Saccharine-shaded Bodies, Ambiguous Narratives: Christoph Ruckhäberle’s Frühstück im Freien

at ZieherSmith, Oct 10 – Nov 16

by Irini Zervas

Ruckhäberle’s Frühstück im Freien consists of eight large-scale paintings against candy-striped wallpaper. The artist’s solo showing at ZieherSmith is his first in the US since 2006. His paintings of figures that languish upon the grass betray the artist’s penchant for the nostalgic, particularly the lore of an art historical past. Yet, while Ruckhäberle alludes to visual precedent, his irreverent use of the body and mise-en-scène thwart the viewer’s attempts to assign meaning to these bodies and narratives.

arcadia manet

Although there is no food in sight, the exhibition’s title Frühstück im Freien, or Breakfast Outdoors, alludes to to Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass (1962-3). Manet presents a female body, a courtesan nonetheless, in a moment caught between two forms of consumption: the meal taking place and the gaze of the voyeuristic viewer. Here, Ruckhäberle clearly enjoys toying with visual precedent in his portrayal of women’s bodies. Scenes allude to familiar characters and plots, such as Manet’s Luncheon but also Matisse’s well-known dancers and arcadian vistas. Despite Ruckhäberle’s obvious use of these tropes, he avoids relying too heavily on them and their associated narratives. The sense of wordly harmony conveyed in Matisse’s The Dance is replaced by a sense of absence. The women Ruckhäberle depicts are physically and mentally indifferent, any semblance of intention in their bodies yielding to a psychological distance that pervades the exhibition. Ruckhäberle’s works also do not have the sensuousness of the Manet. They do, however, have the artistic handling seen in Matisse’s dancers’ curved limbs, which bend and stretch according to the artist’s whims.

ruckthreewomenThe gallery’s press release features a quote from the artist in which he comments on his use of art historical references: “Sometimes I suspect myself of trying to paint a whole Louvre of my own. Almost like I have to treat every subject ever treated in art history.” Ruckhäberle has a point: at times, the artist’s appropriation of visual tropes threatens to overwhelm the singularity of his individual voice.


While these scenes suggest the known, they ultimately diverge from narratives the viewer expects to see. This is perhaps most evident if the viewer chooses to read these bodies as sexualized. Although these women usually appear psychologically distant from each other, at times, the positions of their bodies contradicts this seeming coldness. Walking through the exhibition, it is hard to see how a consideration of the homosocial could not come up. While these are by no means Courbet-level graphic nudity, female bodies contort and tangle, touch and are affected by each other.  Women face each other, knees apart, one with an open skirt and arched back. They do not respond to each other in this particular instant, but the suggestion of their interaction is latent.


The most striking example shows two women in repose, one crouched in the fetal position, the other half lying, half propped up by one foot. Characteristic of Ruckhäberle’s refusal to provide clear narratives, the women’s relationships to each other are ambiguous. Naked buttocks are exposed in the foreground of one work as the women’s skirt bunches around her waist. There is a suggestion that the woman behind her is pleasuring her. Her mouth is agape in a position that suggests sexual excitement. Yet, we are not witness to any actual interaction, any nudity or caress of the hand. Her green pupils stare languidly upward, contradicting any interpretation of the scene as one of ecstasy. Like Ruckhäberle’s archetypal resistance to the completion of narrative, this image conceals as much, or more, than it exposes.

Irini Zervas is an MA student in Hunter College’s Art History program. Her research interests include depictions of gender and the body, performance studies, and the politics of dress in relation to identity.


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