Ursula Reuter Christiansen, Named but Not Seen

Ursula Reuter Christiansen, Sleeping Beauty, 2018, acrylic and oil pastel on canvas. Photo: Davy Denke. Courtesy the artist and Von Bartha, Basel & Copenhagen

Rose Thorn at Von Bartha, Copenhagen presents good-looking paintings neatly framed – but the blushing canvases retain an elevated tone of subversion

In Copenhagen’s increasingly shiny Carlsberg City District, German-Danish artist Ursula Reuter Christiansen’s exhibition offers a gladelike pause. While five of the eight paintings hanging in the narrow room feature forest motifs, a handful of ceramic sculptures are installed as abstract (and slightly superfluous) windowsill decorations. Meanwhile, thorny rose branches, painted red and placed like bars in the gallery’s deep-set windows, underline the narrative implications. Sleeping Beauty seems to be the show’s protagonist, and though she’s never unambiguously present as a figure in the paintings here (which appear surprisingly consistent given that they were painted over a 40-year interval), her story pulses through them like blood through a vein.

She is named but not seen in Sleeping Beauty (2018), a large, gaudy and unpopulated diptych of majestic cathedrallike architecture overgrown by foliage (as distinct from rosebushes) that might depict her sanctuary. She could be implied by the seemingly female figures recurring in several of the works; she could be the cowled individual hiding – or caught – in bare thickets amid deep shades of pink, burgundy and purplish dark (Die Träne [The Tear], 2023), or be trapped in the chaotic blackness surrounding a castle-shaped house (Sie will mich zurückhalten [She Wants to Restrain Me], 1983). The Sleeping Beauty in Reuter Christiansen’s work is not adorable, objectified or pacified; princes are pointedly excluded – so emphasises the artist herself in the accompanying text sheet – and nowhere in the painted woods is romance or a saviour suggested; figures, when they appear, are solitary. Redemption or liberation don’t occur by way of a kiss.

Rose Thorn – Die Träne, 2023, acrylic and oil pastel on canvas, 90 × 60 cm. Photo: Davy Denke. Courtesy the artist and Von Bartha, Basel & Copenhagen

Rather, redemption and liberation seem to emanate from the persistent act of painting through decades of underrecognition, and the dimensions of Rose Thorn itself suggest as much: even though this is a four-decade show by an octogenarian artist, it’s very small. Now, as with so many other recent and overdue ‘breakthroughs’ bestowed on ageing or even recently deceased female artists, Reuter Christiansen’s practice is finally being more widely celebrated – though the admittedly small selection of works presented here isn’t the most representative presentation of her pioneering legacy. One could look up her first videowork, 1971’s The Executioner, seen as a key work in early Danish feminist art, for a more hardcore example of her efficiently flipping seemingly idyllic realms of flowers and dresses and feminine caretaking into critique. In Rose Thorn the impression is prettier, appealing to collectors – good-looking paintings neatly framed – but the blushing canvases retain an elevated tone of subversion. Insisting on making roses and dusks and Sleeping Beauties the leading characters in a modest yet appetising gallery show comes off as a confident exclamation point – it’s not unimaginable that the rosy fairytale aesthetic saturating most of the canvases could have been reduced to unambiguous femme romance inclinations by viewers not too long ago. Instead, Reuter Christiansen seems to suggest that when you own and amplify the unthreatening loveliness, poetic melancholy or trivial domestication assigned to you and your gender, it ceases to be a destiny you’ve arrived at passively.

Rose Thorn at Von Bartha, Copenhagen, 4 November – 22 December

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