The Critic as Avant-Garde Artist

by Travis Jeppesen on September 21, 2008

I have to say that I’m a lot more interested now in the prospect of reading Boris Groys’s new book Art Power than I was before reading Brian Dillon’s review of it in the latest issue of Frieze. According to Dillon, Groys argues, among other things, that art criticism “is not necessarily written to be read.” Once you accept this, you are pretty much free to do anything you want:

[L]iberated from the constraints on content and form that cripple academics and journalists, the art critic can potentially write anything at all. Voices and styles ramify, readerly expectations are bravely neglected, and the critic starts to resemble nothing so much as the figure of the avant-garde artist.

This resonates with something I argued back in 2006, when I was reviewing an exhibition of contemporary Slovak painting in Prague for Think Again. I’m pasting an excerpt from that essay below (you can read the entire thing on p. 348-349 of my forthcoming book, Disorientations: Art on the Margins of the “Contemporary”):

What does the new Slovak painting look like? This is the question a new exhibition at the House of the Golden Ring asks. About a year ago, I wrote an article in Um?lec complaining about the lazy strategies of local curators – namely the fact that, instead of coming up with interesting themes for exhibitions, they conservatively bow at the alter of nationalistic ideals. This Is The New Croatian Sculpture. This Is The New Polish Video Art. Etcetera, etcetera. Apparently, no one bothered to read my commentary, or if they did, then they didn’t take my ideas seriously. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that no one in this town bothers to read art criticism. This would explain why so many exhibitions are lousy, and why the public has almost no interest in contemporary art.

At the same time, there’s an unprecedented amount of freedom allotted to a writer like me. As a writer that no one reads, I can get away with nearly anything – and I do. I don’t have to feel subservient to any literary tradition, I’m not weighted down with any real journalistic guidelines, I can be as poetic or absurd as I want, as harsh in my judgments as I want. There’s definitely something nice about living in a country where no one really gives a shit about anything.

At the time, in my isolation, I believed that the problem was merely a local one, but now I realize that criticism is ignored across the board.

Now, then, is the time to start writing anything. I’m happy to say that I’m still naïve enough to believe in the figure of the cultural revolutionary, the unseen human force that generates microscopic ripples that eventually give rise to massive waves, and I endorse Groys and Dillon’s projection that the art scribe – the solitary outsider in a closed realm that values power, money, and recognition – has the sole potential to play this role, in that s/he is entitled to none of these advantages.

There is a wolf at the door, it is rabid, and it is on its way inside.

Robert Hughes is Back

by Travis Jeppesen on September 16, 2008

God, I’ve missed Robert Hughes.

Hughes on Damien Hirst:

“His far-famed shark with its pretentious title, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, is “nature” for those who have no conception of nature, in whose life nature plays no real part except as a shallow emblem, a still from Jaws. It might have had a little more point if Hirst had caught it himself. But of course he didn’t and couldn’t; the job was done by a pro fisherman in Australia, and paid for by Charles Saatchi, that untiring patron of the briefly new.”

Read the rest here.

Jeremiah Palecek

by Travis Jeppesen on September 14, 2008

My review of Jeremiah Palecek’s Berlin show is now online – check it out.

One to Watch Out For: Karla Black

by Travis Jeppesen on September 12, 2008

There’s a great essay by Jonathan Griffin in the latest issue of Frieze on Karla Black, an artist previously unknown to me. Check out images of her recent sculpture There Can Be No Arguments, courtesy of Mary Mary Gallery:

A new formalism?

A Report from ABC – Art Berlin Contemporary

by Travis Jeppesen on September 6, 2008

By now, anyone who has resided in Berlin for any length of time can tell you that all of this city’s “major art events” are the same. You tend to see, if not the same artists, then the same sort of work time and again, with perhaps one or two surprises thrown in. That’s about it. They’re always over-hyped, overrated, and overpopulated, and when attending one of these things – whether it be an art fair or a biennale – you’re always struck by the fact that, despite the large quantity of expertise on hand, these exhibitions are always suffocated by a deprivation of quality in favor of mere novelty.

