What’s afoot in Vienna lately? Of the half-dozen or so international contemporary art stars associated with the city, only Herbert Brandl has opened a solo exhibition at home this season. It is at the gallery of his long-time dealer Rosemarie Schwartzwälder, the Galerie Nächst St. Stephan.
Brandl came of age as a painter in the heady 1980s, and most observers categorized his thick, aggressively handled landscapes as Neo-Expressionist. Like his colleague Georg Baselitz, Brandl has since become an institution unto himself (at 48, he represented Austria in this year’s Venice Biennale) and his work begins to draw its own associations with history.
Specifically, in the case of his current show, with J.M.W. Turner’s paintings from the 1810s, when he was launching his pictorial revolution, and with Claude Monet’s work from around 1920, when he was in the final phase of his.
The first of the three gallery spaces given over to Brandl’s work here contains a single giant canvas, roughly 10 x 20 feet, quickly worked over by an extremely wide brush in a bright, thinly applied pthalo blue, with plenty of white ground left exposed. Precious few strokes of a deep, cold grey accent this seemingly chaotic field of brush-scribbles. One long diagonal brushmark passes across the middle, near to a single large dab of golden yellow, the only non-blue in the show’s seven works.
Like Turner, Brandl blends a taste for nature’s most dramatic visual effects with a talent for submerging his imagery just below the threshold of representation, making pictures that are always becoming, rather than being. What at first looks like an arbitrary field of artfully invented marks resolves itself upon further looking into a realistic portrayal. The large untitled painting in the first gallery, which dates from 2007 and is priced at €100,000, depicts a flower upon a branch at close range, with a background of rushing water.
It turns out to be a precise rendering, and once the eye catches hold of the image, the entire picture is in service to it. All the explosive splatters and running, chaotic paint, which seemed a mere record of action and chance, prove crucial to the depiction. They fill with specific meaning and are revealed to be necessary, even inevitable.
Nearby, at Layr Wuestenhagen Contemporary, a more inhuman vision of contemporary reality is to be found in the nightmarish figurative paintings of young Viennese native Svenja Deininger (b. 1974), who now calls Cologne home. A former student of painter Albert Oehlen, Deininger conveys in his work an image of a cybernetically distorted life lead inside a dystopic, frozen-hearted collective.
In the oil-on-paper titled Für einen Moment war die Welt eins (2007), for instance, a steely honeycomb structure overlays a view onto a smoky, faceless, dancing crowd. At the top of the picture is painted a row of four yellow sodium lights and the kind of heavy electrical cords one finds on a loud PA system.
It is a chilly image, rendered with a nonchalant, photo-collagist clarity that seems composed in Photoshop and projected onto the canvas surface for painting, complete with brushy background and some drips, smatters and incomplete details. The effect is rather ‘80s, as if Robert Longo’s punk figuration was given a painterly Neo-Expressionist gloss. Deininger’s painting looks like a celebration of club esthetics, but it could use some critical tooth. The works are priced at €4,000-€8,000.
Some gems are to be found in Layr Wuestenhagen’s Garage, an adjoining second space that is just that, a garage. A sculpture by Vienna-based Tillman Kaiser (b. 1972), titled Vhidan Bhavan (2004), has the size and proportions of a slightly exaggerated, corrugated lampshade in white. Was that what it was?, I asked the artist. "No," he answered, "it looks like a lampshade, but it’s really a building in Bombay."
Kaiser seems to have inhaled the lessons of Dada and Constructivism together, and now is master of an impressive body of paintings and sculptures like this one: quietly unstable, formally inventive, confident in their purpose and unafraid of appearing stupid. Look for more work by him at the NADA Art Fair in Miami, where Layr Wuestenhagen Contemporary makes its first appearance.
With its roster of hip artists and its international ambitions, Layr Wuestenhagen Contemporary has become a kind of beacon for Vienna’s youngest generation of art cognoscenti. A recent event called "Into Position," Sept. 26-Oct. 7, 2007, which the gallery was instrumental in organizing, made this fact apparent. Launched with an impressive opening party that brought out Vienna’s surprisingly sizeable art world, "In Position" presented a series of discussions and exhibitions in a number of studio spaces in the very center of the city, featuring the work of nearly 40 artists.
