I was home alone the other night. It was very late and I was so tired I could barely move. And then I heard it.
Thin strains of Strauss came floating through the wall from the apartment next door and filled the air. In my exhausted state the faint wistfulness of the music was perfect; the way it had drifted into my world uninvited and from an invisible source felt much more appropriate than listening to it in a concert hall, watching the musicians do their thing while people in the audience fidget with boredom. But perhaps even more strangely, this once festive but now melancholy Viennese fin-de-siècle melody filtering into my east London ex-council flat, bringing with it ghostly intimations of doomed young men dancing with long-dead shiny-haired girls in elegant ballrooms, seemed as relevant and contemporary as any music I have heard recently.
Looking at a picture by Katharina Wulff produces a similar effect. Despite all logic, her peculiar recent paintings and works on paper somehow manage to look right - perplexing, but right. Wulff, who grew up in East Germany, trained as a ballet dancer and a hairdresser before becoming an artist, and she still works part-time in the theatre doing hair. This combination of influences - the jobs she has done, the grim political situation in which she grew up and her experience with artifice - informs her work, both literally and symbolically.
Wulff's pictures are filled with an enjoyable, even luxurious, languor; if they could, I'm sure they would sigh, but with pleasure. Without needing to use words she tells unresolved tales of mystery and imagination that tend to involve a recurrent scenario: dressed in anachronistic clothes, blank-faced, bejewelled women with marvellous hair lounge around in breezy rooms filled with patterns composed of animals, birds and plants. Sometimes these women gaze out of a window, but only to see a kaleidoscopic explosion of more patterns. At other times patterns tumble down onto the women like leaves, decorating their hair or clothes, or lingering over an animal's fur. Sometimes the women are alone; occasionally there may be a group of them; very rarely a rather uncomfortable man might make an appearance. There is little to differentiate the women from one another physically; they are not particularly fat or thin and appear to be of indeterminate age, but they are always radiant. If they share anything, it would appear to be an approach to coiffure and a taste for gazing into space. Now and again they interact: one woman might pin up another's dress; two women might look as if they are murmuring to each other in a lift; or a group might stand silently about in a room - but this is not the kind of interaction that feeds off, or would appear to need, intimacy. Although there is a certain implicit peacefulness, it is an introspective one.
Wulff treats history like a giant wardrobe, borrowing items as the mood takes her. The women she depicts obviously love clothes that recall the Rococo but are also obviously fond of the 1920s; they return time and again to the slim lines of the Empire dress but seem also to mutter vaguely, if with interest, about the muted psychedelia of club fashion. But above all, they really love hair - it rises from their heads like a smooth flame, tangles like a bird's nest above their slim necks, flows down their backs like a summer stream, glitters with jewels or glows with good health. Her women are also curious, in a lazy way, about animals, but it's difficult to know whether they prefer their beasts in pictures or in the flesh; although the animals (which are usually of the wild variety) appear to be embedded in wallpaper, they occasionally seem able to shake off their flimsy constraints and leap like hallucinations into the boudoir.
I'm not sure how the women feel about men. They obviously put up with them, but they are far too self-contained to bother their heads with anyone who might cause trouble, and so the men tend to come across as bit players. Except, that is, for one very funny painting which depicts a muscular man with a naked torso facing some wallpaper bearing images of wild beasts. Representation gazing at representation? One cliché contemplating another?
Wulff's colours are soft but bright, reminiscent of the those you might find in a children's colouring-in book. Her paint is often applied crudely, almost experimentally; the drawings are more delicate, like paintings seen through lace curtains. With their curious mix of emptiness and excess, her pictures are riddled with skewed perspective and are often clumsy, but it's a clumsiness that manages to be graceful at the same time - in a weird way they make me think of the tentative and self-absorbed steps of a new-born foal. In this sense there is something utopian about Wulff's eccentric, peaceful world. At the heart of its awkward mix of history and reverie lurks something hopeful, an aspiration for a gentler and probably more fragrant society than the one we inhabit so anxiously now. In Wulff-land the most urgent issues of the day would be doing your hair, finding a couch to lie on and working out which dream to dream. And then, once the day had died, everyone would go to the most beautiful party in the world, where every guest would make an effort not only to look wonderful, but also not to tread on anyone else's toes.
But this is an image of Utopia that, despite its sweetness, isn't all roses - it is incomplete, even faintly dissonant. Wulff often stops a picture at unexpected moments and resists applying colour in passages that would seem to demand it; figures are occasionally outlined, while faces are often featureless or turned away. She makes it very clear that she is resistant to the idea that everything should be described, prescribed or even known. For her it would appear that the accommodation of mystery and self-expression, however idiosyncratic, is a prerequisite of freedom. In this sense, she makes models of possibility - their clumsiness explainable by the fact that aspirations have to struggle to realize their as yet unexplored potential.
Wulff's best pictures contain within them everything you need to know; if your curiosity isn't immediately satisfied, you must be the kind of person who asks for a definition of a waltz but then refuses to dance. Surface, for her, is a reflection of content. She once commented that she would 'like to negate grey in the world'; I second that emotion.
First published in Issue 64