From Here and Elsewhere: Figuring Contemporary Painting by Meghan Dailey
By Meghan Dailey
The six artists in this exhibition - Dexter Dalwood, Inka Essenhigh, Eberhard Havekost, Michael Raedecker, Dana Schutz and Matthias Weischer -are undoubtedly diverse in style and sensibility. And yet when viewed sides by side, their works reveal a common tendency toward a highly imaginative mode of representational painting. Each combines the familiar and recognizable with the invented. Some of their works can be willfully eccentric, trafficking in the nearly inexplicable and the illogical. Together they articulate a sense of visual plurality and open-endedness that embodies painting's potential to create characters and scenes that exist nowhere other than the realm of art.
There is much that is clearly recognizable in these works: figures, landscapes, interiors. But they rely perhaps more on the viewer's intuition to discern their full meaning, and in this way, we can relate to them deeply. What is unspoken or stated obliquely can be what captures our attention most, what promises a deeper reward: "Alternative narratives reflect more the 'reality' of reality than does the old-fashioned, linear story with a happy ending, which provides none of the real mysteries of existence we all know in our own lives."  The author of this quote, Amos Vogel, the famous avant-garde film enthusiast and founder of the New York Film Festival, was referring to non-narrative film, but the sentiment applies to other mediums as well. The mysteries of which Vogel speaks, the subjective rather than objective realities, are the very ones that are explored by the artists here.
These subjective tendencies are clearly articulated in Dana Schutz's extravagantly painted canvases. Her use of explosive colors and exaggerated forms suggests many art historical predecessors, including James Ensor, Paul Gauguin, Philip Guston, and Emile Nolde, among others, but her works are highly original. A series of paintings from 2001-02[check], for example, were based on an elaborately conceived, fictitious narrative about a man called Frank. In these strange and expressionistic works, the vaguely ape-like Frank was presented as the last man on earth, according to Schutz. And she, by implication, was understood to be the last artist, since someone had to be there to record Frank's days in his lonely Eden where he sunbathes nude, stares up at the starry nighttime sky, and just simply exists. In this conceptual bubble, both painter and subject are free of obligation and unbound by any expectations of what life or art should be.
The body, frequently in its more vulnerable states, is central to Schutz's work, and is often the site of real and painterly transformation and even violence. A sneeze is interpreted as more of an explosion, with streaks of blue and yellow paint flying from the sneezer's nose, and in another work, a figure devours its own features, mouth full of a jumble of eyes, nose, and ears. That latter figure is one of Schutz's "self-eaters," characters that appear frequently in her work and who devour parts of themselves but can, potentially, regenerate. The idea of reconstruction after destruction is explored in The Reformers (2004), one of several of her paintings with a surgical theme. Three figures "operate" on a shattered body that lies before them on a table amid a confusion of paint. The main "surgeon" appears to have feet for hands, and the panicked look on her face announces the uncertainty of her labors with this awkward equipment. This large-scale work is a metaphor for the act of painting, which the artist has described as a form of building, as well as the anxiety of creation.
Inka Essenhigh's work is also transforms the human figure and the physical world, but with very different means. Where Schutz's surfaces are teeming with pigment, Essenhigh's are smooth and glossy, constructed from thin layers of painstakingly applied enamel or oil. The creatures that inhabit Essenhigh's paintings are less human than cyber-gods and goddesses or androids. These hybrids, which seem locked in constant battle, resemble Japanamation characters, an association further enforced by the often eroticizing and violent overtones of the action that takes place in these futuristic landscapes.
Essenhigh's non-locations suggest the free-floating atmosphere of a virtual world. Tangled passages of apocalyptic action, wrought in a sinuous, graphic line, are suspended against saturated backgrounds as vivid as a turquoise ocean or as black as deep space. The subject matter in some of her recent paintings has shifted more toward everyday existence. Yet even in a work with a title as ordinary as Shopping (2005), in which housewives select goods in an enormous supermarket, the prevailing sensibility is highly stylized and vaguely futuristic. These female shoppers look almost superhuman or at least more like cyborgs; their rubbery flesh does not seem to cover bones.
The spaces in Dexter Dalwood's paintings are more rooted in reality, although it is a subjective actuality. He creates imagined views of the private interiors occupied by famous individuals-the room in the Chelsea Hotel where Sid Vicious supposedly stabbed his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen; Mikhail Gorbachev's winter retreat; the yacht sailed on by Jackie Onassis. Dalwood relies on real details and fact as well as collective associations, including his own, of these people and places to construct paintings that are at once witty and emotionally resonant. Flattened and almost collage-like in their juxtaposition of forms and styles, the works retain something of the artist's working process, which involves creating small three-dimensional[ck] models using pictures cut from magazines and myriad other sources. Dalwood re-creates the texture and patterns of wood grain and textiles and captures small details of interiors, such as arrangements of flowers in a vase or the unusual shape of a lampshade.
