Eberhard Havekost, "Marvel," Dec. 9, 2004-Jan. 15, 2005, at Anton Kern Gallery, 532 West 20th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011
"Marvel," the title that German artist Eberhard Havekost has chosen for his current solo show at Anton Kern Gallery, sounds almost like a command. Fourteen new paintings are on view, nine on the gallery's south wall, and five more on the north wall exhibited as a single work. With his new paintings, Havekost continues to build upon a painterly vocabulary that is both luminescent and flatly photographic, a style that has earned him comparisons to artists Luc Tuymans and Alex Katz.
The nine paintings on the south wall, all of different sizes, are scattered, hanging salon-style above and below each other. The casual arrangement encourages the viewer to stand in the middle of the gallery to view all nine paintings at once. The sharp images register in the mind like street signs. It's a fast process -- the meaning of each subject is understood the same way one takes a red octagon to mean "stop."
The comic-book hero Spider-Man appears twice, Spiderman 1 and Spiderman 2 ("Marvel" is beginning to make sense). Other images include a man in profile talking on a telephone (YGA), a man and a woman climbing a wall of stones (Beginning A), figures with cloth draped over their heads (Spiel 1 and Spiel 2), and a general with a disfigured face (Stage). The images move through the genres of the otherworldly, the familiar, the bizarre and the grotesque with a disengaged precision. Havekost is like a mad psychiatrist flashing cards before his patients to penetrate into their psyches -- all the while keeping a cool complacency.
I met Havekost in his studio in Berlin this summer while he was working on the paintings for this show. A large space in an old warehouse on the former communist shore of the Spree river, the studio was relatively bare aside from a motley assortment of tables covered with paintbrushes, tubes of oil paint and tin cans for mixing. On the floor were dozens of magazines, haphazardly tossed.
On one end of the studio was an entire sound system surrounded by a mound of CDs (Havekost is also a DJ). On the walls hung the works in progress, each accompanied by a group of source photographs, images that he took or found, ran through the computer, subtly manipulated and printed out. His process is slow and methodical. He does all the legwork for a painting before he actually paints it -- so the process is almost preordained, as if paint-by-numbers.
Havekost took pride in showing us a binder with plastic sleeves filled with images that he had photographed and reprinted from the computer, an archive not unlike Gerhard Richter's famous Atlas. Havekost had a story, and a sly smile, for each picture. He is like a hunter, whose discovery of images, excavated from our world, demands the bulk of his creative artistry. The final product, the actual painting, is merely the mount. The "salon wall" in New York, then, resembles the wall of a hunting lodge. Each painting is a creature, exotic or common, brought in from the wild. Together they tell the story of the hunt.
But what is the meaning of Havekost's images? They are all human subjects. There is that man on the telephone. Who on earth is he talking to? Then there are the two portraits of individuals with cloth pulled over their heads. They could be the separated lovers that are kissing each other through the same cloth in Rene Magritte's Les Amants II (1928) -- Magritte's chilling reference to his mother's suicide by drowning.
Despite his seemingly random subject matter, certain themes lace the nine paintings together. Four works take up the idea of the hero. In addition to the two Spider-Mans, there is Global Player, a large painting of a man in a motorcycle uniform who could be strutting off to battle. The most puzzling of the heroic subjects is Havekost's proud and stern decorated general standing at attention. His face is gnarled, an additional ornament of battle. War is an eerie, taboo-tinged and frequent subject for contemporary German artists, and Havekost's version has an exceptional vulnerability.
Havekost's painting style is not simply photographic. His colors are effulgent -- the paintings seem to glow. They are almost too pleasant to look at. The flatness of a photo is still present, but the hard edges often present in video stills and photos are blurred and softened. He makes his works from photographed images, but adds in painterly touches that iterate the image in the medium of painting. With these attempts Havekost is pinpointing the disparity between the grandiosity and arduousness of creating an oil painting and the unavoidably impromptu and fleeting nature of taking a snapshot. It's ironic to paint a snapshot.
And though taken from snapshots of our world, the paintings are not exactly "realistic." They are surreal, but they don't quite approach fantasy. Havekost has less of a penchant for evoking the fantastical than he does a cinematic talent for creating a mood.
Rusty Landscapes 1-5 (2004), a series of five paintings grouped together on the north wall of the gallery, reads like a visual poem to melancholia. Each painting shows a different perspective of the exterior of a house, cropped and composed with further obstructive elements such as narrow tree barks slicing into the foreground. Several are painted under the muted light of a winter sky. Abandonment, isolation, and terror emanate from each work.
This series has a more classically narrative dimension. Havekost takes the subject of a single house, a solid structure, and breaks it up, abstracting its form into five separate points of view -- much in the same way one story can be told by several different characters.