Though I have been eagerly researching and writing about Rosa Loy’s evocative work for some time now, it was only recently that I discovered that this name is, in fact, a pseudonym. What I had known erstwhile is that Loy’s work brings together a myriad of textual and symbolic threads in boldly narrative paintings, always full of canny content to decipher. The German artist came to painting obliquely, having first studied botany as a Garden Civil Engineer (following in her parents’ footsteps), then book design, and finally painting and graphics. Academic writing on Loy and her work has been sparse, thus far, despite her prolific output and much critical attention in the form of exhibit reviews. Upon my discovery that her name is self-selected and armed with the knowledge that her art practice is rife with symbolism and visual/literary quotations, I did a little onomatological dig. “Rosa,” meaning “little rose,” comes from an earlier Germanic word for “fame.” Here is a nod to her study in horticulture, a passion that continues for her to this day, and its symbolic power that is employed extensively in her paintings. However, it is also an allusion to a name she uses for her public face, perhaps even an incantation. “Loy” is a Northern German name for someone living near woodland with an earlier origin in Latin meaning “selection.” Again, she has cleverly opted for an alias with a double meaning that acknowledges a name not given, but taken, while also aligning herself with agriculture. The pleasure I found in decoding her name was not unlike that of decoding her paintings. Rosa Loy creates fantastical realities in paintings that immediately entrance, but her work rewards inquiry, becoming more enriched with each new allusion and connection made.
Loy is the only woman nominally included in the New Leipzig School (NLS): a generation of artists that studied at the Art Academy in Leipzig, Germany in the early 1990s. This group studied art in the way it has been taught for centuries in Europe: life drawing, rules of perspective, formal composition principles, colour theory etc. Loy often emphasizes that she is a formalist, that at the beginning of a painting she is consciously planning shapes, line and colours. She admits that as she works (quickly, because of the nature of the casein paint she uses) she allows the subconscious to take over. It is interesting, if not almost bizarre, that she speaks more about questions in the material making of a painting such as “beauty,” “breaks in a picture,” or “handicraft” than content. Interviewers often push her to explain her imagery, and if she is persuaded to answer she talks about herself as a conduit of inspiration, and that along with her art materials, she is a tool. But then, then she loses herself in the present moment of painting, elongates time, picking up information from her environment and subconscious, be that place, time, myth, dream, music and so on, transforming all of it in that alchemical space of the studio. Afterwards Loy will often look at her own work to discover what was happening in her own mind, as if she had been possessed while making it, or like a stranger encountering the paintings, trying to guess what it is conveying.
The work of NLS artists, including Loy, is generally characterized by traditional technical skills and combining figuration with abstraction, often to depict the social and economic contrasts of East Germany before and after reunification. Figurative art never lost its grip in Leipzig, protected as it was from the external waves of change and evolution from the “outside” world; it never became passé. In fact, it became even more necessary to preserve specifically because of its plasticity to communicate on more than one register: that of a state-sanctioned interpretation but also a second, secret reading in the form of allegory. Allegory, outside of East Germany at this time, was a seriously derided practice and along with figurative work was considered outmoded. However, the language of allegory, which flourished unmolested in isolated Leipzig was imbricated in the painting of the NLS, remaining stolid even after reunification. Loy, who was only 27 when the Berlin Wall fell, inherited this same history of visual language and habit of allegory. The felling of the wall took place at the exact moment Loy decided to study painting in earnest.
