The young, girlish woman who is the protagonist in most of Zilla Leutenegger’s compositions should not be mistaken for the artist herself, but she may be seen as an alter ego and referred to as “Zilla.” The compositions with this fictive figure are not self-portraits in the traditional sense; if anything they are portraits of a younger self in the 2000s when Leutenegger first showed her work in public. “I work with myself as the figure, partly because it is simplest to give stage directions to myself, and partly because it is the most authentic method.”(1) The image and the characterization of the figure are crucially dependent on the setting within which the figure is seen. However, as Leutenegger puts it: “I design the set, but I don’t create the plot.”(2) That is how she herself describes her own intentions, whether in drawings, in videos, or in combinations of the two, that is to say, in animated, projected drawings or in a video installation with integrated drawings.
However, the props in these pictorial spaces are only one aspect of the work, and not as important as the uniquely elusive atmosphere—perhaps best described as melancholic—that pervades these drawings, an atmosphere that may well remind an older generation of the song “Lazy Sunday Afternoon.” These are bare-bones snapshots, presented by the artist as the briefest of chamber plays. Stories are not told here using narrative devices. It may be that these images are in fact the concentrated essence of stories, or maybe they only contain the seeds of possible stories, which—were they told in full—would report, briefly and succinctly, on people’s responses to their memories. Leutenegger once commented on this in conversation: “The figures in my drawings and works are always alone—alone but not lonely.”(3) And, elsewhere in the same conversation: “I regard the figure, which is mostly my own, as an exemplar for humankind,”(4) as “a figure you can see yourself in.”(5) Meanwhile, her ideal exhibition goers are those “who stop of their own accord, reflect, and feel solidarity with the figure and its existence.”(6)
Leutenegger’s visual language, which in some senses calls to mind children’s drawings, looks distinctly unpretentious in what are often very large-format compositions. Her figures and objects are rendered as line drawings with just a few zones in the motifs marked out by patches of concentrated color. These drawings thus have an almost collage-like air. They are easy to read, the visual language is pared back, props and furniture are kept to a minimum in these stage sets where a figure engages in certain actions, often gazing into space as if sleepwalking. Using the simplest motifs and formal means, Zilla Leutenegger evokes a very particular atmosphere in the realms of her art.
(1) Inka Graeve Ingelmann in conversation with Zilla Leutenegger, “Ring My Bell,” in Z – Zilla Leutenegger, exh. cat. Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich 2015, p. 61–73, here p. 69.
(2) As cited in Ralph Melcher, “Poesie des Raumes,” in Zilla Leutenegger. Wichtiger Besuch, exh. cat. Saarlandmuseum, Moderne Galerie, Saarbrücken, Ostfildern 2006, p. 67–73, here p. 69.
(3) Graeve Ingelmann and Leutenegger, “Ring My Bell,” p. 64.
(4) Ibid., p. 70.
(5) Zilla Leutenegger in conversation with Dorothee Messmer, “Versuche, das Unmögliche möglich zu machen,” in Zilla und das 7. Zimmer, exh. cat. Kunstmuseum Thurgau, Warth, Zurich 2008, p. 101–109, here p. 103.
(6) Graeve Ingelmann and Leutenegger, “Ring My Bell,” p. 67.