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Roger Malbert

Juul Kraijer drawings

The calm fluency and grace of Juul Kraijer’s drawings may seduce us into imagining that they belong to a familiar world of classical order and traditional iconography, where the harmonious conciliation of body and mind, nature and metaphysics, is mediated by trusted metaphors and ancient myths. Branches springing from the hair of an upturned female head bring to mind Daphne’s metamorphosis, of course, and writhing snakes in place of hair, Medusa - just as a multitude of butterflies recalls the charming poetics of magical realism. But the disquieting ambiguities of other images, of insects alighting on the naked body of a woman, or egrets perching on one half submerged, are less easily interpreted, and should alert us to the fact that the artist’s visual language is deeply personal, touching sometimes on the heritage of images in the history of Western art, but almost by coincidence and never with deliberate allegorical intention. Surrealist principles of unconscious association and convulsive beauty are probably more relevant to her private cosmology. By conjoining disparate, incongruous and sometime incompatible, elements, she creates a catalyst for the imagination, disrupting - or short-circuiting - rational understanding.

Kraijer’s subject in her drawings is always female, naked and depersonalized, an archetype or personage rather than a particular individual. She is both naked and stripped of context, disassociated from time and place: she is naked as William Blake’s men and women are naked, because they are removed from mundane reality and seen with the spiritual, rather than the material, sense. ‘The naked woman’s body is a portion of eternity’, wrote Blake, ‘too great for the eye of man’. Kraijer’s nudes may be subtly erotic but she draws the female figure essentially because she is herself a woman and it is natural for her to represent the human form in its universal aspect as feminine. It is ‘the most neutral’ way to represent what she describes as emblematic embodiments of states of mind.

Given that her subject is the naked figure and face divested of distracting signs of individual character, it is appropriate that the artist should choose to draw with the barest, most rudimentary of means: charcoal, a simple stick of dry black dust impressed onto virgin paper. In European art, charcoal has often been employed for preparatory sketches, to be worked up in more luxurious and permanent materials, the ‘raw’ image ready to be ‘cooked’. In her student days, however, Juul Kraijer realized that it was for her the ultimate medium, an end in itself and not merely a means to another more substantial end (although she now also works in sculpture, video and photography). It suited her compulsion to create ethereal, otherworldly images: ‘Charcoal on paper verges on the immaterial. It is wafer-thin and scarcely affixes: just like the pattern on a butterfly wing.’ The fragility and tactility of the medium, which can be wiped away with a sweep of a cloth, accords with the naked exposure of the face and body, susceptible to an infinite variety of physical sensations. An intimate sense of touch is inherent in the medium; charcoal held between the fingers is almost an extension of the fingertips, which may graze the surface of the paper or even participate in the process of mark-making, smearing and rubbing to soften or correct the line. The delicate surface of the paper is like the skin, which in Kraijer’s drawings becomes an exquisitely sensitive ground for embellishment or inscription, or to be settled on by creatures - toads or birds or moths or bees - or to sprout sharp thorns or tiny spikes or tongues of fire. In each case sensation is strongly evoked, although the faces express neither stoical endurance nor pleasurable satisfaction, but rather sublime indifference, inwardness and detachment. The women seem impervious to - or at one with - the primitive and unspeaking forms of life inhabiting them.

Like death masks, those impassive faces seem to exist in a state of half-sleep, between self-awareness and self-extinction. The atmosphere of tranquil interiority, of a meditative mode of consciousness in which the mind is submerged and undisturbed by outward distractions, recalls images of the serenity of the Buddha and Hindu gods and martyred saints. The eyes are closed, or open but unseeing, or multiplied or transmuted into analogous forms, of leaves or fishes or butterfly wings. Symbols of flight recur in Kraijer’s drawings: butterflies with their patterns mimicking the pupils of the eyes, fluttering weightlessly around the face and body; hummingbirds drinking from tiny slit-like wounds in the upturned throat of a woman who is apparently ecstatic or at least calmly submissive; swarms of moths encircling a face illuminated in the darkness; hundreds of flies alighting on the face and body of a reclining nude as if on a corpse. In each of these images the uncanny almost tips into the horrific, yet they are rendered with such subtle refinement and restraint that their hallucinatory impact is kept in check; they remain elusive and mysterious.

Kraijer has spoken of her obsession with the collective intelligence animating creatures that move in unison: flocks of birds, shoals of fishes and swarms of moths and bees, swirling and diving as a single being, oscillating like ‘vibrating particles, joining and splitting up and creating endless new composite “bodies”’. The swarms of tiny insects encircling the heads like an atmospheric mist in her drawings, their patterns resembling cosmological and geological phenomena, point to a correspondence in nature between the greatest and smallest elements - macrocosm and microcosm. The artist’s dispassionate curiosity, and the calm assurance of her draughtsmanship, hold in balance a detached apprehension of nature with the visceral, subjective reaction of the viewer, which could be like the revulsion we feel on realizing that an indeterminate clump of matter in a dark pit is actually a silently seething mass of cockroaches, for example, or the shock of discovering a hive of bees, congregating in dense vibrating clusters, at once both fascinating and disturbing. The base matter of the universe, the formless, l’informe, is exemplified for the Surrealist Georges Bataille by insects, which have ‘no rights whatsoever’ and get themselves squashed.

The uncanny interconnectedness of different forms of life, so subtly conveyed in the drawings, is more palpable in the artist’s photographs, in images of a woman’s head entwined with a snake, or a naked contortionist’s limbs twisted and folded a little beyond what is conventionally feasible, the ribs and spine jutting like the stem and veins of a leaf. Here she seems to be pressing at the boundaries of consciousness as well as anatomy, the interface between the body and the external world, the animal and human. The single eye that fills the screen in the video, Inner Eye, blinks occasionally to reveal a scene of calm natural beauty, as in a vision or dream contained within the imagination rather than perceived externally. Unity in multiplicity is a recurring theme – trees standing closely together swaying almost imperceptibly, birds swooping in formation, light flickering on water - as in the drawings, where a single figure can be a motionless vehicle or container for manifold forms of existence. In certain drawings the figure literally contains landscapes within her contours, dense and heavily textured like fossils in rock or the frottages of Max Ernst; here, the body luxuriates in the rich black of the charcoal as if in a velvet dress. In other works, the soft thick smoky outlines of the figure are contrasted with a multitude of tiny, precisely delineated insects or leaves, like the many tongues of flame encircling Dante and Beatrice in Botticelli’s drawings of Paradiso. ‘In every drawing there is a trope, a metaphor or a simile’, Kraijer has said. The strange resemblances in nature, like those between the veins and arteries in the human body and the branches and roots of a tree, are not capricious inventions of the artist but real relations that she reveals so vividly that they appear to be fresh discoveries. Her figures’ apparently placid submission signifies a philosophical attitude, acquiescence in the unity but also the transitory and precarious condition of existence.

In one drawing a disembodied face is cupped and lifted by multiple hands, the fingertips defining its contours; in another, the head is displayed at chest height in the hands of its owner - an image inspired by a medieval sculpture of the martyred Saint Denis carrying his own decapitated head. If the discipline of drawing is for Juul Kraijer a profoundly meditative activity, it is one born of constant practice, just as her metaphysical concepts are grounded in bodily sensation - although informed by a wide range of literary and artistic sources. Her eloquent command of her medium allows her to think through images, with such economy that each seems self-sufficient, lacking nothing, floating on the surface of the paper like an apparition. ‘A work of art should be a magical object’, says Kraijer, ‘and the artist a sorcerer’.

from the monograph Juul Kraijer Werken 2009-2015
Wbooks/Drents Museum, 2015