Participants ranged from local up-and-comers like Christian Weigl, Fabien Seiz and the collective Mahoney to international standbys like Fischli and Weiss, Seth Price and Gedi Siboney. The shows were mostly organized by younger curators, including the editors of the leading local art quarterly, Spike, and Severin Duenser, an active curator and sometimes director of the Krinzinger Projekte, a showcase for emerging talent from abroad.
All the shows were group shows, and no one seemed to think much about ways to adapt their works to the format of the big, brief, crowded event. The result was a disheartening undertone of longing, as though those involved in fact aspire to make "real" art shows in big, institutionally sanctioned contexts, and that this "experimental" setting were merely a stepping stone.
On that score, two other Vienna shows mounted in traditional settings are noteworthy for their pragmatically innovative take on what an exhibition should be. The first is the solo show by Andreas Reiter Raabe (b. 1960) at Christine Koenig Galerie. Titled "Pure Paint," the exhibition is actually comprised of paintings, photographs and films. Raabe authored the paintings, abstractions that feature brightly colored, deliberately applied drips of acrylic, and he produced the photographs, which show silk-screened signs with short texts referring to painting in the abstract, placed in situ in different places around the world.
The three films, on the other hand, are not Raabe’s own. They are Jean Genet’s Un Chant d'Amour (1950), and Ed Ruscha’s Premium (1971) and Miracle (1975). The Genet is obscure, and the Ruscha films supposedly exist in only one copy, both of which belong to the artist himself and are hardly ever screened, and which Raabe had to borrow, as a friend, for his exhibition.
Raabe used to run a film club, and he watches movies while he paints. The projection of these films in Raabe’s exhibition, then, reflects his own artistic process as seen and developed through the work of others. It makes for an exhibition that matches neither our idea of a group show nor that of a solo show, but lands somewhere in between.
The films themselves are sardonic meditations on art-making, particularly by male artists. Both of Ruscha’s films feature protagonists engaged in elaborate projects that cover over and temper a certain misogyny. The hero of Premium, in order to get the most enjoyment from a cracker, must arrange a bed with mixed greens, vegetables and even olive oil (poured right on the sheets), and then bring home a date to add to the dish, tossing the poor woman onto the sleepy-time salad. Only then can he go out back and enjoy his saltine.
The man in Miracle, striving to discover the elemental physics of the muscle car, gladly sacrifices his relationships with the outside world, slowly destroying his bond with his girlfriend with his increasingly dismissive view of her as a whining hindrance to his true calling, which culminates in a humorously futile and commonplace image of smoke exhaling from an exhaust pipe, to his great satisfaction.
Finally, consider Genet’s film, which depicts a fantasy romance of two imprisoned men, witnessed by a troubled prison guard who ends up beating one of them and putting his gun in his mouth.
"Pure Paint". . . Raabe’s show pronounces its title with a dirty, ironic sneer, even as his work itself appears to maintain the faith.
Another show to purposefully proclaim its difference from the humdrum exhibition model is Vienna-born, Paris-based Marina Faust’s "Im Raum Bei Song" at Song Song, a newly opened gallery attached to the couture shop Song, which features contemporary fashion of the more brilliant and difficult kind.
"As an exhibition space, Song Song does not have any particular ambition to bring together the so-called ‘worlds of art and fashion’," said its owner, Myung Il Song, "but we look for artists who show the same spirit of material invention that we have come to appreciate so much in the clothing designers on the other side, in the shop."
In Faust’s case, however, the invention is located not in the objects themselves, but in the social space that they generate. The gallery is filled with secondhand chairs of all shapes and sizes, which have been outfitted with wheels and handles for pushing them about. The chairs do have esthetic merit, but the real question is clearly where they situate themselves as art. The opening proved this avant-garde proposition, as the room full of people talked, looked and rolled each other about, scuffing and spilling wine on a floor that was left as it was for the exhibition’s duration.
Was the opening of "Im Raum Bei Song" a presentation or an installation of objects, or a performance by the show’s viewers? In fact it had something of each but was contained by neither. A liminal event, it served as a reminder of the narrow set of circumstances by which something is defined as "art" at all, an observation that is, of course, a very artistic gesture indeed.
ABRAHAM ORDEN is a New York art critic.