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GOTHAM ART & THEATER
by Elisabeth Kley
 
Neo-Expressionism in the raucous spirit of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jörg Immendorff is alive and well at "DICTATORBABY MARY POPPIN’S CATS, DOGS AND EGGPIES (THE REVOLUTIONBABY DE LARGE IS BACK)," German artist Jonathan Meese’s exhaustingly prolific exhibition at Bortolami on West 25th Street in Manhattan’s Chelsea art district. Pigment is slathered, splashed and squeezed from the tube over black backgrounds on the large multi-paneled paintings in the main gallery. The works are festooned with collaged elements that are covered with shiny varnish, including condoms, envelopes, underwear, blank yellow post-it notes, and photos of Meese and his mother.

TOTALADLER, Baby-CHEF der Kunst (das Ei des Columbussy) (2007), the largest of four bronze sculptures also on view in the main gallery, represents a bird of prey with outspread wings and a huge erection. A small stuffed octopus is placed at his feet, and a ripening bunch of bananas lies on the floor in front of him, detritus from Meese’s opening night performance. The sculptures appear to be cast from originals cobbled together from boxes, beads and a thick material applied with a trowel.

In the viewing room, medium sized busts and heads of ghost-like masqueraders preside. Like a map of modern life, Putz Deine Sahne mit Deinem Seelenslip (2008) has a mouth constructed from a pair of women’s underpants flanked by two halves of a ripped €50 note and topped with an empty pill package. The chin is a photo of a lipsticked mouth giving head to an anonymous penis.

Fourteen of Meese’s past performances, at venues including museums in Germany and Spain and Matthew Barney’s studio, can be seen online here. Highlights from Deputy Darling, an event that took place at a theater in Mumbai, India, on Jan. 14, 2008, include Meese defacing a photo of Hitler while holding a baguette in his mouth so it sticks out like an enormous tongue, brushing his teeth and then replacing the toothbrush with a pacifier, spraying himself with air freshener to "smell good for the dictatorship of art," and crawling around the stage amidst the mess he has created.

Charlatan, creative genius -- or both? Meese has a lot in common with Salvador Dalí, another artist who loved to sport a deadly serious expression while acting like a maniac. Having already appeared on Samantha Brown’s Passport to Europe cable television show (on the Travel Channel) as the quintessential crazy Berliner, Meese looks to be well on the way to achieving Dalí’s notoriety with the general public. At prices ranging from a low of €3,600 for a drawing to €290,000 for the large bronze, the work is selling well.

Megalomaniac artists are nothing new, of course. "Temple Destroyer," a large exhibition at Maccarone over on Greenwich Street, is introducing New York to a portion of Otto Muehl’s wide-ranging work. Born in 1925, the Viennese Muehl began painting landscapes influenced by Vincent van Gogh in the 1950s, but rapidly progressed to gritty abstract paintings and assemblage sculptures made through a kind of cathartic destruction, works that bring John Chamberlain and Jean Dubuffet to mind.

Along with Hermann Nitsch (mutilated animals), Gunter Brus (public masturbation) and Rudolf Schwarzkogler (staged fake castration), Muehl was a founding member of the Vienna Actionists, a groundbreaking group of ‘60s artists who used the human body as a surface and site for making art, and aimed to violate society’s taboos. Muehl’s performances featured scatology, food, paint and naked women. Turning art into life in the thick of the sexual revolution, Muehl founded a commune in 1970, run on principles of absolute free love. It attracted over 600 members in Vienna, and also had branches in Germany, Switzerland and Holland.

The commune lasted until 1985, becoming more and more unwieldy, and more harem than collective, according to some. A skeptical account of Muehl’s enterprise can be found here, while Muehl’s perspective is available in an interview here. In 1991 he was sentenced to seven years in jail for rape and molestation. But what about his paintings and artworks, do they still have any interest?

The show opens with a demented 1995 self-portrait in Renaissance costume as Zwingli, the Swiss Martin Luther. A white pigeon hovering near his shoulder poops on a book open to an illustration of a haloed naked woman holding a cross. The show includes a cartoon Jesus hanging on the cross, done in 1985 with flat colors and black outlines, and another crucifixion image in smeared paint and blood red drips done the same year. Marx Brothers (Lenin, Marx, Stalin) (1985), the largest painting in the show, and RASPUTIN II (1985), a marvelous portrait of the sexually promiscuous Russian mystic with whom Muehl has a lot in common, are painted in the same expressionist style.

