Madeline von Foerster's Waldkammer


This is going to be a disappointment. After not writing a review for a couple of months, I'm going to disappoint you by writing about something you can't see unless you happen to be in Berlin in two months. I have a stack of things I wanted to write about -- good things, good shows, good work -- which somehow I didn't get to. I've had one crazy summer. And not, mostly, in a good way. But back to the present, or anyway the more recent past.

I met Madeline von Foerster a couple of years ago when I reviewed her show at Fuse Gallery. I fell in love instantly. Madeline and I kept in touch over e-mail, swapping occasional messages, and last year I bumped into her and her paramour at an opening in Chelsea. So when she invited me to a preview party at her place to show off the paintings before she shipped them out to Berlin to Strychnin Gallery for her show in November, I jumped at the chance. Well, not literally, because my floors aren't rated for that kind of load.

To make things even more interesting, I invited my friend and studiomate Reilly Brown. Reilly's a comic book penciller; he's been doing Marvel's New Warriors lately. He told me he'd be interested in going to some fine art galleries so I offered to drag him along one night.

In a way, Madeline's preview was a great way to start, because her work is absolutely fantastic. Another way, though, it was a bad idea, because not only is Madeline's work vastly superior to most anything in Chelsea, she also set out all kinds of food -- olives, pita chips and hummus, brie and crackers -- and you almost never get food in Chelsea. And while I've met many lovely, gracious artists over the years, Madeline is certainly one of the loveliest and most gracious. So for Reilly it's all downhill from here.

When I arrived at Madeline's Tribeca apartment she greeted me like an old friend. (We hug now?) We talked for a moment or two but of course as the artist of the show she couldn't talk long; and as she was hosting it in her apartment, she was even more in demand. Then I tried to pet her cat but it ran away. I spotted Reilly and the woman with him, whose name I remember but can't spell so I won't put it here. Reilly and I have trouble shutting up around each other, why I don't know, so it was a few minutes before I could really look at the paintings.

Madeline von Foerster, Amazon Cabinet, 2008, oil and egg tempera on panel, 30x60 inches

Madeline von Foerster, Amazon Cabinet, 2008, oil and egg tempera on panel, 30x60 inches

But when I did, wow. "Wow" is exactly what I said about her work the last time I saw it, and I'm still saying it. Nearly three years down the line I'm less inclined to be bowled over by mere technique; I've found myself looking more and more for that feeling that bypasses the intellect, that goosebump-raising, inexplicable frisson one gets from truly great art. But Madeline's paintings are still so technically excellent, so far beyond what even the most dedicated studio gnomes are capable of, they still make me go wow.

Egg tempera is a difficult medium and Madeline is a master. The glowing beauty of it simply cannot be matched. And Madeline has only gotten better with it; gone are any areas of mismatched gloss; gone are slightly obtrusive passages of excess thickness. These paintings looke as if they were laid down in one unbroken, even layer, bursting with detail, bright and bold, burnished to a high sheen of brilliance. Subtle dark glazes are balanced against sharp opaque edges: a jewel leaps from the shadows, a flower peeps from a recessed cabinet, a crown glows in the darkness. Like all great athletes and performers, she makes it look easy, effortless. I think to myself, I could paint like this. Yes, I could -- in my dreams, maybe.

Madeline von Foerster, Invasive Species I, 2008, oil and egg tempera on panel, 12x15.5 inches

Madeline von Foerster, Invasive Species I, 2008, oil and egg tempera on panel, 12x15.5 inches

It's hard to choose a standout from the show. Everything is so fantastic. Of course there's the centerpiece, Amazon Cabinet, which is impressively large. Given her Van Eyck style, to work on such a scale is an achievement. And it's so phantasmagorical, with its Dalí ants industriously marching across the statue's left shoulder -- look closely! At least one of the ants is carrying a crumb of something! -- and its carefully brushed leopard fur and its carved wooden chainsaw at the bottom right. It's the kind of surrealism one sees in Juxtapoz artists but completely lacking in the irony and arch cynicism which is the unpleasant, distancing hallmark of that school. No -- Madeline is playful but serious; smiling but she means it.

Invasive Species I is another favorite of mine. Although I like the leafiness of Invasive Species II -- I'm a sucker for leaves, and I guess Madeline is too, because we both love Rousseau -- I love the emotion in the first one, the way the woman appears mildly surprised at what's happening to her. And her hair and the way the pearls are set in it, well, they're a painter's dream. The painting looks like the woman sat for a portrait and was overcome by ivy, much to her chagrin. Ivy which happened to grow out of her sternum.

The glow of Rite of Remembrance, the bushy fox sleeping in Specimen Cabinet, the angry bat -- we probably disturbed his nap -- and the translucent slugs of Redwood Cabinet -- it's difficult to pick the best work in the room. Madeline's depiction of textures, from fur to feathers, from wood to curtains, from gold to paper, is unmatched in my experience. Each one is a favorite, each one makes me smile.

