October 28, 2010

All stays in the family

I guess I can’t very well expect you to scroll through several generations of bourgeois ancestral back story for a work of art, which I would tell in the uninvolved mock-genealogist style best mastered by Balzac spreading boredom for a hundred pages before he cuts to the meat of his story—still, since Alexej Meschtschanow has answered my request for an image with the most unassuming piece I’ve ever seen from him (in Balzacian terms: the poor country cousin), I think we can’t avoid throwing a quick glance at its forebears if we want to understand what this family of fettered furniture stands for, or better, carries on its upholstered backs.

The forebear nearest to my heart (for sentimental reasons) is this club chair from 2004, from the second year of sculptural works in this mode, which has become a sort of trademark for Alexej. Here is a piece of furniture with much higher pretensions than the footstool above, one that I suspect would care whom it’d be seen with. Not that this lies completely within its own choosing, because it must live with—depending on how you judge the situation—a support to put its broken bones upright, or a structure of shackles to keep it in place. Of course it is both at the same time, and the balance varies from model to model, since Alexej builds an individual tubular steel support for each piece, subtly reacting on the character traits of the furniture it carries, until it’s like an externalized ornament determined to hold its own. Here, the front legs of the club chair are held in the firm grip of a steely echo of leather cuffs, and its tiny wheels dangle in the air helplessly. The white tubular steel frame with its hospital bed wheels and the very practical handle in the back overpower the club chair and force an added efficiency on it that, as added efficiency will do, puts us in a wistful mood (even if we welcome progress in real life).

What is remarkable about this chair and all the others, the buffet and the children’s bed, is that they all have their thing so tightly together. As a viewer you needn’t bring much, you needn’t know what it’s called or what the secret intention is; the art draws on your powers of empathy and proportionally rewards them. Because of their communication skills, some of these pieces have almost iconic potential, well, as long as all stays in the family. A family that still grows, and I for one do not tire of their growing numbers, since each is an utter individual.

So the artist has sent me the poor country cousin, which I guess needs some extra love, because people tend to overlook it. The photo above helps, it is taken roughly from the perspective of a small child just able to stand on its own feet and to whom every object still has an inherent monumentality. Also, to whom the fettered footstool has a droll face, with beady eyes and a mustachioed lower edge. This perspective we wouldn’t share as normal exhibition goers; our gaze from lofty elevation down to that humble piece of furniture would rather try to see something useful in it, despite of its art status. And succeed. (I see my kids brushing their teeth when I look at the work. Seems safe enough if too narrow for the both of them at once. Only, the material is not suited for bathroom tiles, you’d always have to place it on a mat or some such nuisance.) Also, the forms seem quite happy in their easy encounter: the tubular steel lovingly repeats the funny keyhole that adorns the top of the stool. Yes, I think this country cousin of our sadly optimized club chair seems to be a rather happy-go-lucky fellow, his supporting structure uplifting in all senses of the word. The simple and open relationship between the two borders on the symbiotic, improving chances of survival . . .

All of this plays so directly into my habit of reading artworks for their psychology (which of course is the correct approach) instead of asking what the hell they mean, that I almost might overlook the obvious fact that these objects are hybrid beings sawn together by some mad Frankensteinian genius in his sleepless nights, impotent monsters that carry their self-defeating functional enhancements on their sleeves for us to ponder. Which is one thing that we need from art: monsters, I think I said that before.

After Alexej had created such varied cast of characters, they stood around in galleries waiting to be assigned roles, and since 2006 this is what he has given them. His exhibitions have become quasi-narratives acted out by sculptures, like in the recent Feierabend show at Klemm’s in Berlin, where the lone chair, a tubular-steel Breuer descendant held matter-of-factly in almost balletic grip by its support, pores over the floor plan of the exhibition, masterminding the whole scene.

Again, pretending it’s all between the artwork and the viewer.

October 4, 2010

Our eyes above each other

So, following on the Magritte post somewhere upstream, this could be the second part of a new series called: artists that don’t speak to me at all, except they’ve done the one single piece which absolutely floors me, should floor anybody, and deserves top entry in the canon. And again, I remember slouching into a gallery room (this one in Bietigheim-Bissingen, if you really need to know), and being hit by the thing—most squarely against the eyeball not least because everything around from that same guy, Max Pechstein, was run-of-the-mill Brücke expressionism that could be categorized into its leanings to more idiosyncratic colleagues work by work (and I’m not exactly a sucker for German expressionism in the first place, most of it seems to have yellowed before its time, read: instantly).

There’s not a lot science I can do here really. Just register the love with which the indecision of the boy’s pose between defiance, or maybe just being cold, or maybe just having to squat has been rendered. And yes, his eyes are blank pits of the deepest deadest darkness, this is not just because I scanned a postcard. I didn’t even have a kid when I first met the painting, so the resonance was mostly with my own boyhood. I’m not sure how far out of Germany this really translates, but I played with houses like that that came down from my father, and all of the forms are related to a history that to me included the mysterious unspeakability of the Nazi past, but of course to Pechstein in 1916 they did not. Boy With Playthings this is called. They surround him like twelve dolors in almost military formation.

For some reason (mostly colorful), the sobriety, dignity, and all-around humanity of that little fellow (only three years old when he was painted, at least that was the age of the artist’s own son then), to me goes so very well with a late Picasso painting from 1969, sort of a self-portrait as a spoilt child with a rapier and flower as his own playthings . . . While the Pechstein is much greater art, these two offset each other’s charms so very well.

(I really don’t know what to do with verticals on this blog, they look so bad. I mean, what’s the idea anyway, why would anyone do verticals in the first place, it’s not like our eyes were set above each other, is it?)

