Laura Krifka enjoys doing things she is not supposed to do. Having absorbed the tenets of neoclassical painting, she bypasses high-minded seriousness by adding a candy-coated veneer of hyper-artificiality adopted from 1950s MGM musicals to the domestic decor of private scenes she then undercuts with a deviant sexual subtext recalling David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. This irresistible mix of dexterity, decor, decorum and deviance makes viewing her paintings a guilty pleasure — rather like sneaking into a peep show or secretly spying on neighbor’s forbidden acts. We can view the conventions of art, cinema and domestic life through a bemused female gaze with no-holds-barred on taking delight in human foibles.
Krifka belongs to a new wave of young female figurative painters who are trending because they are pushing figurative painting forward by rewriting the dominant narrative from a non-binary point of view. There is a lot of buzz around the way this technologically savvy generation is invigorating figuration with more contemporary cultural references. Krifka is on the cutting edge of this trend because her distinctive painting style is both historically grounded and current. Although she has impressive painting chops, she refuses to take herself too seriously, which makes her wry humor all-the-more infectious.
Krifka developed an affection for taboo subjects after her nice Christian family discovered a collection of amateur pornography made in secret by her uncle, who was a professional photographer. She was intrigued by how different the porn models looked posing in the domestic decor of rooms with patterned wallpaper. Krifka draws on her knowledge of abstraction and Josef Albers color theory to design witty geometric wallpapers that provide psychological clues and a sense of familiarity with characters in domestic settings.
The Game of Patience is her first solo exhibition at Luis De Jesus, and the title references a game of solitaire. It is also, not coincidentally, the title of a Balthus painting, which signals her intent to stage an intervention in the history of the voyeuristic gaze. But the title also suggests the labor intensive way Krifka caringly crafts her paintings, making it a personal rebellion against a sped-up culture. These meticulous paintings can take up to six months to complete from the time she begins to draw and photograph her life models. She makes white clay figurines based on her drawings and paints and arranges them in dioramas, made in light boxes using tissue paper for the domestic decor. Kifka photographs these dioramas from different perspectives before she plays with the images on photoshop to create a three dimensional effect in two dimensions, which is the hallmark of her distinctive cinematic canvases. By combining different camera perspectives she recreates the “sense of omniscience” she loved in Stanley Kubrich’s films. Krifka also draws on the way David Lynch uses light and color to create a strange otherworldly sense of weirdness.
Krifka treats photoshop as a leaping off point where unexpected accidents occur. She values “the gap between source material and what gets made because this gap is where the magic can happen and weirdness comes out.” Although Krifka’s paintings involve careful planning and ideation, they never look pre-meditated or contrived because she gives herself room for “the gift of spontaneity and chance,” and then runs with it. Her painting process is a patient game which the viewer also enjoys as a game of deciphering visual references, clues, double entendres and innuendos.
Piggyback mimics the feminine tropes of the “sobbing women” in MGM’s Academy Award-winning musical, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The three women are actually the same model with blonde, brunette and red wigs, because these hair colors are a favorite cliche in classic musicals. The redheaded figure on the floor turns her head up and to the side, mimicking a trope used for feminine submission. While the sexual innuendo in Krifka’s title refers to the shadows which appear to ride from behind the two female figures on the bed. And dare we not miss the shadowy bedpost thrusting firmly, bulbously between the brunette’s legs, whose left heel sits nicely in double-duty’s place.
Krifka incorporates multiple light sources to shine different perspectives on the “feminine masquerade,” which Joan Riviere theorized as a performance. French feminist philosopher, Luce Irigaray, advocated mimicry as a feminist strategy in which women “assume the feminine role deliberately…to convert a form of subordination into an affirmation, and thus to begin to thwart it” (This Sex Which is Not One). Krifka stages a mischievous mime as an intervention in Copy Cat to subvert Balthus’ scandalous paintings of naked pre-pubescent girls in erotic poses with cats — which have been reviled by feminists for romanticizing the sexualization of female children. Krifka undermines Balthus’ pedophiliac fantasies by posing a self-contained adult woman sitting upright in a chair beside sketchbooks filled with her cat drawings. Unlike Balthus’ passively reclining nudes with legs spread open for the taking, Krifka’s nude takes control of her own sexuality by holding her knee close to her torso, revealing but mere glimpse of a most unladylike, unruly pubic hair poking through her pink panties. A partial clock in the background suggests that women are frozen in time until they invent their own fantasies instead of impersonating the roles they are assigned in male fantasies.
In Woman Drying Herself, Krifka takes another obsession in male art history with the cleanliness of vulnerable girls. This work is another play on distorting reflections which create different stages of time. The girl stepping out of the doorway appears to have an additional arm reflected behind her inside the bathroom. The fish wallpaper is an impolite reference to the lurid joke about women’s fishy smell. A red reflection from her towel suggests a menstrual flow, she calls her “fuck you to Degas.”
Krifka approaches taboo subjects in the most genteel way. In Twin Pucker, she builds visual rhymes from a scene of twins juicing cut lemons in a sun filled room. The lemon juice spilt on the table runs beneath the male twin’s exposed buttocks as an innuendo to anal sex. Blue Bowls is a sneaky view of a naked young man who seems to be masturbating while watching a clothed woman changing a light bulb. These paintings put the viewer in the disconcerting yet altogether inviting position of the peeping Tom, with absolutely no fourth wall to separate us from the scene.
In other paintings, Krifka reverses the balance of power in voyeurism by taking the role a female spy on private male scenes. Gemini is based on her real life fascination spying on her young male neighbors, who she often sees drinking beer in a bromance which is filled with male bravado which has homo-erotic undertones. In Between Us, Krifka’s image appears in a mirror reflection behind a young Black man who could either be looking back at her or looking at us. In Lions, a young boy sits at a table with a towel wrapped around his waist sucking his thumb as if it were a dildo, while a gazing through the glazed window is another young boy, hand deepening into his pants, either watches him or us looking at him.
The Dream is a more autobiographical portrait of Krifka’s naked torso with egg wallpaper in the background, referencing not-so-subtly female fertility and mirroring on-behind the shape of her wide-open, toothless mouth, which is a hollow space shaped perfectly for an egg. This work challenges the Freudian fallacy that anatomy is destiny and more so reveals the conflicting, if not tiresome feelings about choosing one’s own path.
Krifka’s mischievous exhibition uses ventriloquy as much as mimicry to intervene in the male domain of voyeurism. We are never quite sure whether we are the viewer or the viewed because her subjects often appear to looking back at us from a window or the frame. Female models can be dressed as men, as male and female twins, and the same women can play multiple roles of many women wearing differing wigs. Nothing is ever just one thing in Krifka’s polite world filled with impolite improprieties. This exhibition might be read as a wickedly funny feminist spoof on the conceits of high art viewed from the “other side” of the mirror of linear masculine, logic where roles can and will be reversed.
Lita Barrie is Los Angeles Art Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Barrie’s writing has appeared in a wide range of magazines and newspapers in New Zealand and Los Angeles, including Hyperallergic, HuffPost, art ltd, Artweek, and Art New Zealand. An archive of her writing is held at the New Zealand National Library. To read more of her work, visit www.litabarrie.com