Although these architectural spaces are devoid of people, portraits are articulated though iconography and dÔŅĹcor. Many of the absent subjects are dead, and so the works function like shrines. Dalwood's interpretation of Kurt Cobain's greenhouse, where the rock star committed suicide, includes a guitar and the empty chair where his body was found. In her portrait, Sunny von Bulow, the socialite who has lingered in a coma for 25 years, is portrayed as Ophelia. Dressed in a resplendent gown and floating on water at the moment near death, the figure is lifted directly from John Everett Millais's exquisite Pre-Raphaelite depiction of Shakespeare's tragic heroine. Such art historical references appear elsewhere and generally underscore the identity of the subject. An identifiable Warhol painting on Jackie's yacht for example, signifies her fame and glamour as well as reminding viewers that she was a favorite subject of the artist.
Like Dalwood's, Matthias Weischer's paintings explore absence and dislocation in architectural spaces. Weischer is one of a group of Leipzig-based painters that includes Tim Eitel, Martin Kobe, Neo Rauch and others. The diverse artists in this loosely grouped "school" produce work that is generally described as tending toward "enigmatic narratives" that have "surreal overtones." This description, though generalized, does provide some entry into Weischer's narrative-defying, spatially incongruous compositions. The interiors and structures he depicts are more psychological than literal, evoking the idea of a place or state of mind rather than an actual location.
His dazzling Egyptian Room (2001) is both interior and exterior, a domestic space and a portal to a more exotic locale. Bookshelves, a house plant on a side table, and a chaise lounge are ordinary enough, but these walls are without a ceiling to cover them. Just outside, a cluster of stylized pyramids and skinny palm trees identify this as the desert location of the title. The floor tiles, which go from solid surface to a loose, open grid resembling an incomplete blueprint, underscore the uncertain logic of the entire construction. Equally baffling is the composition of House (2003), in which the brightly colored but cheerless facades of two postwar apartment buildings partially shield a landscape that unfolds behind them. That space is highly indeterminate: is it a bleak seascape, an apocalyptic vision, or abstract forms? This suburban scene is rendered highly volatile, the geometric order of the buildings undercut by the hallucinatory background.
Michael Raedecker's paintings convey a quieter sense of ambiguity. Raedecker combines painting with embroidery or appliquÔŅĹd elements to create subtle, suggestive works. To linen or canvas surfaces rendered in muted tones -- chalky whites and grays, dusky blues, and mossy greens-the artist embroiders or applies thread and yarn to delineate forms in his landscapes, portraits, still lifes, and interiors. At certain moments of looking, it is impossible to determine what is painted and what is stitched; what we are left with are perhaps meant to be read as pictures rather than paintings.
Despite their relative legibility, Raedecker's works can be quite enigmatic. In beam, (2000), for instance, a low wooden house stands amid a group of trees and a few stumps. The scene is strongly illuminated, but the light source is not revealed, its artificiality heightened by the web of visible threads on the surface. The simple ranch-style dwelling in beam is a recurring motif, which is used both as a subject and a formal device to explore texture, pattern, drawing, and design. In perspective (1998), conceptual and formal concerns coalesce: converging lines of thread lead directly into the darkened portal of the house at the center of the painting (it's unclear whether the black square is a window or door). This is a kind of contemporary updating of the Renaissance maters' use of string as a device to aid them in achieving perspective and is also Raedecker's self-reflexive commentary on the artifice of his practice. His combination of paint and thread upends the primacy of painting, but to delimit the function of painting in this way is also to underscore its presence.
The same might also be said of Eberhard Havekost, whose work occupies a place at the intersection of photography and painting, abstraction and representation. Havekost, like many contemporary painters, bases his work on preexisting sources: photographs, film and video stills, and content taken from the Internet, among others. Before he translates the images to canvas, he alters them digitally, reducing, enlarging and stretching them vertically or horizontally, changing the colors, cropping, and sometimes slightly blurring them as a way of further distancing the final painting from the original source. This process is never so extreme that the forms become completely unrecognizable, but Havekost pushes them to the brink of legibility, as if to reinforce the point that images are indeed just a dim representation of reality, no matter how real they seem.
His paintings often mimic the conventions of photographic or digital mediums in their use of close-ups and cropping, particularly in his many depictions of the facades of modernist apartment buildings, and he presents subjects with a distanced, matter-of-factness that is more common to photography. This leveling of emotion is perhaps a commentary on the failure to truly capture the character of lived experience in any media. Images will only trigger the memory they can't really be substitute. In their randomness and deliberate banality, Havekost's paintings collectively constitute an allegory of contemporary life, one that can be recorded visually and replayed endlessly.
While these artists' works might reference other mediums and materials, in the end, it is painting that remains their chosen means. It is the transformation of preexisting sources, be they art historical, photographic, that is crucial. By combining fact and fiction, and deliberately underscoring the artifice of their practice, which is often the very subject of their work, they ask fundamental questions about the nature of representation of itself.
Note:  Amos Vogel, quoted in "A Broken Screen: A Project for Artforum," by Doug Aitken, Artforum, November 2004, p. 199.