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BERLIN HORTICULTURE
by Ana Finel Honigman
 
When it comes to contemporary art, it’s not surprising that Los Angeles and Berlin are proving to be a good match. Javier Peres, director of Peres Projects in Los Angeles, opened a sister space in Berlin a little less than a year ago. A former entertainment lawyer who specialized in refugee cases involving gay asylum-seekers, Peres launched his gallery in San Francisco in 2002, moving to L.A. nine months later, where it became one of the city’s foremost spaces for emerging artists. The idea of bringing his glittering roster to the German capital’s breezy, booming art scene was a natural.

Since the debut of Peres Projects in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, the German popular press has hastened to cover his shows, local paparazzi have snapped pictures of his artists, and Peres, whose heritage is half Sephardic Jewish and half Cuban, has been heralded as being on the "forefront of German culture." With his signature handlebar moustache, his warm, intellectual rock-star turbo-energy and gritty, sensual L.A. esthetic, Peres and his roster of smart and sexy artists have helped bring a little more Weimar glamour to Berlin.

Peres initially invited London’s East End gallery Vilma Gold to buddy-up with him in his Berlin space, but now the Brits are moving on, and Peres has taken the entire building, measuring roughly 10,000 square feet, plus an additional riverfront studio space of another 1,600 square feet.

Next door to Peres Projects is the 8,000-square-foot studio of artist Terence Koh, who happens to show with Peres and who is now casting crisp and cracked idiosyncratic found objects in white plaster, to be displayed in stacks of vitrines similar to those he sold out of at last year’s Frieze fair.

Eager to love and to hate Peres, Berlin’s art-savvy citizenry cannot keep away from events in his gallery. On July 18, 2006, over 500 lithe young Berliners mashed together to watch an energetic 45-minute-long allegorical rock-art performance by My Barbarian, a six-year-old California art collective. Peres had plastered the city with covetable psychedelic wheat-paste posters for “Medieval Morality," My Barbarian’s original satirical adaptation of the Nordic folkloric Everyman saga, in which a lowly artist is tormented by the Devil’s lures while being dominated by a Valkyrie-like sadistic angel. First presented at the Mak Center Schindler House in Los Angeles in 2004, the play was adapted for Berlin with the aid of Berlin-based artist Jan Hammer.

"Berlin is rad," Peres proclaimed. "It has a certain similarity to L.A., in that you need to crack the nut and know where to go and such to make the most out of it. But even as a casual floater it is a really rad experience."

While Peres is planting L.A. in Berlin, plenty of other international artists are similarly blossoming in Berlin’s many home-grown and hybrid galleries. At Galerie Alexandra Saheb, for instance, "Landscape Is in the Eye of the Beholder” presented landscape-inspired works by artists from five far-flung lands. In Dismantled Landscape 5, the Chinese artist Huang Yan poses a pouting model, nude except for her combat boots, on a concrete platform before a large painted backdrop suggestive an academic Chinese interpretation of John Constable’s 1821 pastoral ideal, The Hay-Wain.

In a marriage of East and West, the young woman’s face and body are covered in calligraphic brushstrokes depicting trees, rivers, mountains and other details representing traditional Chinese landscape art. In a sister photo, Yan moves in closer to the girl, offering a more detailed demonstration of the way that her impassive face, arched back and ample body make the perfect pliable canvas for his depictions of rolling hills and weeping willows. No matter how lively, a classic landscape can hardly compare to a live nymph painted with verdant scenes. Both photos are €4,700.

The English artist Matthew Burbidge contributed a massive mixed-medium sculpture, titled Victoriana, crafted from crud-covered plastic trinkets dripping with craft-glue. Stiff plastic fauna and flora sprout from a plywood base, where decaying walnuts are scattered next to plastic toys. At €11,000, Burbridge’s sculpture offers an endearingly pathetic image of an obsessive hobbyist’s pastoral ideal -- or is it an urban acrophobiac’s nightmare vision of nature gone bad?

A more convincing image of utopia could be found among the haute couture nymphs on view at the Kicken Berlin gallery, included among the 25 iconic fashion photographs taken in the 1960s and ’70s by the internationally influential German fashion photographer F.C. Gundlach. While producing exclusive editorial images for the German fashion magazine Brigitte, Gundlach helped establish the sleek Op-Art esthetic that defined that era. Mounted in honor of the artist’s 80th birthday, the show includes Mod cuties, icy rich-bitches and equally cool overheated hippie chicks simpering in desert settings.

Kitchen’s smaller second space showed a selection of six large-format Ilfochrome prints that German photographer Peter Keetman shot on commercial assignments in the ‘60s and re-printed in 2004. The lustrously seductive advertising images are being exhibited posthumously, on what would be Keetman’s 90th birthday. Keetman’s glowing, bright, Technicolor images of an ordinary egg-slicer, stylish stripped hair combs and droplets of oil still seduce.

The recently opened DNA gallery, in collaboration with the House of World Cultures, Berlin, brought Brazil’s sensuous sensibility -- the ultimate hot culture from a hot climate -- to Berlin’s Mitte neighborhood in a show called “Urban Scrapes: Contemporary Brazilian Art.” There, monochromatic toy cars wander directionlessly through a little maze on the floor under a video of the São Paulo-based artist Lia Chaia eating photographs of urban architecture. A grey felt baseball cap is nailed to the wall next to Marcelo Cidade’s sound installation, which pumps throbbing club music into the space from a raised stage cut into the gallery wall. Like an old hipster hanging up his hat as he starts to play, Cidade demonstrates his maturity by extracting the essence of all-night club culture for the afternoon gallery-going audience.

At Galerie Gerken, the Berlin-based artist Dieter Mammel had installed a massive magenta painting of a pretty, podgy schoolgirl aggressively dangling a plush animal by its toe. Mammel claims that the color magenta signifies his examination of "love as a mirror," and since stuffed animals are children’s first intimate bed partners, onto which they project their longings, needs and sometimes sadistic urges, the love reflected in this girl’s abuse of her toy indicates that despite her baby-fat, she may grow to become as alluring and complicated as the cool vamps in Gundlach’s gorgeous photographs. The price: €6,800.

Another serious look at playthings can be seen at the Gitte Weise Gallery, which was transplanted to Berlin from Sidney in 2004. Cultural contrasts and commonalities played off each other in Australian artist Paul Saint’s series of appropriated comic strips, on which he covers up portions with silver or black shapes and thick lines. The juxtaposition between the sections he obscures and those he keeps visible replicate the haziness of half-remembered story-lines.

In a second series of black and white prints, Saint showcases only the queens from a global array of recent packs of playing cards. In the 13 prints of cards, stacked in threes and each priced at €220 (€2,640 for a full deck), the dignified faces hail from all continents and their slight racial distinctions are less remarkable than their universality. Every country’s queen seems equally regal, just as a potpourri of different cultures reigns over this city.


ANA FINEL HONIGMAN is a critic and PhD candidate in art history at Oxford University.



 



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