In the drawings included in the show you can see the foundation for her work. Reilly said one of his art teachers told him that once you can draw, you can work in pretty much any medium, and I'd agree (although I'm not sure about sculpture). Madeline here shows a facility for drawing beyond the fantasies of most academy-trained draughtsmen. Her Drawing for "Spotted Owl Cabinet" approaches Dürer's level of mastery and looks almost like an etching or woodcut. Drawing for Rite of Remembrance could be a plate tipped into a history of Dalziel Brothers.

The only sad note is the realization that Madeline is working in niche that probably will keep her from conquering Chelsea; she'll almost certainly find great success in the art world, but the mainstream of contemporary art is going to go on without her, I think. Her style just isn't in vogue unless there's a healthy layer of insincerity smeared over it and I don't think Madeline's capable of being that untrue, to herself or to the traditions of the craft in which she's working. I hope I'm dead wrong and that one day the Met tears down its Tara Donovan room and its Kiefers and Gustons, and Koonses and Hirsts, and puts up some von Foersters. That'd be great. But I'm not waiting for it.

So in the meantime, before the contemporary art world comes to its senses and puts Madeline on the map, if you're in Berlin between November 7 and December 6, 2008, I highly recommend you stop by Strychnin Gallery and check out her show. If you can't make it there, well, with any amount of luck she'll have another show in your area soon. I've still got my fingers crossed for a New York show, but that's been since 2006. And boy do my fingers ache.


There's something very claustrophobic about von Foerster's work. The one of the nude covered in vines goes to the heart of it. It's about being strangled or smothered - in attention, technique, decoration or symbols.It's an acquired taste. I don't see it relating much to the 'current scene' or any other scene I can think of. This is really outsider art.

I don't think it's that claustrophobic in person; online it may come through more that way. I think it's more light and airy in real life.But I can sort of see where you're coming from. Madeline can be fiddly. I tend to like that kind of thing.I would not, however, call it outsider art. My definition of outsider art is art by someone who doesn't consider themselves an artist, by someone who doesn't realize they're making art. Henry Darger, for example, was a schizophrenic making stuff for himself. He was entirely outside the concept of art. Madeline, however, considers herself an artist and creates what she and others consider art. She's outside the mainstream of the Chelsea art world, but actually not by much -- if you look at Nancy Baker's work you can see their affinities, and Nancy's had representation in Chelsea for years.Also, Madeline's work certainly relates to a scene, namely the hermetic, occult scene. There's a whole niche of people who really dig Victorian references with Gothic overtones mixed with magick and alchemical symbolism. This crowd overlaps with the Juxtapoz people to some degree, and there's an element of tattoos, piercings, and other body modification, also. There are shadings of BDSM in there as well. Madeline's art may not reflect all of that, but it certainly appeals to that scene and to some degree grows out of it.

Fair points CR. The term outsider is a very broad one. Was Le Dounier Rousseau an outsider?Outsider art is certainly marketed, whether of the disabled, disinterested or just plain crazy, and by an equal span of marketers. So it has a scene, I must concede.I don't know much about a 19th century or Victorian, Gothic scene, but there is a strong market for historical pastiche and parody (everyone from Currin to Glenn Brown or JP Munro) which revels in this kind of careful technique. Not that von Foerster is quite a Rousseau revivalist, but as far as relating it to a current scene, this aspect might possibly be exploited more (if market positioning is a priority...)

Actually, thinking some more about current tastes in the occult and mystical - I was reminded of Jacques de Beaufort's blog. He defintely fits the profile here, even with a taste in Victorian poetry, and decided preference for painters like Munro and Glenn Brown. And Jacques teaches art history apparently, somewhere in LA, so he's hardly an outsider. Although he too is struggling for recognition in the art world.

Try "Fantastic Realism". That is lineage of the paint technique that she studied. Her teacher studied Ernst Fuchs one of a small group of people who revived the Old Masters techniques, and used it to express personal insights and experiences, often with a mystical bent. There has been a growing wave of students who have been coming into contact with teachers who have sprung from this source.While it is not outsider art, having very definite roots, and not being any reaction against the "mainstream", and progressed along by itself. It has not been given any recognition by the establishment, and in some corners actively derided.So it is rather pleasing seeing artists such as Madeline finding success.

Just a couple of days after the opening of Madeline von Foerster’s Reliquaries exhibition at Strychnin Gallery, Berlin, Fantastic Visions recorded this interview with her.

In this insightful interview we learn about how she started painting with the Misch Technique and her connections with great artists such as Ernst Fuchs and De Es Schwertberger.

Watch the video.

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