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"Manifesting on the body, the elusive spirit becomes the focal point of Simon's work, asserting its presence over it and by an extent the figure itself." writes Arina Baburskova.

Installation photography courtesy of Michael Werner Gallery

"I have a fascination for the invisible, the hidden, the forbidden. It’s where the beauty lies" says Raphaela Simon of her exhibition Erdbeeren back in 2019. This is still greatly reflected in the German-born artists' most recent show, enigmatically titled Phantom, on view at Michael Werner Gallery.

Raphaela Simon, Phantom, 2023

The painting that gives the exhibition its name, Phantom (2023), depicts a monumental body painted in a subdued red colour against a dark burgundy background. Located right in the centre and occupying most of the space on the frameless canvas, the figure is highly stylized, yet the key features can still be traced: the silhouetted profile of a face, dark eyelids shut as if half-asleep, the solid blocks of shoulders and arms, and a torso, from which the titular Phantom faintly peeps out akin a ghostly Belmez face. Manifesting on the body, the elusive spirit becomes the focal point of the work, asserting its presence over it and by an extent the figure itself. The ethereal white dots emanating from the eyes, meander across the shoulders, trailing down the arms, puncturing the otherwise shadowy sombre colour palette. The open-mouthed eerie faces and darkly muted colour palette permeate the entire show, haunting both floors of the carpeted staircases and dark wooden floors of Michael Werner's Mayfair-based gallery space. 


Despite appearing simplistic at first glance, these heads, often disembodied completely, hypnotically draw the viewer in, unrevealing a kaleidoscope of symbolisms and allegorical allusions. With their hollow looks, they could be equally perceived as masks, akin those of a Belgian artist associated with a Symbolism movement, James Ensor whose grotesque carnival-like representations function as symbols of the hidden facets of human identity. While the enlarged mouthsand empty eye sockets, either frozen in a silent scream, or gasping for air, evoke the exaggerated facial expression of Ancient Greek theatrical masks. One can even recall hints of religious symbolism in the works like Tarnung (Camouflage) (2024) reminiscent of frescos of St John the Baptist’s head on a platter. 


From top to bottom: Raphaela Simon, Tarnung (Camouflage), 2024, Drahtseil (Tightrope), 2024

In fact, Simon herself expresses a great interest in the broader art history, through which "she moves like through her everyday life", citing "Rembrandt’s sad temperament, Goya’s revolutionary themes and Bruegel’s winter landscapes" as some of her sources of inspiration, among many others. However, as she shares in an interview with Galerie Max Hezler: "...if I had to choose only one artist’s work to be stranded on the desert island with, it would be Phillips Guston, because his paintings caress my heart like nothing else". Indeed, Phantom seems to fully embrace similar creative combination of dream-like images and nightmarish figures, crafting the works where everyday objects, like Zuckerwürfel (Sugar Cube) (2022) and Hoher Sessel (Tall Armchair) (2023) render both, familiar and strange. 


Born in Villingen, Germany, Simon studied in the Kunstacademie in Dusseldorf under Peter Doig; the influence of the artist’s distinct blends of figurative representation, abstraction, and surrealism is clearly evident in Simon’s equally atmospheric canvases. Additionally, she spent a semester in Munich at the Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, taught by Günther Förg, a German painter associated with the Neue Wilde movement, whose minimalistic approach to form and restrained, monochromatic use of colour has also left an impact on Simon’s artistic practices. Whereas her earlier paintings developed from simple geometric shapes taking a form of abstract representation, works showcased in Phantom follow a more figurative approach, pointing not towards realism, but to the essence of her subjects. The result us an intriguing juxtaposition of the seemingly familiar, laced with memories and a trace of uncanny. 


While these painting of simple, non-distinct forms set against monochromatic backdrops often evoke a sense of portraits, Simon titles them after common objects and motifs, hinting at an underlying figurative potential: "I always strive for clarity, never for nebulous mystique", she explains. "It is precisely in this clarity that interconnectedness of seemingly contradictory things - violence and beauty – lies." This deliberate choice engages the viewers’ inclination to find meaning in abstract forms, whether guided by the titles or opening them up for a completely independent. 


From top to bottom: Zuckerwürfel (Sugar Cube) (2022)

Hoher Sessel (Tall Armchair) (2023)

To create her artworks, the artist employs a multi-staged approach, gradually building up the layers of paint and altering the elements in a seamless, ongoing manner. This technique allows her to produce the forms reminiscent of palimpsests, where layers of colour emerge and interact, shining through one another and enriching the composition with subtle nuances. And since 2018, she has expanded her artistic practices to include the minimalist fabric objects and figures. These carefully staged creations, like dichotomously soft yet spiky Seeigel (Sea Urchin) (2023) flaunted on a soft contrastingly white down pillow, barely touching it, develop their own narratives while also establishing a dialogue with the pieces up on the walls, which ultimately enhances the storytelling dimension of Simon’s work even further. 

From left to right: Installation photography courtesy of Michael Werner Gallery. Seeigel (Sea Urchin), 2023

Much like the large mouth openings of ancient theatre masks amplify actors’ voices and convey intense emotions, Simon’s disembodied heads and semi-abstract figures strive to express the inexpressible, providing an intimate glimpse into the hidden. Her atmospheric works create a rich dialogue with both art history and contemporary art scene, intricately layering encrypted meanings with the finesse of palimpsests rendered in elusive oils, ultimately creating a haunting, immersive dreamworld that taps into the realm of nightmareish vulnerability. 


Arina Baburskova is a London-based writer and Art History student at the Courtauld Institute.


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