Helmut Federle in Basel

The first thing that strikes one about the six large paintings on display at the Kunstmuseum Basel and made over a span of 25 years, beginning in 1980, is that their scale feels American. Few artists paint this monumentally in Europe. Yet the sensibility of Helmut Federle’s work is also European, melancholic in tone and subtle in its application of paint. Even though these notions are generalised, they lead to an important transatlantic quality of Federle’s painting. The Swiss-born artist, based in Vienna and in his mid-seventies, has travelled the globe often and eagerly. He has absorbed notions about scale and colour, values and beliefs, from different cultures. A four-year stay in the US from 1979 onwards was important to his development, just as the discovery of postwar abstract American painting made an impact, during the 1960s, on the very museum in which his work is now showing.

You can spend a long time looking at these works without getting a clear idea as to what they are ‘about’. In Untitled (1990) a large dark circle appears against a background of grey brushstrokes, half transparent. A tilted U-shape enters the right side of the painting, delivering a second formal focus. A greenish-yellow light shines, as if the work was lit from behind. Without any narrative or action, this and the other canvases refuse to be boiled down to any specific subject matter or statement. They’re just there, as presences you want to be with: complex characters with conflicting parts. They are not necessarily pleasing or beautiful, most are rather dark in atmosphere, but they appear sincere and dynamic. The uneven paint application, as well as the play of layers, invite one to keep wandering over the canvas. Some forms are clear and decisive, like the circle; other areas are vague and unfinished. The division between yellow and grey in Untitled (1980) feels strict and firm, while the repetitive pattern of lines in Death of a Black Snake (1999) is subtle and mysterious. Collectively, with all their contradictions, these seem like existential paintings: this is how it feels to be conscious, to be human, to have fear and hope, highs and lows.

Asian Sign (1980) produces a push and pull between negative and positive form. Are the grey blocks in the foreground? Just as this appears to be the case, they recede, and disappear behind the yellow, meandering bands. The yellow is bright and enlightening here, more than in other paintings. The fact that the painting, acquired by the museum in 1982, created public uproar – it depicts a swastika – indicates that people did think there was a subject matter or statement in the work. More particularly, an evil one, even though the symbol is not presented clockwise, as the Nazis used it, but counterclockwise and thus, according to a Hindu interpretation, stands for the setting sun. Of course it can raise eyebrows to discover such a form, huge as a flag, that mirrors (not depicts) a symbol appropriated by fascists. The real question, though, is whether or not Federle’s work should be taken as symbolic at all. An auxiliary selection of works on paper shows further engagement with signs and symbols, but they are not about reproducing fixed meanings. Rather they spring from an interest in seeing form free from preconceived ideas. What kind of expression does this produce? Amid its push and pull, Asian Sign is a work concerned with the moment that form becomes meaning, just as Federle’s work in general is about the moment that form becomes a manifestation of inner life.

This text was published in ArtReview, October 2019

By the Sea. Report from Marseille

For its first edition in 2007 the Art-o-Rama hosted only five galleries, under skeptical observations from the Paris art scene about the chances of a fair in a poor city like Marseille. Sixteen years later, the fair has become a significant end-of-summer event with an international program, and cooperation with other institutions in and beyond the Provence. Even Parisians leave their city to enjoy art ‘by the sea’ and see what France’s second city has to offer.

Read my impression from the Art-o-Rama fair here on the website of DAMN magazine.

Louise Bonnet in Berlin

Seeing a reproduction of Louise Bonnet’s painting The Pond (2018) on the invitation to her exhibition made me both curious and skeptical. It shows a woman posing in an uncomfortable, if not impossible, backbend curve, her form conjuring a shortened bridge, with her hands and feet under water. What we mainly see is a large body against a dark background. Face and individuality are hidden behind physicality. Firm, outsize breasts point straight up toward the sky. It is certainly a weird scene—but I couldn’t decide if it was weird as in interesting, or more like a cartoon or a forgettable gag.

I got my answer from the exhibition itself, which included six large oil paintings on linen, along with five smaller, colored-pencil works on paper. Most of these works had a single body as their protagonist, stretching, bending, or hiding behind hair. These bodies were voluminous, twisted, exaggerated, or reduced to just certain parts: giant feet, a massive hand, a blown-up nose. The recurrent appearance of bare skin did not mean the figures were fully exposed; in most instances they were rather trying to hide their intimacy or were prevented from showing their real selves. The reason for this could be the pressure of the public eye or another force: In Bed shows a figure being pressed down by the enormous hand of a second figure, floating above.

