John Russell

Kunsthalle Zürich, Switzerland

‘DOGGO’, erstwhile BANK-collective co-founder John Russell’s first institutional exhibition outside of the UK, is a spectacular experience. Take Ocean Pose [Pink] (2008), one of six huge, back-lit, digital prints on vinyl, which features a unicorn wading across a violet-pink sunset beneath a tangled cloud of red tentacles, from which protrudes ice cream and pieces of offal. Around a corner, three massive images (the longest in the show is 17 metres) surround the viewer, allowing them to fully immerse in this dazzlingly staged presentation. One of these prints is Judgement. The Kangaroo Is Not Happy. It’s Not Clear Who or What It Represents but It’s Not in a Good Place (2014). On a desert plain is a kangaroo, crying as it gazes across bloody, spiralling, viscous liquid at another (pink) marsupial.

web_annik-wetter_2017-08-26_10183.jpg

John Russell, 'DOGGO', 2017, installation view, Kunsthalle Zürich. Courtesy: Kunsthalle Zürich; photograph: © Annik Wetter

John Russell, 'DOGGO', 2017, installation view, Kunsthalle Zürich. Courtesy: Kunsthalle Zürich; photograph: © Annik Wetter

In these ‘paintings’, as the Kunsthalle calls them, Russell’s subjects could be a shorthand for innocence (unicorns, joeys, turtles) or for abjection and decay (flies, slime, skeletons), presented with a pornographic aesthetic (glossy, smooth, slightly moist). Between these is a grove of black sculptures of simple subjects like flies and a cartoonish hand, in wood, resin, metal and other materials, each raised high on its own wobbly pole – literally and metaphorically elevated by the presentation. A bit more roughage is provided by several bill-posted prints on paper: Bertie (2016) sees a figure made of liquorice allsorts stride forward over the text ‘BERTIE BASSETT SAYS DEATH IS COMING’; Foxhunt (2017) is a photograph of portly, red-jacketed hunters embodying old power and privilege as they ride to hounds.

Colour turned up to 11 doesn’t always entail high production values – it is equally typical of sci-fi and other pulp fantasy fiction illustrations, of which Russell is a fan. In his fourth volume of writings, published as the exhibition’s catalogue, essays tumble along helter-skelter, as is suggested by the title of one: ‘Bruce Willis, Irigaray and the Aesthetics of Space Travel’ (2014). Timeframes similarly collide in Doggo (2017), a 50-minute film at the centre of the exhibition, which takes place centuries in the future but is shot in a wilfully amateurish style on the outskirts of Heathrow Airport and inside Reading School of Art, where Russell teaches. The film follows two detectives – one with a dog’s head, the other with an insect’s – as they attempt to track down someone who has gone missing from an ‘Age Centre’ retirement home, and ultimately foil an act of terrorism. In their new world, comrade creatures of hybrid sexes and species hail each other with greetings like ‘crisp and joyous’ and laugh to evade tricky personal subjects.

web_annik-wetter_2017-08-26_10242.jpg

John Russell, 'DOGGO', 2017, installation view, Kunsthalle Zürich. Courtesy: Kunsthalle Zürich; photograph: © Annik Wetter

John Russell, 'DOGGO', 2017, installation view, Kunsthalle Zürich. Courtesy: Kunsthalle Zürich; photograph: © Annik Wetter

Broadly speaking, evasion lies at the heart of ‘Doggo’; inconsistency is the only rule. The exhibition is a smorgasbord of the digestible and indigestible, cut with lashings of irony that obscure Russell’s intent. His banner pictures are highly crafted orgies of excessive, spewing detail, yet interspersed with low-tech digs at consumerism and dehumanizing technologies. Despite this, ‘Doggo’ is eminently consumable: re-rendered and some re-cropped for the exhibition, the large-scale digital feats beg to be Instagrammed. Even though the setting is institutional, Russell’s back-lit format mimics a language adopted in the commercial worlds of advertising and sales. Accordingly, the dominant banners are complemented by smaller prints on which the artist has drawn and set gold leaf grace notes, for any potential buyers who might have a penchant for the handmade. It begs the question of who the spectators are for this spectacle, in which Russell liberally pastes and recycles images stripped of context – as with the ‘doggo’ memes that the show is named after, which ricochet around online, their meaning changing daily. I suspect Russell’s real product is the empty feeling that sticks with visitors once they have departed.
Aoife Rosenmeyer is a critic and translator based in Zurich.