Am Zaun (At the Fence)
Rosa Loy’s painting Am Zaun (At the Fence) is dominated by two prominent figures, one is a young woman to the right and on the left is a Matryoshka doll-looking figure in a wheelbarrow. The doll figure has a large, bulbous base and a smaller rounded head, it has been painted in shades of blue and white, reminiscent of china. The face of the doll is looking off to the left of the painting, not making eye contact with the viewer, and has a pleasant, subdued expression. Loy has painted the “body” of the doll figure with a scene in blue and white: a house or barn is discernible, and it is either on stilts or we are able to see into the basement of this house. Gardens and tree branches can be seen behind the blue house, with pathways between the plots and gridded structures that look like greenhouses. The female figure next to the doll figure is in a light blue shift dress and orange ankle boots, she has one leg perched on the wheelbarrow as she calmly raises her right hand to touch, or perhaps steady the slightly askew doll. The doll matches her in size: they are a twinned in relative proportions. The two are in a hazy outdoor setting, with the fields and trees behind them disappearing in a milky mist. Directly behind them is the chain link fence referenced in the title and it spans the width of the painting. Grass and leaves poke up from the snowy ground and birch trees emerge to the left of the doll.
Immediately we are aware of a story within a story; that there is a narrative between the girl and the doll figure and another referenced on the doll, itself. This is an allegorical strategy of encouraging multiple readings in one work of art. Rosa Loy’s work often refuses the assumption of the whole with pictorial and material details, incongruences and layering. Loy describes collecting and cobbling multiple sources for her work including folklore, fairy tales, myth, history and dream. This is a procedure of accumulation, the piling on of references to allow multiple readings. In this piece Loy has layered two distinct narratives that are related in their horticultural theme, but the depiction on the doll references a highly ordered space while the plot of land these two figures stand in is more wild with vegetation pushing through the fence and snow. Loy’s stories are those of prosiness, a discursive narrative form that addresses us directly. She avoids grand narratives in favour of personal ones that reference bits and pieces of the familiar, of the intimate combined with foreignness and the suppressed. Barry Schwabsky has noted that Loy is the inventor of enigmatic imagery, leaving much room for interpretations. Frequently there are figures in her work that appear as perhaps twins, sisters, stand-ins, mother-daughter, lovers, clones, doppelgangers or separated selves, such as this one. Self-identity becomes confused in the mirroring of these two figures. Loy has stated that she wishes to revise the shabby treatment of the feminine in the last century. This a distinct feminist deconstructive thrust, in recuperating and repairing what has been lost or broken. Loy is particularly interested in New Femininity in which lost knowledge is rekindled and circulated amongst women. In Am Zaun the duo is mirrored in each other, their precise relationship is unknown but the one completes the other in some way.
The Matryoshka doll imagery in this painting is a significant detail. The general shape of the doll figure and its painted surface call to mind nesting dolls, which are frequently painted with scenes from a fairy tale or folklore; the narrative unfolds as each new doll emerges from the larger. In Am Zaun we only have this one scene on the belly of the doll to interpret, there are no other dolls present to decode the possible narrative. It remains obscured within her inner layers. Matryoshkas are often used metaphorically as a design paradigm called the “matryoshka principle” that often appears in both nature and manufactured objects. It implies a repeating motif of the whole within details: a mise-en-abyme. In mise-en-abyme one feels as if placed between mirrors, in an abyss of infinite repetition. In Loy’s painting the doll and girl mirror each other in similar proportions and facial features. Taken a step further, if we imagine the doll is filled with ever decreasing images of herself, the young woman beside her would mirror those inner duplications, creating a myriad of reproductions and reflections. In Western theory mise-en-abyme is often called recursion, frequently in reference to language’s inability to reach the foundation of reality because language is already metaphor. Allegory is a form of script that prompts paradigmatic and vertical readings, illustrated here by the doll in Am Zaun. In this case the allegory is also of the allegorical.