October 3, 2010

To drown and never be heard of again

This is the first post in a small series where I invite artists I know and like to send me an image of something they’ve done without much information except the technical data. I will then proceed to wrack my poor brains and see how far I get. The above image will in any case be the easiest of the run, since I’m probably the world’s leading expert on Rudolf Reiber. Ha! So much so that while I had not seen his Caromboat (2010) before he mailed me the photo, it already felt familiar, because he once had told me over a beer: “I’m taking a boat next and will be putting a billiard tabletop in it.” I immediately retorted with what every sane person would think, as long as they’d be anchored to the real world by a beer: “What in the hell would you want to do that for?” And like most of the good artists I know, Rudolf didn’t launch into a lecture about boats and billiards and their inherent meaning, but just said: “Wait. It’s gonna be good, you’ll see.”

I probably should have spoiler-tagged the image above. Because, let’s stay with the artist’s declaration of intent for the moment: it can actually prove a ballast pretty hard to throw overboard—and has been for me. I sort of had to reacquaint myself with the reality of a project that had seemed sort of exhausted once I had turned Rudolf’s description of it over in my mind for a couple of times. While it’s very easy to translate this piece (like many of Rudolf’s) into immediate words, I certainly wouldn’t choose the Caromboat to explain what the he’s up to to anyone, it just doesn’t sound good enough in words. I’d rather mention the work where he put an alarm system on an empty gallery wall, or the one where he blotted out all the stars in the sky of a Thomas Ruff artprint. These two seem much better when you translate them into words, because they’re more meta, they relate to Yves Klein exhibiting a void, or Rauschenberg erasing de Kooning, and all of that is mothered not by Cage’s silent piece itself, but by Cage saying that the audience didn’t have to experience the work personally, it would be enough to know it existed. That is to say, we’re on safe ground.

Anyway, I simply couldn’t help judging Rudolf’s piece before actually seeing it. And it didn’t make for a good story. While this is art you sometimes can easily put into words, these words can top the work like a bad haircut.

To continue in the same mold, I should probably have written about it blindfolded. Rudolf sowing the references, me reaping the connotations. The boat is almost too easy, German romanticism, Böcklin, but also Dante, Homer (Winslow as well as the Odyssey dude), Jerome K. Jerome, Hitchcock, you name it: a boat is a vessel to carry meaning. And then billiards . . . well, actually I have to seriously mention one table there, because else you wouldn’t trust me anymore, and that is from Gabriel Orozco. The artist made it elliptical and constructed a setting where the red ball sort of bombs the other two from above. Elliptical table of course stands for the world; apart from that the work seems about the game itself to a surprising degree, it’s like the revenge of the red ball, that’s the one you usually don’t play, is it?

While now I could go on and list the similarities and differences between the two works, it would get me nowhere, because the objects modified in these pieces that can be translated into simple sentences do not really seem susceptible to classical iconography, they’re still too much the things they were before they ever dreamed about becoming art when they’d grow up. They represent reality that’s been willfully screwed with (and I’m sure the beer still figures in here somewhere).

[Interlude: When my brother and I became old enough to spend our afternoons in front of the tv screen, as is proper, our family suddenly had a sort of spare playroom. It wasn’t sufficiently large for table tennis, so they decided to get a smallish pool table. While that soon became no more than another powerless tool to try and kill time with, the table always kept a certain media-supported glamour (The Hustler!), something of an elementary coolness (plus on the few occasions when later in life I was in a situation to play, I proved myself rather more adept than most of my unsuspecting playing partners). Though the thing standing there through my early teen years means I of course will never again have a desire to play again, I still remember its green surface with fondness, it speaks to me of the profound luxury of boredom, that is the privilege of youth. (Both of which I’ll never enjoy again.)]

So now, instead of having everything figured out beforehand, I will actually have to think about the thing, because I have a photo. Look above. (I haven’t seen the darn canoe in the flesh, by the way, and I don’t intend to, and anyone who tells you that you can’t talk about art which you haven’t seen in the original is a capitalist dead bent to destroy the frigging ozone layer. I’m serious.)

Part of what immediately endears me to the boat is that I know how they do the so-called Gartenschau, the landscape park on parade, here in Germany. Carefully groomed recreational areas within city limits—touched up not to provide little pockets of nature with prescribed viewing points like in English gardening, and not to rape nature just to prove the superiority of reason like in French gardening, but to furnish the green, make it inoffensive, habitable, and mildly useful. Within that, the boat is really an outpost of art in public space in general, which is usually about power structures—and you could argue that the best examples of that sad genre are probably the most reprehensible in their gender policies, but that’s for another post.

So rather, let’s walk the knoll like Diderot used to walk the academy into a painting, looking not for motif and meaning, but for psychology. The Caromboat is like a creature, maybe restricted in the sort of sense it makes, or rather, a mutation maybe senseless in itself (like all good mutations are before evolution harnesses them), and one that will not reproduce—there will be no billiard boats throughout the history of art like there are ferries into the nether lands. But there it is, and it has a vibe.

The boat houses three billiard balls that have an inclination to react against the elements together, they huddle more than they smack each other, they wouldn’t want any outright confrontation, that would be more drama than they could take. (The lake they live in might be small by objective standards, but it is completely sufficient for a billiard ball to drown in and never be heard of again.) So the balls seem to depend on each other. They stay close, following each other’s movements; there’s nothing they can do against their situation, but they can gain some solace from a solidarity which stands in opposition to the game they were originally created to serve.

Any object with sufficient mass creates gravity that longs for company from any other object.

But Rudolf, what if it rains?