Main image: John Russell, 'DOGGO', 2017, installation view, Kunsthalle Zürich. Courtesy: Kunsthalle Zürich; photograph: © Annik Wetter

Aoife Rosenmeyer is a critic, translator and occasional curator based in Zurich, Switzerland.

Issue 191

First published in Issue 191

November - December 2017

Most Read

With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The museum director, who resigned last year, acted with ‘integrity’, an independent report finds
In further news: study finds US film critics overwhelmingly white and male; woman sues father over Basquiat
With the government’s push for the controversial English baccalaureate, why the arts should be an integral part of the...
From Bruce Nauman at the Schaulager to the story of a 1970s artist community in Carona at Weiss Falk, all the shows to...
Sotheby’s and Christie’s say they are dropping the practice of using female-only staff to pose for promotional...
For the annual city-wide art weekender ahead of Basel, the best shows and events to attend around town
For our second report from BB10, ahead of its public opening tomorrow, a focus on KW Institute for Contemporary Art
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
In further news: declining UK museum visitors sees country fall in world rankings; first winner of Turner Prize,...
The Icelandic-Danish artist’s creation in Vejle, Denmark, responds to the tides and surface of the water: both artwork...
In further news: Emperor Constantine’s missing finger discovered in the Louvre; and are Van Gogh’s Sunflowers turning...
The opening of a major new exhibition by Lee Bul was delayed after one of the South Korean artist’s works caught fire
The LA-based painter’s exquisite skewing of Renaissance and biblical scenes at Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London
Lee Bul, Abortion, 1989, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artist and PKM Gallery, Seoul
In a climate of perma-outrage has live art self-censored to live entertainment?

A tribute to the iconic New York journal: a platform through which founder Andy Warhol operated as artist, hustler and...
A distinctively American artist who, along with four neighbourhood contemporaries, changed the course of US painting...
From Assemble’s marbled floor tiles to Peter Zumthor's mixed-media miniatures, Emily King reports from the main...
From Ian White's posthumous retrospective to Lloyd Corporation's film about a cryptocurrency pyramid scheme, what to...
Kimberly Bradley speaks to ‘the German’ curator on the reasons for his early exit from the Austrian institution
In further news: #MeToo flashmob at Venice Architecture Biennale; BBC historian advocates for return of British...
German museums are being pushed to diversify their canons and respond to a globalized world – but is ‘cleaning up’ the...
Sophie Fiennes’s new film Bloodlight and Bami reveals a personal side of the singer as yet unseen 
‘At last there is a communal mechanism for women to call a halt to the demeaning conventions of machismo’
The German artist has put up 18 works for sale to raise money to buy 100 homes
The novelist explored Jewish identity in the US through a lens of frustrated heterosexuality
Artist Jesse Jones, who represented Ireland at last year’s Venice Biennale, on what is at stake in Friday’s Irish...
‘I spend more time being seduced by the void … as a way of energizing my language’: poet Wayne Koestenbaum speaks about...
To experience the music of the composer, who passed away last week at the age of 69, was to hear something tense,...
In a year charged with politicized tensions, mastery of craft trumps truth-to-power commentary
In further news: women wearing rainbow badges beaten in Beijing’s 798; gallerists Georg Kargl and Richard Gray have...
‘Coping as a woman in France is a daily battle: the aggression can be subtle, and you always have to push harder to...
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018