Ultimately, it’s in her crazily florid, industrially hard and craftily soft details, combined with an anatomical directness, that one can discern that ornament here is no shagadelic crime.

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Max Henry