Art Berlin Contemporary, which opened its doors this week as Berlin’s latest art fair and featuring all Berlin-based galleries, is no exception. While the atmosphere may be less business-like than that of Art Forum Berlin – booths have been abolished in favor of an open floor plan that highlights the art itself, rather than the galleries – the restrictive curatorial approach sought to exclude those working in the hopelessly passé fields of painting and photography in an effort to focus on sculpture, installation, and projected images.

Before I get called a sourpuss, I’d like to point out that the exceptional work I’ve seen at Art Berlin Contemporary. The steel tubes of Ayse Erkmen, subject of an upcoming solo exhibition at Hamburger Bahnhof, remind us that it’s still possible to do something great with next to nothing, as do the floor pieces by Matias Faldbakken, positioned not far from a monumental work by Carl Andre (the wooden Thrones from 1978.) I was also grateful for the chance to see Jimmie Durham’s new sculptural installation, In the air, long before archeology. Jürgen Drescher’s Money Talks installation from the 1980s brings back pleasant memories of the work of Cady Noland and other post-minimal sculptors. One of the few videos I liked, Macellvs L.’s untitle:rope, is projected on a 90-degree corner, and consists of nothing more than a body of water with an oar occasionally disrupting the flow.

I’ve written before about the general malaise that Berlin suffers from (there are plenty of examples scattered throughout my forthcoming book, Disorientations: Art on the Margins of the “Contemporary“.) To sum it up once more, the problem is an oxymoronic one, namely that Berlin is a large city that is also on the periphery. In the international art and news media, it is forever being portrayed as the capital of cool – without any real capital; the city nevertheless responds by playing up to that projected image, despite its meager resources. In the world of contemporary art, this entails an embrace of the “cutting-edge” that is essentially gestural and gimmicky, and winds up looking more like fashion, albeit with plenty of empty political slogans sewn in to give it a “radical” texture. Anyway, it’s Berlin we’re talking about here, so it doesn’t really have to sell anyway. Nearly every gallery represented at Art Berlin Contemporary merely has a branch in Berlin because it’s fashionable; the collectors like to come here for the weekend and slum it up with the jobless artists and fohos that latch on to them; the real business happens elsewhere. Hence, the charm of Berlin for the art world: Here, authenticity comes cheap, and on tap.

What both the media and contemporary art pundits worldwide have not been able to grasp is the real secret behind Berlin’s charm. You want to hear it, kids? Gather round. I’ll whisper it softly. Okay. You ready? Here it is: People leave you the fuck alone here.

Unlike self-proclaimed art world capitals like New York, where every artist is forced to become a whore in order to survive, Berlin allows you plenty of alone time to develop your work outside of the limelight. This is why you won’t see any of Berlin’s best artists represented in Art Berlin Contemporary – most of them are working outside of the official art world’s radar, and are doing just fine. They’ll be discovered eventually, sure, but they’re in no hurry, as they’re too busy making work and enjoying life – and yes, Berlin allows you to do both simultaneously, without starving to death. Events like Art Berlin Contemporary do a good job of concealing the reality of both life and art here to the larger art world, and Berliners largely ignore events like Art Berlin Contemporary, events that are more interested in pandering to the skewed perceptions of the masses than they are in representing the concerns of artists unable and unwilling to conform to the narrow standards of “the real Berlin.”

Jeremiah Palecek

by Travis Jeppesen on September 5, 2008

Check out footage from Jeremiah Palecek’s recent opening at STYX Project Space in Berlin at his blog. I will be reviewing Palecek’s show for White Hot Magazine in the coming days, so stay tuned!

Gallery Mittwoch

by Travis Jeppesen on September 3, 2008

The Berlin art season officially gets underway tonight with Gallery Mittwoch at the former Friedrichshohe brewery in Friedrichshain: 8 independent galleries presenting dozens of artists in 1 amazing building.

Tomorrow: birthday, hangover.

Ricarda Roggan at Kunst-Werke, Berlin

by Travis Jeppesen on September 2, 2008

Ricarda Roggan: Still Life

KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin

Through September 7th

There’s still time to see Ricarda Roggan’s show before it closes, and it’s worth the effort. Although her work might be overshadowed by the fact that Richard Serra’s films are being exhibited concurrently in the building, I have to say that, while I admire Serra’s sculpture, his films are boring. Nor is the Albrecht Schäfer exhibition all that memorable. No, there is only one reason to visit Kunst-Werke right now, and that’s to admire Ricarda Roggan’s fine photographs.

