ARTFORUM January 2002

JESS VON DER AHE- Jay Grimm Gallery

Perhaps it's a mark of my own post-feminism ( or just squeamishness ) that I assumed the blood on von der Ahe's work was taken from her arm. Taking the politics out of menstrual blood is certainly one of the artist's accomplishments: Rather than provocation and shock ( à la Tracey Emin's used tampons) or a sort of disingenuous detachment ( as with Warhol's abstractions created with urine), von der Ahe goes for seduction and enchantment, affirming beauty while divorcing it from any '70s-era feminist context. Her choice of menstrual blood over other types seems more related to limiting herself to a strictly regulated supply. That's just one of the self-imposed restrictions of her art, in which blood and gold leaf are applied to panels prepared with gesso and marble dust ( the ultimate neutral white, like a bottomless glass of milk) and coated in shiny flawless resin. Given the inertness of the later materials, von der Ahe's blood is her agent for expression- her version of Robert Ryman's white paint.

In contrast to her first protean show in 2000 at this venue-thirty-eight small works hung salon style- here von der Ahe decreased the number and increased the size, including a triptych at four by nine feet and four paintings at four by three ( all works Untitled, 2001). They pack a graphic punch from the distance but yield incredibly delicate detail up close. An army of bubbles coalesces at the center of one, then radiates out in a scattershot pattern. Corpuscle- and cell-like shapes are plentiful, as are other forms with myriad associations: eyeballs, candies, toy balls, folk-art flower-stars, seashells, planets. There are plump donuts incised with lines, marbleized blobs, and areas of crazing patterns as in glaze on pottery.

Two works in which a gold-leaf background dominates are evocative of Japanese art. Patterns of red-and-white swirls and concentric circles mimic each other in one panel, recalling stylized details from a seascape: octopus tentacles, squid, starfish. On the opposite wall, bubbles cluster around undulating, sinuous horizontal lines, their varying shades and thicknesses lending a three-dimensional quality and suggesting more waves and seafoam -or perhaps hillsides and shrubbery. Aother painting resembles an enlarged detail or the versal of an ancient manuscript, with the minutiae in its nooks and crannies reminiscent of Gustav Klimt and other artists of the Vienna Secession. The triptych has the sparest composition: Puffy white cloudlike forms meander across a gold ground lined along the bottom with blood bubbles, a rogue one floating above.

Von der Ahe's paintings are so voluptuous, so simple yet sumptuous that the risk vapidity. Her art has a hothouse hauteur, its rococo sensuousness reigned in by a strict sense of design. What saves it is the powerful, primal aura of the gold and blood (on some level, von der Ahe equates their preciousness), even as the attenuated beauty of those media require a protective coating. The resin gives the work a remoteness, like covetable consumer goods shrink-wrapped or displayed solitarily in a vitrine. Ultimately, the chilly formality is balanced by intimacy and expression. Call it deeply decorative.

-Julie Caniglia


Jess von der Ahe: Surface and Substance

Feb.25-March 23,2001 Richard L. Nelson Gallery & The Fine Arts Collection The University of California at Davis Curated by Lisa Tamiris Becker

Jess von der Ahe's exquisite compositions of gold and blood unite an investigation of surface and substance while examining the relationship between painting and the body. Referencing illuminated manuscripts and icon paintings, in which, for example, the Virgin Mary would have been painted on a ground of gold, these paintings contend with ideas of procreation and transfiguration, probing at the multiple meanings of the icon and the self-portrait in Western Art History. The opulently syncopated patterns, each composed from a palette of white ground,gold leaf,and the artist's own menstrual blood, present biomorphic cell-like structures, corpuscular patterns,and gridded architectonic configurations.

Seen in the context, von der Ahe's retro 50's abstractions poignantly thematize ideas of growth,reproduction, and transmutation. The paintings also address highly contemporary themes of genetic research, hybrid life-forms, cloning, and techno-biology.

In works such as Untitled,1999 (depicted on the front cover) the architectural structures, inscribed in blood, resemble electronic circuitry, linking the biomorphic with the technical. Here, as in many of von der Ahe's metaphysical paintings, the post-Millennial narratives of transgenetic and cybergenic mutation and hybridization are inscribed onto a painted surface.

Yet,the artist's use of her own menstrual blood also links the work to painting in perhaps its earliest incarnation. Animal blood, as a painting medium, dates back at least to the time of pr-historic cave painting,but here the use of menstrual blood in particular,culled from the artist's own body, transforms the abstract mark into a self-portrait. The blood pools into a deep red, other times thinning into tones of purple and brown. Juxtaposed against the creamy white and the vivid gold,and embedded within a glassy surface of resin,the ovoid and corpuscular shapes pulse with energy, recalling the abstract the abstract paintings of Ad Reinhardt or Piet Mondrian and the quasi-figurative patterned paintings of Gustav Klimt.

The glassy resin surface of von der Ahe's paintings-though it recalls traditions of richly varnished oil paintings-infuses the work with a distinctly 21 st Century sensibility. The opulent resin, not unlike the plastic skins currently under research for use in micro-electronics, as well as in plastic surgery,functions literally to protect the marks of blood and gold from oxidation and deterioration. But the resin skin also attains a physical if not sculptural presence of its own,recalling the use of resin by artistic predecessors such as Eva Hesse, Louis Bourgeois, or Kiki Smith. Von der Ahe's resin is however,more pristine, rarified, and devoid of contamination enveloping the paintings in a clinical precision, distinctly of our time. The resin becomes both surface and substance, recalling the flesh of the cyborg body,while protecting the underlying strata of marks beneath the surface.

