Cologne, Feb. 11, 1997--The city's Karnival celebrations took place over the past week and will end on Ash Wednesday. The streets were filled with thousands of costumed "Jecken" -- revelers willing to drink the city's famous Koelsch beer and swing arm-in-arm to the rhythm of kitschy folk music until they dropped. Karnival's roots lie in a pagan ritual that was thought to drive out the cold winter season and make way for spring. Later, it became the German equivalent of Mardi Gras -- a celebration of overindulgence before fasting during the season of Lent. In the early 19th century, Cologne residents dressed up like soldiers and acted like fools to parody Napoleon's troops, who occupied the area. This mixture of a vibrant culture and biting politics is still reflected in current art world events.
The recent announcement that the Museum Ludwig's director, Marc Scheps, will be leaving at the end of August after six years of service came as a surprise to all. In a time of great financial difficulty, Scheps was able to put together high-profile shows like the Malevich exhibition in 1995 and the upcoming summer Jasper Johns retrospective. In spite of these accomplishments, his contract was not renewed.
The decision to hire or fire the museum's director is made by a political committee, and the voice of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) rang out against him. The search for a new director will begin immediately, and the position is wide open. Still, Scheps will remain active in Cologne while organizing an exhibition for the year 2000 that should take place at the Koln Messe (Cologne Fairgrounds). The project is a cooperation between museums in the Rheinland cities of Bonn, Cologne, Duisburg and Dusseldorf.
Decisions have also been made concerning Art Cologne -- Europe's oldest international art fair, most recently held Nov. 7-11, 1996 -- which has been in a state of flux since reunification and the rise of Berlin as an art center. As previously, the National Association of German Galleries will oversee the event, but the Koln Messe administration will increase its role in the fair's daily operations. Koln Messe plans to take over the financial responsibilities and, perhaps most importantly, set up the committee to choose art fair participants.
Another change, perhaps the most important one, is the discontinuation of the three-year-old tradition of showing works from "younger" galleries in Hall 5 on the fairgrounds. The Hall 5 forum for younger galleries was launched after dealers who were excluded from Art Cologne retaliated by creating the alternative "Unfair." Today, many of those galleries are no longer considered young and would probably qualify for the fair proper if they choose to show in Cologne
Will there be another forum for the youngest galleries and artists? The abandonment of Hall 5 is a chance for excluded galleries to form another showcase or come up with a real alternative to the art fair system. This will have to take place if Cologne is to keep its position as a dynamic force in the international art scene.
Generally, the organizers are trying to reduce the number of participating galleries to 200. Raising the rent from 195 to 250 DM per square meter should cut out some galleries. And the critics who complained that the fair was too large and confusing should be satisfied. Hopefully, an additional result won't be a homogenous show that doesn't reflect the variety of the market. The fair has promised, however, to increase its efforts to bring in more galleries from abroad. This would be a welcome development, especially if the art shown is truly diverse and not just that of the usual artists on the international circuit.
Enough about the workings of the art market. The art itself is more interesting and dramatic. Last week, I took a tour through the galleries in the southern part of the city. My thoughts made a leap over to the far-side when I entered Paul de Reus' exhibition at Aurel Scheibler. In conjunction with the project "dialoog cultuur - NL in NRW," which supports Dutch artists in galleries in the state of North Rhein Westphalia, de Reus has taken over the gallery space with mostly figurative sculptures and drawings ranging from the curious to the repugnant.
Revealing a disturbed imagination, the artist shapes his sculptures out of a myriad of materials, including hair, textiles, electric light and rubber. A life-sized woman bent with her head at her ankles and skirts pulled over her head projects the feeling that there is something terribly wrong in the world. The head of a wrinkled old man jutting out of the wall and letting a huge, clear drop of mucus drip off his nose immediately brings one word to my mind -- disgusting.
Permeated by the odor of soft rubber, the place even smells bad. It is jam-packed with figures and props that press their intimacy against each other and against me as I walk between them. The most uneasy part is the feeling that everything there is ordinary, but had been somehow pushed over a limit and driven to display its own trauma. Paul de Reus is proving himself to be very talented at exposing that part of the psyche which harbors every-day frights.
Galerie Thomas Rehbein currently has a group show called "Das Abstracte" (The Abstract) featuring works by U.S. artists Mark Dagley and Stephen Ellis, Marie-Luise Lebschick (Austria) and Herbert Warmuth (Germany) with the idea that "the fall of modernism led to a disintegration of the terms 'representational' and 'non-representational'." Lebschick's works of lone, distracted girls finely painted into a disappearing, colored background demonstrate the fine skill of blending a figure and a field. At first glance, they seem crudely painted, but a closer look reveals the care with which the figures were integrated into the surface.
In the same space, Ellis' large canvases are filled with whishing brushstrokes, loose grids and layered swirls. Lined up next to each other in a second room, Dagley's dynamic monochrome paintings with thick shaped canvases -- triangles and squares -- are paired with Warmuth's striped national flags. Warmuth's little pieces have painted-in shadows, undulations moving through the stripes. The flowing distortions break down the flags' concrete form. This show doesn't come close to exploring the entire realm of possibilities mentioned in the first part of the gallery's statement, but -- as a friend said to me -- Rehbein's onto something. The works do reflect interesting positions in the blending of the concrete and the abstract, and there is a lot to be said for group shows in small, easy-to-swallow bites.
The line between abstraction and the object is also addressed at Monika Spruth Galerie with an exhibition by the German artist Anne Loch. Most of the paintings are of roses blown up to monumental proportions, with the exception of two works with sparse yellow-gold trees on a darker golden background. Executed in a narrow spectrum of reds and oranges, the acrylic rose petals fold both into and away from each other to create curving patterns. In some of the works, the identity of the rose is apparent, in others, the object is barely recognizable or only made known through its placement within the exhibition as a whole. There is something of Georgia O'Keeffe in the close-ups of flowers, but the repetition of the motif in painting after painting and the fascination of their deep, silky surfaces has a different feel than O'Keeffe's cool masterpieces.
To be seen in the gallery's back room are video and text works by the U.S. artist Hirsch Perlman. Among photos and videos is the tape Conversation, with two men emotionally gesticulating and saying any of ten different lines back and forth at each other until they reach an impasse. Sentences like, "I don't know," or "People should finish what they start," leave the actors helpless in their inability to communicate and the viewer wondering what they are talking about. Exploring the space between image, text and understanding, Perlman uses language in nondescript situations to bare the flaws inherent in communication.
That was the end of my tour and I'm going back to Karnival. This morning I stepped into a subway car carrying 23 people with orange wigs and all dressed in the same pink and purple polka-dotted clown costume. Cologne city has a spirit that can't be outdone.
ROSANNE ALTSTATT is a critic and curator working in Cologne.