Roggan works in series. In Bäume 1-7 (2008), you are confronted with green foliage, the suffocating blaze of nature. The photos here are necessarily cropped in that you just can’t fit it all in – the forest, the trees, they seem to go on forever – where the image begins and ends is thus an arbitrary matter. Roggan makes it all the more suffocating by the small scale of the prints – indeed, these are the smallest photos in the exhibition. You want to penetrate all this foliage – go inside it, get beyond it – yet that desire is also tinged by fear – fear of everything the forest represents: the anarchy of nature’s impulses.

In the next space, this anarchy finds its quiet contrast in the stringency of empty spaces. White indeterminacy. Brick walls painted white. These prints are a lot larger, both in terms of size and scale, which makes sense because the spaces they depict are completely open, rather than crowded. This openness doesn’t beg to be filled; it plaintively asks to be absorbed.

The exhibition then builds (notice how deft it’s all been laid out) to the monumental depictions of crashed cars. Light bisects each of the images horizontally in classical painterly style. It is at this point that you’re reminded that, despite the proliferation of digital images in art these days, the most enduring images are those rooted in painterly values. When the photographer lacks a subtle understanding of form, color, light, and composition, then no matter how captivating or provocative their subject matter is, the work winds up looking like garbage. You don’t have to look much further past the snapshots of a Ryan McGinley or a Dash Snow to recognize the extent to which this sort of visual retardation has become popularized in recent years, but this is a passing trend, my friend, and the work of real artists such as Roggan shows us why.

Some might say that there’s something a bit cold, detached, and sad about these images – something a bit, well, stereotypically German. The arrangement of photos, after all, reaches a sort of anti-climax with three photographs of a single long meeting table with chairs. It infers an almost mocking pre-occupation with bureaucratic formality, one that would certainly look out of place in an American (read: corporate) context, but seems particularly adroit in its apparitional foregrounding.

Roggan’s most painterly effort is the final series, which consists of attic interiors. Arboreal panels, beams, rafters stuffed with rotting wood, stairways above doorways each providing alternate exit routes, although we are never given a chance to see what lies beyond, what might give these haunted empty locales a context. How fitting is all this for the austere environment of Kunst-Werke’s bottom level, with its brick and white and concrete floor, glimpses of sun leaking in through the skylights.


by Travis Jeppesen on September 1, 2008

Of Kids and Parents

by Travis Jeppesen on August 31, 2008

Of Kids and Parents by Emil Hakl, translated from the Czech by Marek Tomin (Prague: Twisted Spoon Press, 2008)

Twisted Spoon’s latest publication, a translation of Emil Hakl’s Of Kids and Parents, is a simple novel, if any novel can really be called simple, but simple in a deceptive way, in that it connects its characters’ seemingly mundane lives to larger events in history – namely, the history of Czechoslovakia and Eastern Europe in the last century. The book largely consists of a dialogue between father and son. As the jacket blurb rightly notes, the narrative is centered around walking, an act that assumes almost a spiritual importance in European literature (think Ulysses, etc.); if this were an American novel, then they’d probably be driving everywhere; but as this is a Czech novel, specifically a Czech urban novel set in Prague, they walk, and the walk is dotted with stops in pubs, until both protagonists are good and drunk, at which point they can go home for the night and sleep it off. In the beginning, there is nothing spectacular about either of the characters, and this is what makes them interesting; our focus thus remains on the stories they tell one another, until the stories become who they are. In the course of the conversation, the son reveals to his father that he is a father himself – a fact unknown to him until recently – and his efforts to connect with his son are fraught with his painful recognition of himself at that age. And the father, whose life is nearly over, his concerns are largely rooted in the past – one could say he is haunted by the past – and in this sense, he represents history whereas the son, who is middle-aged, is lodged somewhere between the conception of history represented by his father and an awareness that his own glory days are well behind him – becoming his father may be all he has to look forward to.

Of Kids and Parents is a very enjoyable melancholy read and Tomin’s translation keeps alight Hakl’s fiery naturalism in both dialogue and description.

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