The Extraordinary Machine


Karin Janssen’s works create a world that draws the audience into her universe, with its own rules and logic. Disembodied mouths become portals, gateways to another dimension, seductively embracing the grotesque, the absurd, the animalistic.

“Wangechi Mutu said that the more personal her work is, the more universal it becomes. I like that,” muses Janssen when talking about how people view her art. “I hope people recognise something of themselves in my work. I hope it enriches the life of the viewer. Ceri Hand told me once that she wants art to take her places she can’t go on her own. So I hope that’s what I do, take the viewer somewhere they can’t go on their own.”

Now based in Shanghai, Karin Janssen has exhibited internationally in the Netherlands, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Greece, Switzerland, and China. A Dutch native she opened the Karin Janssen Project Space in London in 2011, which she ran until 2015 when she relocated to Shanghai to work full time in her studio.

Her works are bold and vibrant, incorporating fizzing and foaming bubbles, grasping tendrils, sprouting growths, roaring tigers, hovering lemons and tumultuous emotional landscapes. “I use a lot of imagery from the natural world and the human body,” she explains to me. “I have a few basic ‘themes’ that interest me and they keep coming back to my work; how life leaves it marks on your body so that your body becomes a notebook of your personal history; a desire to go back to nature, yet the impossibility to do so; fascination with the workings of our body and how there is beauty in the goriness; the unconventional beauty of our bodies, inside and out; forms and patterns in animals and plants.”

Most of her paintings are a type of self-portrait, but oftentimes what we see is the feeling as opposed to the image of her self. The pieces My Sofa, My Guernica and Vultures and Bad People are “portraits of people plus the chaos of the situation around them,” the dangling arms in the former piece “I find much more interesting to use only the lethargic, hanging arms, which I can then adjust to a melting ice-cream cone like figures, than having a bunch of tired looking people standing there. It is visually just more interesting to me.”

A recurring element in her artwork is the elaborate use of negative space. Is this conscious? “It is not something I very consciously do, although recently I am starting to think about it a bit more,” she tells me, going on to explain that it stems from her background in drawing as opposed to painting. “For over ten years I used to draw, only draw. Lines on paper, that’s it. I used to love the directness of it, how you couldn’t hide in the medium. If you make a mistake, it is there for the world to see. If you are insecure about a line, the line looks insecure. I like that, the amount of story you can put into the medium like that. But I think in a way I was also feeling like I had to be minimalistic. Adding colour and starting to paint flicked a switch on in me.”

How has she adapted to living in China? “To start with I was very scared about what is allowed and what isn’t. That is also one of the reasons I did not continue with Karin Janssen Project Space, the artist-led space I set up in London. I just couldn’t face the prospect of figuring out how to jump through all the bureaucratic hoops, and figuring out what work is considered too confrontational to show.”

And how does she see Chinese art now she’s lived here for a while? “I find it very interesting to see how Chinese artists think so differently to Western artists. It seems to me that after China opened up, Chinese art students drunk in Western art history all at once, and, taken completely out of context, used it’s ideas, techniques, and images to create entirely new things. The Chinese way of thinking is so fundamentally different than the West, so it did create some amazing work.”

As the name of one of her works suggests, Karin Janssen’s art is an extraordinary machine conveying the complications of the human story. Both surreal emotions and unknown memories are simultaneously explored by using recurring motifs and artistic techniques to take the audience on an unfathomable journey through Janssen’s extraordinary universe.


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