Vera Palme’s self-operating subjects

Kristian Vistrup Madsen

Vera Palme’s work generates a certain gut feeling in the viewer, where gut is the distinct opposite of the German “gut”–good—but not in a distinctly bad way

Last year, I curated an exhibition at Arthub in Copenhagen, which included a dozen of paintings by Vera Palme. One night, I had plans to take a friend out for dinner, but I wanted to show her the exhibition first. We spent a long time in front of SOS (1), 2020, a large canvas depicting what I happen to know is a jade green Chinese vase picked out of the catalogue of an auction house, but which, in this rendition and as suggested by the title, Palme has instilled with a sense of alarm. The vase struggles to maintain itself against the mud-coloured background; brush strokes are whirring in and around it as if in panic. My friend suddenly had to leave, she’d lost her appetite. The painting had done something to her, gone to her gut and settled there as a feeling of disquiet—in the best way, she assured me—asking questions that could not be answered over dinner.

Vera Palme, SOS (1) and Peak Promise or Die Crying, installed at Art Hub Copenhagen, 2021. Photo: David Stjernholm

It makes sense to begin a conversation about Palme’s paintings by accounting for their bodily effect, because they themselves are bodies, characters. Like family members, they are difficult but worthwhile, or rather worth and while (significance and time) are of little consequence, since what we are faced with is an irrefutable presence. Her works are full of ambivalence and doubt, but also of a refusal to accept those states, which amounts, in the end, to a kind of obsessiveness, a cutting relentlessness almost cruel, but oh-so-human.

I found a language for the particular presence of Palme’s paintings in an essay by the American poet Louise Glück. In Against Sincerity, 1992, she advocates a gap between truth and actuality. The artist’s task, she writes, “involves the transformation of the actual to the true,” a feat that “depends on conscious willingness to distinguish truth from honesty or sincerity.” To Glück, honest speech is a relief because it refers to what we already know, and assumes a convergence of poet and speaker. But the artist “intervenes, manages, lies and deletes in the service of truth.” In Self Operating Subject, 2021, the Chinese vase from SOS reappears on loosely stretched, bulging canvas as something more skeletal. Like a haunting memory, or a shed skin, here is a different creature entirely, admitting a total lack of sincerity while expressing the uneasy truth that the vase was never just one thing, and even that these paintings have very little interest in defining what that thing might have been.

Vera Palme, Les Trous De L’Enfer and Self Operating Subject, installed at Art Hub Copenhagen, 2021. Photo: David Stjernholm
Vera Palme, Carnival Contraption, installed at Art Hub Copenhagen, 2021. Photo: David Stjernholm.

The Time Stamp Paintings-series, 2022, on view this spring at Braunsfelder in Cologne, share in this threadbare yet severe claim to existence. Palme is also a writer, and her densely poetic texts are of a similarly nebulous quality to her paintings. “Everything was light, like hope, into sight almost painfully gray and confusing” she writes in an essay published in fellow Städelschule-alumni Raphaela Vogel’s catalogue for her Kunsthaus Bregenz show in 2019, almost as if describing this new body of work in which architectural features fall in and out of view, dressed in shades very close to the colour of the rough canvas itself: almost painfully gray. While large parts of the pictures are typically left untouched, muddy brushstrokes coagulate in magnificent and abrupt painterly eruptions. In such instances of thickness and density we might see a face, or some other vaguely familiar outline, but more than anything we see that what Palme offers us are always scaffolds for other things; she is a trader of sublimations, both the hopeful and confusing kinds.

Vera Palme, Time Stamp Painting (1), 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Braunsfelder.
Vera Palme, Time Stamp Painting (1) and Time Stamp Painting (4), 2022, installed in the exhibition Gute Nacht at Braunsfelder, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Braunsfelder. Photo: Mareike Tocha

It is obvious that once there is a body, it must posture. And so the maddening physicality that underpins Palme’s production of truthful insincerity necessitates a measure of posturing. As Glück also pointed out, one consequence of truth as contrary to honesty is to understand that poet and speaker are not one. Strewn among Palme’s cast of enigmatic abstractions are the odd anchors of apparent legibility: Untitled (wave), 2020/21, a small copy of Hokusai’s iconic wave; A Bread Roll, 2021, an almost offensively close-packed picture of a bread roll, frame included; or the series of still life flower bouquets from 2019, each signed off in over-sized script, font reminiscent of Prince’s Purple Rain album cover: “Palme”.

Vera Palme, Untitled (The Wave), 2020-21. Oil on linen. 45 x 55 cm, 17.7 x 21.6 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Capitain Petzel
vera palme
Vera Palme, Still Life VI, 2019, 40×30 cm, oil on linen, photo: Diana Pfammatter.

But like honest speech, such legibility is mere false relief. There is an element of play in these works, which requires us to see not just the gap between truth and actuality, but one between physique and physiognomy as well—that is, between the outward appearance of a thing, and what we think it can tell us of its character. The painter emerges here as a narrator, an actor in art history, to reveal nothing more or less than that these are paintings, fictions. But because postures and bodies work together, and bodies are persistently actual, this narrator is not to be trusted. In Influx and Efflux, 2020, scholar Jane Bennett writes that though “culture enters the body through postures, […] postures are more than expressions of culture—they are shapers of it.” I think this is the source of the gut feeling I have about Palme’s works: that they occasion a real movement, a shift of something inside you, which, however slight, might require you to skip dinner and take a moment.

May 2, 2022