ANJA PRISKA: MONKEYS, MIRRORS AND AN INFINITE NUMBER OF BREASTS
The mighty force and unstable metaphor of the monkey is, in Anja Priska’s work, uprooted from its tradition as an exotic accessory of pre-20th century portraiture and shoved tenderly - if not awkwardly - onto a brazen, swag-filled stage of its own.Priska sees that the once-background emblem is stripped of the vague, conflicting symbolism that it so easily collects and instead presented with the eminence of a lone protagonist. Extracted, magnified and examined in portrait after portrait, the monkey is lavished with a glut of attention which, given the often self-conscious nature of its poses, seems to render it somewhat uncomfortable, as if still in the process of adapting to this new intensity of exposure.
Each portrait therefore implies a spirited character study, its sitter captured in a new moment and awash with kitsch. The primate’s fur and frame is subject to an soft, yet precise working that is above all empathetic, and decorated with curious accoutrements including large human breasts and quaint arrangements of flowers. It typically inhabits a nondescript universe touched here and there by hallmarks of our contemporary pop culture - boxing gloves, billboards, fishing lines, Christmas trees - with the size and appearance of each carefully tailored to tease out comedy and absurdity at every turn.
From Ancient Egyptian sculpture to contemporary satire, the monkey as subject matter has an enduring history as a figurative signpost indicating abstract ideas: the fall of mankind and the entrapment of desire, the wonders of the known universe and a note of social mockery. However in Priska’s paintings, the degree of intimacy to which the monkeys are presented strongly suggests that her work points less in one direction at one idea, as opposed to acting as a mirror through which the viewer can become conscious of his or her own perception.
The monkeys stare with glassy, vacant eyes that never confront the viewer directly; their body language is open and their posture relaxed, devoid of the threatening tautness that may have suggested a more specific emotion; the absurd juxtapositions constantly at work - particularly the fusion of an animal so crisply rendered with parts of a human female body - make a strong case for an audience to look harder at a given piece to figure out what exactly is being said. For though there is an impulse to simply be amused and provoked by the arrangement of imagery, simpering beneath the surface is a wealth of deliberately unclassified subtext.Into these portals of doubt inevitably pour the various answers of questioning viewers, thereby creating a situation where the monkey becomes as much an expression of the audience as of itself. Priska’s oeuvre works to this principle, and as a whole can be seen as a type of ‘alternative route’ by which viewers can channel their ideas and question themselves, as well as become aware of how much they mimic their surroundings in order to be.
Her monkeys have also found expression in sculpture, hand-made from hollowed-out porcelain and beatified under layers of glaze. The ornamental, luminous quality of the pieces bestows upon them an idol-like importance - they are anonymous and timeless, pure, perfect artifacts upon which a viewer can meditate to achieve a higher level of experience that is entirely personal. Similar to the paintings, there is once again a nod to the post-modern with the litter of human body parts adorning the simians, as well as, in the most recently-made sculptures,plastic doll-parts, glass eyes and wigs.These symbols help tell stories around the central figure of the monkey, in the same way that the monkey is traditionally a symbol telling the story of the portrait’s sitter. Anja Priska’s work thus gives precedence to an arguably underexploited and highly potent subject, hollowing it out to serve as a vessel and retina for the inspirations that it rouses in its viewers.