Maifeier (Mayday and/or Lily of the Valley) presents us with two larger figures in the foreground and eight dancing around a Maypole in the background. As well, there is a tiny figure clutching a kerchief in a little house hanging from a tree in the upper left next to a large face up on a hill partially obscured by trees. The figure closest to us is a half-woman, half-pond, her flesh melding in ripples with the water. Her face is turned away from us and concealed by the hair cascading down her back. She is at the foot of the other main figure, who is half-woman, half tree. This figure’s right leg continues down into the ground as a tree trunk and her left foot dangles akimbo over the pool of water. Her skin is birch bark except on her face. Her tree trunk continues from her back and off the upper picture plane. The little occupied house appears to be a bird house hanging from the tree-woman’s branches. She looks benevolently down at the water-woman. The tree-woman references the myth of Daphne, a female nymph associated with water, being the daughter of the river god, Ladon. Because of her beauty she was pursued by Apollo but fled from him, rejecting his advances. Just before she was overtaken by him she pleaded with her father to help. Ladon transformed Daphne into a tree in order to save her from Apollo. The eight dancing figures in the background are a motley crew, most appearing to be young women and one bear. Each figure is on a spectrum ranging from more human-like to illustrative with exaggerated features. They also vary in relational proportions to each other, some tiny and some almost as tall as the maypole. They are engrossed in their dance and do not appear to have noticed the tree and water women. They appear to be fairy tale characters who have vacated their own plotlines to create this new fantastical one. The maypole is made from the trunk of a birch tree and the ribbons streaming down from the top, into each dancer’s hand are plumed with yellow pennants. To the left of the tree woman is an icy cascade coming down from the hill, atop which is the very large disembodied but smiling head. The sky is a brilliant cerulean, the grass is lush and verdant while the tree-woman and water-woman are surrounded by wet earth.
Loy combines a variety of rendered figures in this painting as though they are images taken from fairy tale books and collaged into this work. Collage of significant imagery fragments and combining different registers of painting exploits the layering principles of allegory. Loy transverses aesthetic registers and stylistic categories in this painting, combining realism with illustration and abstraction. Loy utilizes aesthetic disorientation; almost every one of her paintings appearing as a hybrid of styles and methods. Allegory, especially Postmodern Allegory, concerns itself with spatial and/or temporal structure and sequence and that this is the epitome of counter-narrative, thus superinducing vertical (allegorical/layered) readings. By combining fact and fiction, various spaces and times, as well as fragmentary formal elements, Loy, too, induces varied readings of her work rather than a horizontal narrative unfolding. Loy includes images that refer to Prussian militarism, National Socialism, Communism, Stasi authoritarianism, Puritanism and maidenhood, specifically the glorious maidenhood of Communism. As well, her reference to myth is another such strategy. By including reference to Daphne, we are lead to recall the details of that narrative and their symbolic meaning. Daphne is a symbol of chastity and the inclusion of her image in art can produce a reading of innocence and purity. Loy’s use of casein paint is also an important element in her work, rarely left unremarked upon. Traditionally used in frescoes, casein paint has been used since ancient times. It is made from milk protein and dries quickly to even consistency. Once dry it is brittle and, therefore, not generally used on canvas. Loy mixes her own paints and uses them on canvas, despite their incompatibility. Loy savours the alchemy of casein, finding its materiality informs her work. Because it dries quickly, she has to work swiftly, imbuing her work with energetic strokes, pentimenti and many layers. This aspect of the paint echoes the alchemical states of both her subjects and compositions. As well, the milky, muted colours achieved with casein are reminiscent of the palette of folk art and antique fairy tale illustrations. The associations of her very materials, likewise, produce extra-readings of her work, inducing discursivity and accumulation.