That Muehl’s appetite for blasphemy and paint continued unabated after his release from jail can be seen in Phettburg Series (1996), scatological cartoon-style paintings of religious subjects in lurid tones of lime, blue, lavender, orange and pink, including an obese Saint Sebastian tied to a tree and bristling with arrows. Untitled, a mostly green work with a collaged photo of Stalin in the jaws of a geometric monster, was painted this year. Prices range from $10,000 to $200,000.

Muehl uses paint like blood or cement, ramming his ideas into the viewer’s eye. Joan Mitchell, the celebrated second-generation Abstract Expressionist born the same year, also reveled in paint’s physicality, but her work offers a slow and deliberate immersion in texture, color and light. Back up in Chelsea, Lennon Weinberg is presenting a selection of Mitchell’s pastels and paintings made between 1973 and 1983, some of them airy and smoky, others tangled and fierce.

In the early part of the decade, Mitchell was working with subtle rectangles of pigment detached from one another, floating like clouds. Later, her compositions became fraught and stormy, perhaps related to tensions and losses within her personal life -- she broke up with her longtime companion, Jean-Paul Riopelle, and her sister died of cancer. The interlocked flurry of short brushstrokes in black, green, lavender and orange that are placed in deliberate ranks in Pour Patou (1979) have congealed into a snarled furnace of furious gold entwined with blue in Buckwheat (1982). A large painting probably inspired by dying sunflowers, it is priced at $5,000,000. Pour Patou at $1.5 million and one pastel at $140,000 are the only other available works in the show.

Pleasure is also the word that comes to mind when viewing woodcuts and drawings by the Berlin-based Romanian twins Gert & Uwe Tobias. Their work was seen last fall in New York at the Museum of Modern Art -- the 84th in MoMA’s "Project" series -- in an installation featuring bold wall graphics, large woodcuts, ceramics, drawings and a wooden construction.

Their first New York solo show in a commercial gallery, Team on Grand Street in SoHo, features imagery that turns to the Bauhaus for inspiration, rather than the birds, flowers and Transylvanian landscapes previously seen in their many European exhibitions. Tan rectangles with holes on the left and page numbers on the lower right are painted on the gallery walls, as if the works hanging over them are pasted on pages in a giant loose-leaf notebook. A large woodcut sign that was used for the invitation card faces the entry door, framed in a standing stanchion. The brothers design the announcements for all their exhibitions.

Rich and luscious woodcuts feature layers of mournful glowing colors: deep purple, grey, succulent orange glowing over black. Multiple blocks are laid on the floor side by side, inked, covered with large sheets of paper, and rubbed with hands or feet. One untitled work hanging in the front gallery features a large black rectangle adorned with enormous type including parentheses, a comma and a slash. On the opposite wall, a big head with one pinwheel eye and one target eye brings Oscar Schlemmer’s puppets to mind. Another large yellow piece is a simple rectangular labyrinth dotted with triangles and dots that looks like a giant game board.

Small drawings on letter-sized paper are especially attractive. There is a hapless gnome constructed entirely from typewritten letters and characters, and a tiny horned character dressed in a delicious lime green shirt and posed against a turquoise sky. Prices, including frames, range from €2,000 for a typewriter drawing to €29,000 for the largest woodcut (210 x 188 cm).

David Altmejd, whose installation entranced visitors to the Canadian pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale, looks further back in history for inspiration. His nine spectacular behemoths stand in Andrea Rosen Gallery like hairy decaying versions of Michelangelo’s David. With their wounded bodies and missing limbs, they appear as upright corpses that have bypassed the liquefying stage of decomposition to solidify into magical crystallized fossils.

Looking a bit like Bigfoot in a state of transformation, The Shepherd is covered with dark fur. A small mirrored staircase winds around and through his body to enter his mouth, and stalactites drip from his upraised arm. Epoxy veins burst from The Spiderman’s bullet-holed hands, chest, and head in gritty tangled clouds. A pastel stained glass wing and a pair of blue hands are coming out of his rectum.

