Cultural Identity in Contemporary Painting by Emilee Girard

The art of two contemporary artists, Birgit Megerle and Johanna Kandl explores the potential of figurative paintings in order to represent opposing perspectives on reality and historical myths.  Using photography as a preliminary stage in painting is essential for these painters, however photo-realism is not the focus for these paintings. The historical and social backgrounds of their subjects are often categorized by associations in different demographics that propose a meta-narrative. The intent of the artists is to question the relationships between individual experiences and public experiences that are important for discussing social, political, and historical events in global places.

In Birgit Megerle’s work, she creates a narrative based on her personal relation to her subjects. These narratives are often portrayed through the abstraction of the figures in regards to their conversation between the forms created in the foreground and background, and the interaction between these forms and the figure. (Fig. 1) This is especially true when she abstracts the figure and the space instead of  realistically copying the photo she is using.  As a result, she is expanding the potential for painting to engage into another space that can be intimate but also suggests a different reality that is performative and significant to the culture and identity of contemporary society. “The female characters featured in her works are poised with a determination and a readiness to act, and while based in a tradition of representational painting, they are eerily unreal and remote”1 Portraits are often seen as a traditional genre of painting, and her method is revitalizing this by offering contemporary ideas in situating these paintings in spaces that are unpredictable to the everyday viewer.

Performative events are amplified by Megerle’s installations, in which the works are hung not only on the wall, but also laid on the floor or presented as mise en scene.  Although the works contain figurative elements, comprehensible narratives do not unfold, with Megerle challenging social constraints and norms without preferring solutions.2

Johanna Kandl is another painter who exaggerates relationships between reality and cultural situations. Kandl uses text and image to create a hyper-realistic3 representation of the photographic quality in her work.  She paints the photographed scenes representationally to expand the viewer’s perception beyond the photograph. (Fig. 2). She is using everyday life, and everyday people as the main focus in her work, but adds subtle methods to distinguish that there is a tension between different situations. These methods include sarcastic and exaggerated text phrases that question the validity of the historical experience in an event, but simultaneously show that individual experience and public experience co-exist with one another.4

Megerle and Kandl do not want to create just an ordinary painting that is based from a mere photograph. Instead they are using other visual aesthetics like removing it from the wall or incorporating text that counteracts the traditional predictability of portraits and figure paintings. Narratives are significant to question the social and cultural conventions in historical events that are important to the viewer’s everyday life.  By showing everyday life familiar to the viewer that is already readily available to the scene, the view can relate to its contexts. However, in the abstraction and distortion of these narratives the artists likely want to present that as an exaggeration in our own perceptions as humans when one supplies a meta-narrative for an event that is publically or individually experienced.

Cultural identity is crucial in contemporary art, because of how much information everyone is exposed to on a daily basis there is always that tension like in Kandl and Megerle’s work that explores individual verses public experience.  Megerle showcases the female identity and the everyday person through portraiture and Kandl merges the cultural and political significance of text and the everyday life to explain this tension of individual and personal experience that co-exists simultaneously.


1    Meike Behm, “English/German Sternberg Press, Birgit Megerle.” Sternberg Press. June 2011. <; (accessed Feb. 19, 2014).

2  Meike Behm.ibid.

3  Hans-Christian Dany. “ Secession.” Secession – Johanna Kandl.  1999. <; (accessed March 8, 2014)

4 “Helmut & Johanna Kandl. “Liberty and The Pursuit of Happiness – Galerie Zimmermann Kratochwill.” Galerie Zimmermann Kratochwill. 2013. < >  (accessed March 8, 2014).


Behm, Meike. “English/German Sternberg Press, Birgit Megerle.” Sternberg Press. June 2011. <; (accessed Feb. 19, 2014).

Dany, Hans-Christian. “Secession.” Secession – Johanna Kandl.  1999. <; (accessed March 8, 2014).

“Joanna Kandl.” Glück & Co. < > (accessed March 14th, 2014).

Kandl, Helmut and Johanna. “Liberty and The Pursuit of Happiness – Galerie Zimmermann Kratochwill.” Galerie Zimmermann Kratochwill. 2013. < >  (accessed March 8, 2014).

“Painting Forever in Berlin.” Painting Forever: Berlinische Galerie, Deutsche Bank Kunst Halle, KW Institute, Neue National Galerie. <; (accessed March 16th, 2014).


megerle1(fig. 1). Birgit Megerle. Geometric Eye. Oil on Canvas, 2012


kandl_meanwhile (fig. 2). Johanna Kandl. (Meanwhile, on the other side of the square.) Tempera aug Holz, 2013.



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