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In Katja Seib’s eight-foot-tall painting “Die dunkelste Stunde ist kurz vor Tagesanbruch” (The darkest hour is just before dawn) (all works 2019), a woman with her back to the viewer sits in front of a vanity adjusting her long, black braid. In the mirror’s reflection, she appears nose to nose with a smiling black snake. A trail of letters floats between their heads, spelling out the phrase “I fucked up.” Dense black paint provides the backdrop for the action at hand. There is no recessive space in this cryptic mise-en-scéne and consequently it is impossible to locate the snake or the woman in a depicted space or time. Thematically and materially, they are both barely there. Most of the other works on view in chasing rabbits at Château Shatto, Seib’s first solo show in the U.S., also depict female characters who are merging with their environments or supports. In Seib’s enigmatic paintings, the dissolving boundaries of the figure successfully suggest the disintegrating boundaries of the self.
Like most of the paintings in the show, Die dunkelste conjures up a kind of dream space—its title invokes a nightmare just before waking. In her use of visually powerful, but inexplicable symbols, Seib calls to mind fellow German painter Rosa Loy’s scenes of women in strange, dreamlike environments. Like with Loy’s works, trying to interpret Seib’s symbology leads to the sense that it is ultimately unknowable. In The Interpretation of Dreams, for example, Freud predictably explained the snake’s appearance in dreams to be a phallic symbol. Jung thought “snake-dreams” occurred “when the conscious mind is deviating from its instinctual basis.” There’s also, of course, the millenia-old link between snakes and fallen women. While she perhaps invokes all of this, Seib has a more open-ended, and tongue-in-cheek relationship to such symbols. Is the woman thinking “I fucked up” sense à la Eve? Or did she merely fuck up her hairdo?
In theorist Roger Caillois’ 1935 essay, “Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia,” he compares schizophrenic psychosis to animal camouflage. He terms “legendary psychasthenia” as a condition in which a person can no longer distinguish between them-selves and the environment around them. He writes: “To these dispossessed souls, space seems to be a devouring force. Space pursues them, encircles them, digests them… It ends by replacing them… He feels himself becoming space, dark space where things cannot be put.”1 Caillois’ emphasis on “dark space” is an apt description for the black, indistinct backgrounds present in several works, including Die dunkelste and another titled he is the sweetest peach to fall but I don’t like peaches at all. The latter is like a funhouse mirror of twinned forms in which figure and environment are blurred. Most tellingly, a sleep-ing woman’s face is duplicated on the pillow on which she rests. Has she simply smudged off a perfect replica of a full face of makeup or has she generated an ersatz Shroud of Turin? Seib uses similar imagery in 7 lifes (I been different people many times), in which a bed is decorated with three pillows, each of which is also adorned with a woman’s head. Repeatedly in Seib’s works, exterior features of the self become components of domestic interiors. Likewise, the interior of the mind is externalized as a placeless site.
In all my girls think that I am acting like a fool, a vacant-looking, or maybe even hypnotized, female figure sports a thick, blond braid that wraps around her neck. Her visage is painted over a red and black gingham motif (like an enlarged version of one of the woman-pillows from 7 lifes) so that patches of the colored grid underneath are visible below her painted pink skin, ultimately forming the pattern of the frock she wears. In Seib’s painted world, the self is dispersed; it leaks into the environment. Camouflage, dissolution, and unresolved symbols all ultimately speak to the unknowability and unrepresentability of the subject. As Caillois would put it: “I know where I am, but I do not feel as though I’m at the spot where I find myself.”
Ashton Cooper is an independent writer and curator based in Los Angeles and New York City. She is a PhD Student in Art History at the University of Southern California.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 18.