Glenn Brown in Berlin

Glenn Brown exhibitioin at Max Hetzler gallery Berlin

Since his appearance on the 1990’s London art scene, Glenn Brown has been in an ongoing dialogue with his predecessors, without being afraid of mutilating his examples or pushing aspects of their work to the limits through stylish deviation and exaggeration. For his exhibition And thus we existed, the artist presents 17 recent paintings that are loosely based on historical figure drawings, alongside six paint-based sculptures. 

Multiple sources often come together in one painting, such as in the green Bring on the Headless Horses (2020), which projects a seated nude over a Hercules figure, intertwining them. This piece is based on works by two 17th– and 18th-century artists (Mr. Brown usually prefers not to disclose the names of his sources, unless of course they are mentioned in the title), but it also references the artist’s own previous work.

Seeing a painting by Glenn Brown is like watching a peacock opening its tail. It is full of proud beauty, carefully orchestrated colors, and within the repeating patterns there are many little “eyes” hidden in the paint, in curving lines. Sometimes they are intentionally meant as eyes, but they are often just blinking moments that draw the attention into the dense figuration, creating anchor points in what seems an overwhelming and cluttered play of lines and colors around a human figure. For the current exhibition Brown was apparently triggered by the multitude of curving, shorter and longer lines that can be found in drawings. He uses them to shape his figures, serving representation, but he also lets them shine as free-moving ornaments in a rich display of color and paint.

Seeing these works, I wondered if the artist considered a path through each of them, in terms of where to start looking, where to continue, and where to leave the painting. Some shops make customers go through their offer in just such a prescribed way. There is no way to find what you are looking for without passing a variety of other offers that call for your attention. In Brown’s case, there are many distractions to look at, and the viewer might wonder if there is a point at which everything comes together. Looking for meaning here feels like a game of a hide-and-seek, in which everything is curling and swirling, in which figures are appearing and disappearing, and the image never comes to rest. 

It is interesting how different the temperaments of the individual works are – ranging from light and airy, to melancholic or tormented – while sharing the same compositional principles. Color seems to be the decisive factor here, giving each work its own pitch. Some small paintings though, like Drawing 9 (After Baselitz) (2017), stand out without (or with just a little) color, and for their dynamics, rely on the contrast between black and white, and between dense and emptier areas. The play of lines in this work is reminiscent of a detailed mountain map where differences in elevation are indicated, even though the actual image is that of a face.

There is not one way to go through the paintings – there are endless ways, and I figure that the artist conceived his work rather purposely in such a way that it is not easy to find an exit. Yet, he gives us some spots that serve well as entrances, like a single red shape against a green, forming a hand, or the blinking eyes that pull attention like a vortex. Once inside the painting, the eye keeps wandering, moving over to an opposite color, or looking for a repetition of the same blue. Everything is connected, yet everything is also loose and by itself. Mr. Brown succeeds in evoking a restless dynamic in a medium that is often thought of as stationary. The many hours of meticulous labor invested in getting at this result has its counterpart in the time needed to “read” and experience the painting fully. There is not one single image – there are many brought together into one painting under the pretext of depicting a figure.

–Jurriaan Benschop

On view at Max Hetzler Gallery, Berlin, untill 23 January 2021 (due to covid by appointment only)

Other Reviews

Studio Talk with Daniel Richter

For his new series of paintings, presented in the exhibition So Long, Daddy, Daniel Richter has plugged into a timeless motif in painting: the figure. Yet this description immediately comes with questions. Who or what are the beings that appear in these colorful and dynamic paintings? And how would we label the environment in which they appear? Both the figures and the spaces around them are ambiguous and impossible to identify in one single way.

If we follow the complex play of lines within the paintings, enforced by marks of color, we get a sense of the complexity of the figures. Their outlines and gestures seem familiar enough to interpret them as fellow human beings. Yet within them, there is also the suggestion of something animalistic, an instinctive energy. Maybe humans are crossed here with their natural roots, the paintings bringing out the monkey inside us, or the bird that screams and wants to fly. (….)

