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Christopher Wool

Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin, Germany

There is no identifiable text or image present in any of the nine towering new black and white canvases exhibited in the main space of Galerie Hetzler (all paintings Untitled, 2002). Step up to take a closer look and you can see there was once something recognizable there but, whatever it was, it's been covered up. The painting is casually rollered with white paint and then sprayed over with black car body paint by a flowery hand, a circular motion leaving a bored pattern, apparently swiftly and nonchalantly executed. Other paintings have been washed with a turpentine-soaked cloth - like windows washed with dirty water. It is reminiscent of other Wool shows, but also the paintings hung on the walls of the gallery when Mickey Mouse visited a Museum of Modern Art in a cartoon from the 1940s. They look like a lot of modern art - messy scribbles which Mickey gazes at with surprised eyes.

Across town at Hetzler's second gallery Wool presented a group of 200 photographic works from 1995?6, 'East Broadway Breakdown'. Modest, small-scale, black and white, high-contrast snapshot images taken at night using flash with a 35mm camera depict the Lower East Side neighbourhood where Wool lives and works. They recall any film that features the graffiti-daubed walls, boarded-up stores, empty doorways and garbage-strewn streets of downtown New York, such as Taxi Driver (1976) or Kids (1994).

The gallery lies in the trashy, eastern part of Berlin, and its location beneath the train lines suits the mood of the photographs perfectly. Dogs sit waiting, chained to parking meters; burnt-out cars sit by piles of accumulated rubbish; there's piss and spillage everywhere. 'Welcome To Dirty Filthy Chinatown' sports one proud brick wall next to the offices of the National Exchange Machinery Inc. There's an uneven rhythm to the hang of the show, which leans towards abstraction. The composition and ephemeral content of the images imply a haphazard recording process that is echoed in the new paintings.

In order to appreciate how Wool's new work represents a process of development, it's important to view both Hetzler shows as one. Wool's painting style is already well established; aesthetically there's no perceptible radical shift in the paintings - why should there be? - and the photographic works beg for substance. However, in choosing to exhibit two separate bodies of work with the same gallery at the same time, the artist's central concern is an interesting one - namely, how to avoid the problem of becoming a karaoke version of yourself.

Wool's strategy is to open up his new paintings to new meaning by setting up parallels between them and his earlier, and less well-known, photographs. It's no longer about the process of painting and the cult of individuality but about non-art signs in urban spaces - and their sense of meaninglessness. As Jean Baudrillard wrote in his essay of 1975 'Kool Killer', empty signification breaks down familiar systems of meaning. These paintings are an expression of a desire to say nothing, yet without being simply decorative. In this they recall the Pet Shop Boys. Like them, Wool found his preferred language long ago and he's now subtly reinventing the grammar.

Issue 74

First published in Issue 74

April 2003
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