Bonnet was born in Switzerland in 1970 and, after attending art school in Geneva, moved to Los Angeles in 1994. While some regard the Californian city as the epitome of superficial body culture, for Bonnet it was the opposite. She has said that as a woman she felt more at ease there, less preyed on or dominated by male eyes. Such observations on cultural habits of seeing are important to her work. Clearly, being or having a body was one of the main themes of the works on view here. In both the drawings and paintings, there was a kind of smallness and vulnerability inherent in the figures, despite their exaggerated dimensions. They were constantly being squeezed or rendered faceless.

In the works on paper, a discomfort with the body was rendered with a light touch, the white paper visible underneath the pencil lines, while in the oils something more happened, bringing further layers of expression that led to a greater degree of ambiguity. In the paintings, the impression that the artist was aiming at a twist or a quick laugh tended to disappear. Sure, the bodies in these paintings seemed absurd; they were equally comic and tragic. But the way they were painted, along with the way they were staged in isolation, rendered them ambiguous plastic shapes that invite longer contemplation: The figures generally looked smooth, plastic, and volumetric, but details such as wrinkles of the skin or the tension of the muscles were worked out precisely. They seemed sculptural: the result of a thoughtful exercise in bending curves, showing folds, creating depth, and working on surface expression.

Bonnet started to use oils only recently, in 2014, and the medium turned out to be the perfect way to attain plasticity. Her painted figures possess solidity and stillness. They are abstract in the sense that they become placeholders for forces that play out across the canvas as a whole. The shades and folds of skin in The Finger, or the tears or waving hair in The Rock, were resolved in such a subtle and beautiful way that they resembled the lovingly described surfaces of objects in a classical still life. As a result, the sensations of discomfort, disproportion, imbalance, or pressure were transformed into something paradoxically celebratory. Bonnet’s paintings are weird in a serious and monumental way.

This review was published in Artforum, February 2019. The exhibition was on view at Max Hetzler Gallery, Berlin.

Vienna Contemporary

The Vienna Contemporary is an art fair with a focus on Eastern Europe. This year’s edition was a welcome reminder that Europe has more to offer then nationalistic fears and (talk about) border patrols. The fair is an encouragement to cross into new territory, practice some mental migration and see what artists make in regions of Europe that are not typically in the spotlight of attention.  I combined a visit to the fair with some studio- and gallery visits in the city, to find interesting artists at work, such as Erwin Bohatsch, Béatrice Dreux (Image: ‘Dark Octopussy’) and Michael Horsky. My report was published in print in the Belgian H-Art magazine #185 (in Dutch) and can also be read and viewed here .

Riga Biennial of Contemporary Art

In her opening speech, the curator of the Riga Biennial of Contemporary Art, Katerina Gregos, pointed to our busy and stressed ways of living, leaving many people with burnouts or existential fears. In some of the artworks this is reflected quite literally, while other sections of the biennial shift the attention and try to offer an antidote. The Biennial touches on many topics of our current times, luckily without degrading the art works to mere illustrations. The biennial was one of the better surprises of the 2018 summer, and still on view till October 28 in the Latvian capital. For DAMN magazine I wrote a report about how Riga and the arts relate, which you can read here

 

 

It’s a Joke! Ceal Floyer in Bonn

In ‘Ceal Floyer, a Handbook’, published on the occasion of an exhibition in the Kunstmuseum Bonn in 2015/16, a text about Ceal Floyer’s work is written by fellow artist Tacita Dean, who, as becomes clear, frequently dines with Ceal Floyer, and has known her for 25 years. Tacita Dean is somebody we might want to rely on while trying to get an image of Floyer, since the artist herself is not eager to give interviews. First we learn that her last name should not be pronounced as in ‘foyer’, but more like as rhyming with ‘her’. Floy-er. We are talking British, not French here. Both artist were born in England and live now in Berlin.

“It is not the fault of the goldsmith that writing about the work of Ceal Floyer is nearly pointless,” Tacita Dean notes and also: “Description kills her work because it has already taken too long.” With ‘too long’ she refers to the fact that Floyer’s work is about a quick moment of understanding or seeing something and grasping it. It is the kind of art that takes place in the split of a second, in the mind.