Jurriaan Benschop spoke with Daniel Richter in his studio in Berlin about the paintings for his exhibition in Salzburg at Thaddaeus Ropac gallery. Below you can see a fragment of the conversation.

Video interview

Restless by Nature. Anna Tuori in Paris

The first word that comes to mind when I look at the works of Anna Tuori is restless. There are restless “walkers” populating her paintings, ready to go but also wanting to stay. A restless hand made the paintings, moving over the surface, adding scribbles and patches in different places. And the resulting works never rest; they appear active, vibrant, and alive.

The Walkers is a series of paintings that Tuori started in 2017. Having seen them in different situations, I started wondering why they work so well. At first, they look quite simple in composition and casual in execution. There is a human figure whose head has been chopped, cut by the frame of the painting. Yet the figure is not entirely headless: a face turns up at another, rather unexpected place, for instance between the legs, or on the jacket of the walker. This series makes me think about movement, about having or lacking direction as a human being, and about grace and speed. But these works also evoke contrasts between burden and lightness, roughness and delicacy. They are open figures rather than specific characters, which enables us to identify with them. The longer I look, the more details appear on the surface and the more sophisticated the paintings become, in terms of having nuance of expression and balance in composition. The individual paintings cannot be grasped all at once, each as an overall image. Only through time, through putting together the pieces that are spread over the painting, does the scene become a whole in the mind of the beholder.

Painting is, among other things, about looking and seeing. For that reason, it seems quite relevant that the walking figures are not looking at us. We don’t meet their gaze; we are looking at a moving person from an outsider’s perspective. For Tuori, reflections on the impact of seeing have a special place in the works she made for her Paris exhibition. This goes for the Walkers, but also for the different portraits of women that are on display in the show. In Dissociation (2019), there is a face with many eyes, or actually multiple faces within one figure. In Off on an Adventure (2019), the facial expression usually accentuated through eyes, mouth, and nose is almost absent, hidden under light paint. In the details of the figures, a lot can be noticed, about eyes for example, but also about how hair falls, how an arm is lifted. Just like in daily life, in the way people look and move, a lot is happening and can be read as an indication of somebody’s well-being. A gaze can be unpleasant, experienced as offensive or even as an act of aggression, while looking can also transmit love or care. In the dense traffic of looks, flirts, or meaningful gazes, Tuori seems very alert and redirects the sight lines to where she thinks it is necessary. The women in her works are certainly not just there to be pretty and admired. They are complicated, hard to read, or hiding behind smoke. They seem independent from what beholders might want to see in them.

The way Tuori paints the portraits looks like drawing with the brush – sketch-like, with energetic lines. Despite the restlessness of the figures, or even their neuroses or anxieties, there is generally an upbeat quality to the work. There is pleasure in the drama that unfolds. The artist seems to enjoy the whole range of expression that is possible in painting, as well as the ability to loosen things up through lines. She doesn’t feel like an expressionist, though, instead mixing an expressive gesture with other things. “In the painting, emotional or intuitive and conscious or intellectual approaches do not exclude each other. Just like expressive or conceptual ways do not exclude each other,” the artist commented.

During a dinner in Helsinki with the artist and some friends, we spoke about the fact that Finland was listed as the happiest country in the world for two years in a row, according to a United Nations study. How do you measure happiness? Apart from economic indicators such as gross domestic product, aspects like life expectancy, corruption in government, and the ways communities interact with each other were included. The locals at the dinner table made jokes about Finnish happiness, knowing that the long, dark winters do not exactly bring out the cheer in people. Yet I could also detect joy in the ironic self-reflections. Similarly, in Tuori’s paintings, there is a mocking, light touch, while at the same time nothing less than the struggle of life is what we are looking at. And this light note comes not just from being Finnish, but also from painting, from the transformative power that painting has over life.