Three other figures are progressively simpler mirrored constructions. The Guide bristles with Cubo-Futurist angles, and The Quail is a geometric structure with three shattered panels and six tiny recessed cases containing single quail eggs. The Cave, a single rising monolith, completes a progression from fleshy golem to skeleton to mirrored building that could also be seen as evolution from representation to minimal abstraction or from the organic to the geometric. The giants are $125,000 each.

Classical allusions can also be found at Rachel Feinstein’s show at Marianne Boesky Gallery. Inspired by Brancusi’s studio, Feinstein set out to make a set of sculptures in a variety of materials, but her baroque sensibility couldn’t be farther from the Romanian artist’s quest for pure form. Satyrs (2008), a pair of entwined cloven-hoofed figures with horns and hooves, brings Pablo Picasso and Henry Moore to mind. Crafted from resin, nylon, and polyester, it looks like plaster but is much lighter.

Army of God (2008), a confection of shiny cut sheets of copper with cloudlike curves and flaming zigzags, is supposed to represent St. George fighting the dragon, but looks more like a carnival mask gone wild. Light wooden beams are threaded through small holes in the copper, perhaps representing swords. The entire contraption is held up by wooden braces screwed into the wall -- a bit like Frank Stella’s metal painting-sculptures, but much prettier. The gloomy concrete Sarcophagus (2008) resembles a monster emerging from a mud pie, but is enlivened by a base of plywood rectangles painted in cheerful enamel tones. The works are priced from $40,000 to $75,000.

Feinstein frequently poses for her husband, the painter John Currin, who is famous for his images of balloon-breasted women. Delia Brown, a figurative painter from Los Angeles, is exhibiting a series of paintings of mothers and female children in a show titled Precious at D’Amelio Terras. Brown’s previous paintings of vapid young people enjoying a clichéd celebrity life are sometimes mistakenly considered autobiographical, but the work is really grounded in social satire and a sense of loss. This time the twist is that none of the women portrayed (including the artist herself) are really mothers, or even related to the children they are with.

Painted with loose tiny brushstrokes, these very small pictures (the largest is 14 x 18 in.) are reminiscent of works by American impressionists Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt. Women and children interact inside bourgeois interiors filled with modern and faux antique accoutrements, including stuffed animals, brand name foods, small candelabras with shades, and canopied beds. In Homework (2008) a woman strokes one little girl’s hair while holding another toddler on her knee. The figures are almost overwhelmed by the wallpaper of tangled green and turquoise vegetation behind them.

Other paintings of pre-teen nymphets suggest works by François Boucher and Jean-Honore Fragonard. The subject of Portrait of an Idling Young Girl (2008) sprawls in a chair looking bored as her dog looks on alertly from the couch. A tray of jars of green peas adds a contrasting touch to the golden light suffusing the room. This strangely oppressive, almost claustrophobic scene of privileged wealth conveys a sense of emptiness amid overwhelming clutter.

More figuration can be found in a wonderful group of circus paintings by Robert Hawkins, an artist’s artist whose work has been collected by Basquiat, Julian Schnabel and Rene Ricard -- in fact Basquiat died with a Hawkins painting hanging over his bed. Hawkins’s exhibition is the second show at the fashionable new Half Gallery, which opened in April at 208 Forsyth Street in the Lower East Side. Co-owned by Andy Spade (husband and business partner of handbag designer Kate), William Powers (husband of fashion designer Cynthia Rowley), and novelist James Frey, the gallery shares a space with former gallerist Diane Brown’s nonprofit foundation RxArt, an organization that brings contemporary art to hospitals and clinics. The show, curated by Patrick Fox, consists of only five works in oil on roughly cut masonite, populated by a multitude of tiny characters, painted in a dark faux-naïve style reminiscent of Florine Stettheimer combined with Walt Kuhn and Honoré Daumier.

Extravagance features wedding cake tiers of performers - lions jumping through burning hoops, polar bears, seals, elephants brandishing flags in their trunks -- surrounded by a procession of monkeys riding zebras, beauties in gowns, ghastly white-faced clowns, and toothy black panthers wearing pearl necklaces. And in Help, a nightmare sea of miniature faces gazes up fearfully at a human pyramid balanced on a tightrope. The paintings are priced from $5500 to $20,000, and Performing Ass, a back view of a feather-crowned donkey’s behind, is the only one still unsold.


ELISABETH KLEY is an artist who writes on art.



 



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