Sunday, January 11, 2009

Failing Up

originally published in the January issue of whitehot

Failing Up: Or, vergangenheitsbewältingung
Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective
By Jesi Khadivi

The Problem Perspective, Martin Kippenberger’s first retrospective in the United States, is a lot to take in. The artist worked in an exhaustive array of media including sculpture, drawing, painting, photography, and book art. Kippenberger built complex relational webs encompassing the role of the artist within cultural production, issues of authorship, Germaneness, shame, and guilt--all filtered through a caustically irreverent sensibility. Curator Ann Goldstein presents the breadth and depth of the artist’s extensive oeuvre, showcasing favorites like the photorealistic series of paintings Lieber maler, male mirseries (Dear Painter, Paint for me, ) and the sprawling installation The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s Amerika (1994), in addition to lesser known works. Kippenberger was nothing if not brash. For better or worse, his braggadocio deemed everything he touched a work of art, from paintings (sometimes painted by Kippenberger, sometimes others) to doodles on hotel stationary. His post-humous popularity is due in equal parts to his emphasis on the conceptual aspects of art and his fecund creative impulse. His extreme self-consciousness about his role as an artist (played out in his innumerable self-portraits) and his consistent exploration of art and value (the series Preis is perhaps the most succinct articulation of this impulse), have been hot topics for contemporary artists. Still, some of most compelling works in the exhibition are deeply rooted in the political history of his motherland, Germany.

Words are constructed like trains in the German language, strung one after the other to form compound words that elicit meaning so precise that they virtually deny translation. The well known word-train, Vergangenheitsbewältingung, or “coming to terms with the past,” was a highly loaded concept in Germany following World War II and the fall of the Berlin wall. Many Germans grappled with how to retain an understanding of their country’s exceptionally violent and traumatic recent history while building a new future. Though it doesn’t exclusively inform his sprawling, multi-faceted practice, shame, embarrassment, and failure of vergangenheitsbewältingung is a central theme in much of Kippenberger’s work. He pursues these tangled threads in works like Ich kann bei besten Willen kein Hackenkreuz entdecken (With the Best Will in the World, I Can’t See a Swastika, 1984), an abstract painting of fractured lines that allude to a fragmented swastika (the work was made during a time that depictions of swastikas were verboten). Put Your Freedom in the Corner and Save it for a Rainy Day (1990) is a direct response to the decision to tear down most of the Berlin wall upon the reunification of Germany. Equating the wall’s removal with an act of historical erasure, the sculpture consists of a broken vase shoddily glued back together displayedin front of a replica of a segmentof the Berlin Wall covered in Robert Gober’s wall-paper Sleeping Man/Hanged Man. Martin, ab in die Ecke und Schäm dich (Martin, Into the Corner, You Should Be Ashamed Of Yourself), a life-size sculptural self-portrait of a man facing a corner wearing the artist’s clothing, is a more generalized depiction of shame and repentance. A gentle poke at history, as well as the artist’s well known drinking and carousing.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Culture Jam

Culture Jam
By Jesi Khadivi
Originally published in artnet

Two months ago, undeterred by the flailing economy, art dealer Charlie James and curator Dane Johnson teamed up to open the Charlie James Gallery in Chinatown in Los Angeles. Their first exhibition, with the straightforward title "Western Front: Inaugural Group Show," featured works by three Bay Area artists from the Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco -- Packard Jennings, Ray Beldner and Kara Maria.

Despite current market woes, or perhaps because of them, "Western Front" delighted in cold, hard cash. The suggestive political and economic undertones in the exhibition (some more subtle than others), succinctly articulate the gallery’s post-pop conceptual focus, which mixes agit-prop, conceptual high jinks and bawdy imagery.

Packard Jennings, a collaborator with the Yes Men on last month’s New York Times spoof, contributes several bitingly acerbic culture jams, including his Anarchist Action Figure, the Molotov-cocktail-wielding toy-sized sculpture that has already gotten a certain amount of critical attention. Another standout is his Business Reply Pamphlet, which provides step-by-step pictorial instructions on how to refashion a soul-sucking corporate office space into a nudist utopia, a work that was originally designed to be "shopdropped" in junk-mail sorting centers. The action figure is $2,800, while the pamphlet is $850, framed.

Ray Beldner, a Bay Area sculptor and installation artist (who also shows with New York dealer Caren Golden) offers a sly exegesis of the intersection of art, commerce and appropriation in his "Counterfeit" series, recreations of contemporary blue chip artworks made out of dollar bills. His hanging quilt, Golden Rule (Hollywood -- After Ruscha) (2003), is a version of Ed Ruscha’s Hollywood Sign made out of sewn U.S. currency, while his 6 Squares of Cash (after Carl Andre) (2002) is an Andre floor piece redone in flattened singles.

Beldner’s work fuses the appropriational impulse of Sherrie Levine -- among her first works were presidential portraits taken from coins -- with the obsessive, craftiness of contemporary collagists like Jonathan Herder and Mark Wagner. Prices range from $950 to $12,000.

Like her colleagues here, Kara Maria could be called a political pop artist. Her work explores the popular, well-trodden symbology surrounding U.S. engagement in the Middle East in a series of paintings devoted to the obscene links between petro-commerce and war. In The Muddiness of Right and Wrong, a towering skull wearing camouflage and RayBans gives a toothy grin while two scantily clad women vamp in the foreground.

One figure, naked except for her hijab, throws a seductive glance over her shoulder while the BP petroleum logo encroaches upon her bare ass. The work is available for $8,500. While the relationship between pornography and violence is fertile ground and the cultural context of violence warrants discussion, Walker’s powerful paintings run the risk of inspiring the very "war fatigue" that she seeks to combat.

"Western Front: Inaugural Group Show: Ray Beldner, Packard Jennings, and Kara Maria," Nov. 15, 2008-Jan. 3, 2009, at Charlie James Gallery, 975 Chung King Road, Los Angeles, Ca. 90012.

JESI KHADIVI is an art and film critic based in Los Angeles and Berlin.