The title of this work translates to both Mayday and Lily of the Valley. One is immediately induced to consider the double meaning of the title, both of which are rich in symbolism and cultural import. Mayday is a significant celebration in Germany that can be traced back to pagan origins, taking place during the solstice to celebrate the coming of Spring. The maypole is said to be symbolic of the earth’s axis and also express Germanic reverence for trees, early German folk considered them sacred. Over time Christianity adopted this celebration as Pentecost, commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles. In Germany traditional Mayday festivals are organized and specifically birch trees are decorated with wreathes because they are a symbol of fertility. Maypoles are denuded tree birch trunks erected in public places in which celebrations will take place. More recently they have been given phallic status. Mayday was adopted by the Nazi government in 1933, naming it Day of National Work with celebrations to be organized by the government only. After WWII East Germany continued in this vein, with participation in government Mayday demonstrations mandatory. Once the Wall fell, riots erupted during this time of year and were especially turbulent and violent in Leipzig. Loy would have been seeped in the historical twists and turns of Mayday, having lived through a number of these major transitions, herself. In naming her painting after this celebration, she is certainly inviting many levels of interpretation and historical references. Likewise, her choice to make her tree-woman a birch tree directly connects her with Mayday. Daphne is a symbol of eternal chastity and in Loy’s version of the myth Ladon is replaced by a woman, perhaps a watery mother. The alternative translation of Maifeier is Lily of the Valley, a flower that symbolizes chastity, humility and sweetness and is the flower of the birth month in May. It also has allusions to Mary, the mother of Christ, whose tears were said to turn into Lily of the Valley. She, too, is a symbol of virginity and chastity. In many ways the two translations of Maifeier are synchronous and also at odds.
Rosa Loy’s paintings are almost exclusively populated with women and girls, and while she is concerned with feminism, she approaches her work from a very personal, situated standpoint. The figures are active, engaged, and independent protagonists in their own stories. They are absorbed with their tasks and with each other, often oblivious to the outside world. Loy’s scenes are habitually fragmented with strikingly collage-like accumulated imagery but are also dual in nature, in that there appears a palpable longing to mend the fracturing (formal and psychological). This is especially because of the enigmatic nature of her work, that incorporates details that produce a heightening sense of both real and alienation. Loy talks about how her paintings propose a problem or question, and says that when they create dialogue, they have power. She isn’t particularly interested in definite answers that should/would remain static for everyone. In this sense she has shifted the way in which traditional allegory has functioned, whether that be far-reaching history or even pre-unification East Germany. For allegory to “work” in those contexts, everyone would need to agree on fixed meanings of symbols. Loy is not burdened by this compunction, she is free to become a conduit of her subconscious and of her environment, borrowing, layering, and reinventing. This encourages the viewer to scour her paintings, searching through and sifting imagery carefully to collect any and all details that would allow deeper and more complex interpretation. Loy’s paintings are filled with women of all kinds: explorers, girlfriends, dreamers, sisters, gardeners, mysterious figures, eavesdroppers, seductresses, protective mothers, each of whom is engaged in her own plot, intertwined with the other figures in the work, in Loy’s oeuvre as a whole, and with the viewer. She has noted with interest that the more personal and interior her work becomes, the more her audience appears to relate, to be reminded of themselves. A psychoanalytic reading of her work could churn up narcissism, abandonment schemas, phallic symbols, Oedipal desires, death, the macabre, the grotesque and the fetishized object.
Rosa Loy humbly describes herself as channel for inspiration but she is, at the same time, incredibly disciplined and prepared. She advocates for sobriety, good food, good sleep, phone-free and materials at the ready for a successful session in the studio. She also has many less tangible tools and preparations at her disposal: that of the wealth of narratives, images, symbols, lore, visuals and history that she collects and stores, ready to be tapped in the moment of painting. This a major source of the wonder in Rosa Loy’s work, that she can so expertly pluck images, themes and words from sketches and her subconscious and then layer them into a painting so that they are at once enigmatic, enticing and complex. I have only ever been rewarded by digging deeper into the works of Rosa Loy, by turns delighted and amazed at how much there is to discover if I spend time with a painting. Loy is generous, in that way, filling her oeuvre with beautiful riddles to be solved.
VanStarkenburg was born in Pembroke, ON in 1974. She earned her BFA from the University of Ottawa in 1997, studied at NYU, (Masters level Fine Arts 2007) and is an MFA graduate from the University of Ottawa (2018). She is the recipient of grants from The Canada Council for the Arts, The Ontario Arts Council, and The City of Ottawa, as well as other prestigious arts awards. Her current work can be found on Instagram at @sharonvanstarkenburgart.