Tuori’s mentality behind painting is not one that gets too comfortable with itself. The artist has changed and developed her approach over the years. It started from a dialogue with a romantic conception of art. The figures in some older paintings create their own imaginary world as a hideout. Tuori was shaped by modern ideals as well, by belief in progress, and the confidence that we can design our own lives. In the recent works, I sense a reluctance to tell too much of a story, and the artist also doesn’t lead us to wander around in an imagined, painted world. There is a rougher edge to the work, and less usage of effect to impress. Painting now seems to spring from the wish to balance believing and being skeptical, being empathetic and not caring so much what others might think. You just need to be alert, open, and flexible. Tuori’s figures appear to be in a permanent process of loosening up. They are as restless as I could hope for.

–Jurriaan Benschop

This text was published in the catalog of the exhibition Anna Tuori ‘Never seen a Bag Exploding,’ scheduled to be on view till 2 May 2020 (but currently closed because of covid19 restrictions). For information and obtaining the catalog contact Suzanne Tarasieve Gallery in Paris

Book Launch at ‘Publics’ Helsinki

On March 3rd, 2020 Jurriaan will be at ‘Publics’ in Helsinki for a talk about his book ‘Salt in the Wound. Encountering Contemporary Artists across Europe.” It starts at 6 pm and the entrance is free. This evening he will discuss the work of Anish Kapoor, Miroslaw Balka, Paula Rego, Luc Tuymans, Sean Scully and Janis Avotins, all featured in the book. How is their respective work related to the place where they grew up and work, to its history and (cultural) landscape?

Visit website Publics

Nikos Aslanidis in Emsdetten, Germany

Nikos Aslanidis can hardly be called a pleaser. His paintings can look rather grim, leading us into dark ages, showing people in the battle of life. The question coming up while visiting his exhibition in Emsdetten is how much of our own era, and our own lives, is reflected in the paintings. The artist’s goal is to make timeless painting, and he is not worried about ‘being contemporary’ or introducing props that refer to current issues. Yet, the situations depicted aren’t that far from home. Timeless means here, that it also suits our time. In each painting there is a figure engaged in some kind of work or activity, as can be figured from titles like The Gardener, The Alchemist or The Hunter. The good news is that Aslanidis presents his vision always with an understanding of order, with nuance and also with beauty. As a painter he seems to find a task in making situations of life presentable and worth looking at with curiosity or wonder, no matter how uncomfortable or tense they are.

The Thessaloniki based artist has his first institutional solo exhibition in Germany, ‘Corpora’ at the Emsdettner Kunstverein up till 15 March 2020. Jurriaan Benschop will introduce the work of the artist at the opening on 2 February 2020.

‘Trees’ at Kunsthalle Düsseldorf

A visit to the exhibition ‘Trees’ with works by Carroll Dunham and Albert Oehlen made me think about the difference between motif and subject matter, or even ‘content,’ in painting. The fact that both artists paint trees was taken as the glue for this duo presentation in the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf. Yet, one should not get too philosophical (or ecological, or symbolical) about that. The tree here is a formal motif – a vehicle to construct a painting, and as far I can see it does not connect the painters in a deeper way. What I like mostly about the show are Oehlen’s large paintings where the shapes of a bare, winter tree counteracts with geometric color fields. At times the trees resemble human or animal figures in their dynamic shapes. The exhibition becomes interesting where trees stop to be just trees…

The exhibition is on view from 30 November 2019 till 1 March 2020 at Kunsthalle Düsseldorf

Lecture Rethink Painting at HBK Essen

On December 3rd, 2019, Jurriaan Benschop will be at the HBK Essen, Germany, for a talk in the series ‘Rethink Painting’, initiated by Nicola Stäglich and Sabine Bartelsheim. He will discuss the work of some contemporary painters, among them Kaido Ole, Bernard Frize, Bridget Riley, Janis Avotins, Béatrice Dreux and Paula Rego. Included will be reflections on the question How to write/speak about painting in the current era of stylistic pluralism? View details and announcement HBK here

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 first 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, edition 2019, on DAMN magazine.