In the first room of the exhibition there was a light square projected on the wall, showing in the upper part the image of a light bulb, close to the ceiling, as where you usually find a lamp hanging. The image was actually produced by a bulb placed on an overhead projector in front of the wall. So the bulb was not giving any light, but rather it was a projection created by light. This work plays with perception in the tradition of René Magritte. What we see is something put together in our head, rather then what is actually there.

Floyer’s work springs from an attentive eye for objects and their formal qualities, while at the same it takes into account what happens when an object receives museum kind of attention. The artist is challenging her viewers till the point of laughter and irritation. Another work in the exhibition, Switch, shows an image of a light switch projected next to the entrance of a room, where usually the real switch can be found. The room was dark, the only light came from the projected image of a light switch. Got it?

Floyer’s work has been called conceptual and one can wonder to what extent her works are merely ideas or ‘switches’ in the mind, and to what extent actual objects and their presence are important. Clearly the light was important in some works. More physical presence has an alu ladder with only the first and last rung intact, while the ones in between have been removed. The ladder rests against a wall, waiting not to be used, you could say. According to the handbook this ladder is ‘negating its function as a tool and rendering it a purely minimalist sculpture,’ but that must be confusion over what minimalist sculpture is. It just looks like a practical joke. And the same goes for two similar versions of a photograph showing a glass that is, according to the title, either half full or half empty. That is not even a good joke. A work with more substance can be found on the floor, with a black marker an almost full circle is drawn on the wooden floor, and there is a saw stuck in it, suggesting that a circle is almost sawn out and about to fall down if you would step on it. Here the work gains some physical weight.

Floyer is playing a game with the habit of going to a museum and look at objects, to look for meaning or have an aesthetic experience. Her work is circling around expectations while looking at art, partly by mocking interpretation. But if the disruption itself becomes the main artwork, something strange happens. Once Floyer’s works are presented in a solo exhibition, as precious art works, just like those of the museum collection, they loose their credibility. They are domesticated, you could say, and this does not fit them, since it is not the kind of art you want to look at for a longer time. Once you get it, you go on to the next work. And once you are on this Foyer track, in a solo show, you know that more fooling will follow.

One work in the exhibition was called Sold. It was hardly visible since it was installed in a separate room with Georg Baselitz paintings on display. Under the right corner of a painting called ‘Sandteichdamm’ there was a small red dot. Actually it was a hole drilled in the wall that was filled with cadmium red. For those who did notice the dot, it suggested the work of Baselitz was sold, which would be a strange thing if a museum would sell out a painting. Such dots belong in commercial galleries. The funny thing though is that the Kunstmuseum did decide to sell this Baselitz painting in 2001 to the art foundation of the Sparkasse in Bonn to finance a hole in an exhibition budget. The work could stay in the museum though, since it was given as a permanent loan. Here the placement of Floyer’s work seemed adequate, since it was presented in relation to an existing artwork. On top, but this was something Floyer did not know, it pointed to an unusual episode in the museums history.

The type of art that Floyer makes forms a challenge to museums in choosing how to present and discuss it. It seems that Floyer is welcomed to mock the art world, and comment on its habits, but the art world is not yet ready to mock the artist, and find fitting ways of showing her work. The red dot was an exception: hardly visible, but in the right place. A text at the entrance of the exhibition said: “Ceal Floyer’s art is conceptual and sensual, minimal in its outlay and yet of great complexity.” The thought that this art could be simple instead of complex must have frightened the museum staff. In texts about the artist’s work, the tone is often serious, charging it up with different layers of meaning and intelligence. But is it really that complex and brilliant? And does it need to be treated as seirous as other pieces in the museum? Rather this seems an example of what Tacita Dean was warning for. If you talk too much about Floyer’s work, you might kill it. Because let’s be honest: a good joke you don’t have to explain.

A Kind of Escape. Peter Doig in Basel

After the work of Peter Doig was exhibited in the 1990s, a lot of young painters started to paint ‘Peter Doig-like’. Apparently he had struck a chord, inspiring a new generation of artists. He legitimized a new romanticism that had been impossible, and even suspect, for years. A show in Basel brings together a selection of Doig’s works from the last 25 years, and offers a chance for the visitor to comprehend the ingredients that make up his attitude as a painter.  