Alongside the evidence of somatic and cybergenic vitality, it is important to note that Jess von der Ahe also engages with a morbid sense of beauty- a beauty in which air bubbles seem to float ominously in some of the vein- like structures and in which cellular configurations at times appear to be growing at uncontrolled cancerous pace or anemically slow speed- but then it is in this simultaneous engagement with life and death as we currently know it, that links the meaning of von der Ahe's illuminated paintings to the ongoing tradition of Western icon painting and for that matter, the Western self-portrait- the desire to mark life and to come to terms with death- these are the ultimate subjects of Jess von der Ahe's provocative works.

-Lisa Tamiris Becker Spring, 2001

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Illuminated Paintings: Jess von der Ahe 1998-2000

New York Catalogue essay by Buzz Spector

Drawing Blood In “The Blank Page”, a sublime story by Isak Dinesen, the nuns of a Carmelite order in Portugal grow flax which is made into linen bed sheets of extraordinarily fine quality. These sheets are fitted to cover the bridal beds of neighbouring kingdoms. After every royal wedding night these sheets, stained with blood, are returned to the convent where they are framed and mounted in a gallery, each bearing witness to the virginity of a princess.

The use of blood as an artistic medium isn't a new idea, of course. Even setting a side it's ritual employment in many cultures, spilled blood marks a number of influential artworks and performance events of the past forty years. The bloodied cloths from Hermann Nitsch's quasi-sacrificial aktions of the 1960's come to mind as do the stained relics and documentation from many feminist performances of the 1980's, especially those of Suzanne Lacy,Judy Chicago, or Gina Pane. A notorious recent example would be Marc Quinn's “Self” (1991), a cast of the artist's head,composed of nine pints of his own blood, frozen and then exhibited in a refrigerated vitrine.

Jess von der Ahe paints with her own blood,saving what she can of each menstrual flow as the pigment for the strikingly literal “body” of her work. Von der Ahe's use of her own bodily fluid draws something from each of the art world references I have cited, but I find the effect of her art to have most in common with the metaphors of Dinesen story, where blood is both an emblem of honor and a sign of bliss, and where those framed sheets are literal self-portraits, narrating the private lives of princesses.

Von der Ahe began working with blood while living in Berlin in 1988. Cutting paper with a sharp knife in her studio one day she accidentally sliced her finger. She used the bleeding cut to make two drawings, a result that she later describes as her “first abstract moment”. She has continued to work with blood ever since, in drawings, paintings and installations. In her latest series of paintings on board, von der Ahe supplements blood with applications of gold leaf and coatings of resin or varnish. The blood oxides as it dries, leaving a rust-colored residue which, together with the sheen of brushed gold and yellowish tones of resin, invest these works with something of the feel of illuminated manuscripts. This is also an effect of the decorative patterning von der Ahe uses, clusters of corpuscular ovoids,stylized splatters, and complex layers of boxlike forms which resemble the ornamentation in the fin-de-siècle paintings of Gustav Klimt. But where the Viennese painter achieved an attitude of morbid voluptuousness through his unique combination of representational and abstract imagery, von der Ahe offers us the ineluctably real substance of her own body, given fantastical aspect in the manner of its application in her work.

The care to which von der Ahe rendered the droplets, runnels, and splashes of her motifs is conceptually jarring precisely because blood, when otherwise seen in such configurations, is so obvious a sign of a body that has lost something of its distinction from the world. The elegance of these forms denis nothing of the morbid state of the material from which they are made, but every dead corpuscle is resplendent in von der Ahe's fields of amber and gold. Like that stained linen on the walls of Dinesen's Carmelite order, this blood is the ink from which the artist's body tells her tales.

-Buzz Spector

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ART IN AMERICA November 2000

Jess von der Ahe at Jay Grimm

Like Reinhardt and Ryman before her, Jess von der Ahe finds great potential in a limited palette, creating ornate abstraction using only white, gold and subtle shades of red. To further constrain her color choices, von der Ahe's white is the unvarying background of gessoed board, and her gold is limited to the metallic monochrome of gold leaf. Her skill with this notoriously difficult and expensive medium leads inevitably to comparisons with Gustav Klimt, one of the few masters of gold leaf in modern painting. Only the red allows for variation, and von der Ahe pushes it to shades ranging from a faint rusty tint to a deeply saturated red violet to a ruddy brown. Although her works, which are covered with resin, are unabashedly beautiful, some viewers are repulsed when they learn the source of her red tones: menstrual blood.
Eschewing the recent tradition of associating effluvia with political messages, von der Ahe does not use blood with didactic intent. Gold and blood by their nature convey to the paintings a sense of preciousness and scarcity. This first solo show in New york created an impression of prolific abundance, featuring 38 small- to medium-sized paintings, all untitled and dated 1999-2000, many hung salon-style on a dark green wall.
As benefits her choice of mediums, von der Ahe's abstractions are organic, fluid and intimate in scale. Her designs are versatile, ranging from a Rococo sense of pattern to a Minimalist use of negative space. One painting is dense with cell-like concentric circles of rust against a flat gold surface. Each ring is saturated with different quantities of blood, some thickly puddled and others so faint that the dried liquid clings to the outer circumferences. The circles in another painting are widely spaced, forming isolated bubbles floating in a field of cool white. In one painting, blood is drawn out into thin spidery lines to create a flat web of subdivisions; another is composed of overlapping cubes whose varying degrees of translucency suggest an illusion of depth.
First and foremost one is aware of von der Ahe's sophisticated sense of design. The limpid elegance of these abstractions has an ingratiating appeal that ultimately disarms any revulsion to the artist's bodily medium. This work, while apolitical, eloquently challenges any attribution of shame to a simple biological fact of woman's bodies. In the process, she also erases the shame of keeping beauty at the forefront of contemporary discourse on abstraction.

-Grady Turner