There are few such perfect locations in which to host a Peter Doig show as the Fondation Beyeler. The museum, situated in a rural setting just outside of Basel, is surrounded by a sculpture garden. While walking through the building there are moments when nature enters: a view of the surrounding hills or a tree that’s losing its leaves. Such impressions interfere with the exhibition in a meaningful way. They give context to the question of Doig’s relationship to nature. Does his work address what is ‘out there’ or is it, rather, a painted reality in itself, as the artist suggested in a talk at the museum: “A painting has to be convincing, in the sense that it provides a kind of escape and has a kind of reality of its own.”

Doig was born in Edinburgh, grew up in Trinidad and Canada, and studied art in London. His years spent in winter landscapes as well as in tropical ones, have informed his work. Observations from such different parts of the world can actually be seen mixed within single paintings. A recurrent motif is nature and man’s reflection on (and in) it. One can see, for instance, a single figure aside a lake, a figure in a canoe on a vast expanse of water, or somebody walking over the ice. In all cases, the reflection in the surface is important, and creates a painterly double, or extension of the figuration. According to Doig, “Reflection is a device to create space in a painting. It opens the whole thing up.” The mood of these landscapes is not only transmitted through the actual scenography and posture of the figure but also through the differences in paint application and mark making.

In Doig’s eyes, “Painting is about working your way across the surface, getting lost in it. The large size of the paintings is about getting absorbed in them.” A project made specifically for this exhibition is a long mural, Cat of 9 Tails, a collaboration with some of Doig’s students from Düsseldorf. It shows an ongoing wall of colored bricks in which different windows appear, offering a vista of the blue sea, an island, and the horizon. It’s not entirely clear whether these windows are really windows or rectangular images or paintings on the wall, and thus an illusion. As Doig says: “It’s a play on making a painting.” The mural is an extended version of his 2004 canvas called House of Pictures.

As do many contemporary painters, Doig borrows freely from art history. His appreciation of early modern artists, such as Daumier, Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Munch can be discerned in the way he draws silhouettes, enacts a starry night, or lightens-up white snow with pink. What is crucial is that the re-takes of these predecessors are incorporated in a new atmosphere. Unlike many of his followers, Doig succeeds in digesting his source material, resulting in a painterly language that can be experienced as current – if even in the work the sense of historic time is ambivalent. The present appreciation of Doig’s oeuvre doesn’t necessarily mean that it depicts our era; it may instead point to something that is lacking or that people are longing for at present. His paintings enable the viewer to establish a vivid connection to memories and internal landscapes.  

In many ways, Doig’s work is informed by photography, as can be seen in his image archive (presented as a slide show), while in his paintings he moves away from photography and looks for expression that can only be achieved through paint. “I use photography simply as a way of imaging memory”, claims the artist. Also exhibited for the first time are the graphic works that Doig has made over the years, which often contain images he would later use for his paintings. Even though the effect of these ‘experimental prints’ is modest in comparison, it’s interesting to see the pictures in black-and-white and at a small scale. It makes one aware of the importance of contrast in the compositions – before any use of color or virtuosity comes in. Doig’s credibility as a painter has to do with layering. Many paintings balance between multiple competing forces, moods, and notions. Parts of the works are executed with an obsessive emphasis on color, while other areas are hardly touched, being more sketchy or pale. Some areas are very precisely drawn, while others seem sloppy, the result of indifferent brush strokes or dripping paint. There is the notion of skill, but there is also the understanding that art is not about mastering technique. As Doig sees it, “You can make a painting plausible by having areas of focus, and then have other areas that are completely out of focus.”

The only thing lacking in Basel is a good insight into Doig’s recent production. Apart from the mural, there’s only one work from 2014, a figure on a horse – which looks like a battlefield, in terms of figuration. This doesn’t shed any light on which direction Doig is now moving in. What the exhibition teaches us, though, is that Peter Doig is not just a style or a look, it involves an internal quest. That is what distinguishes a real Doig from his epigones, who are enchanted by the surface treatment or the romantic imagery. As he put it in an interview: “I think you have to be connected to your subject, for your own sanity, really; and, also, to feel grounded.” ‹