At Schiefe Zähne, Berlin, the artist creates an inventory of values we privately sustain but rarely admit
Philipp Simon’s small, intriguing show is an inventory of the fathomless number of values we sustain privately but admit rarely – perhaps, especially, to ourselves. Our own self-estrangement is demonstrated easily: we nurture alliances to past figures, songs, works, experiences or people that, while stocked stridently, have fallen out of broader fashion, recognition and even individual memory. Despite our claims of stability, most of us keep a wobbly table at the botched banquet called life. While we avow ourselves to constancy, in practice we’re irregular, like unresolved fractions.
The 14 modest pencil works included in ‘The Third Person’ at Schiefe Zähne are Simon’s assessment that we tend to live less than waft through experience. On view are black-and-white drawings on paper (all works 2017), each rendered in a variegated style and portraying a differing scene: a man stares off a balcony, touching the forehead of a perhaps imaginary face; a drunk figure falls down on a table; a love triangle emerges within a tangle of stems. The title of each drawing begins ‘image, natural, drama’, and then opens out to tag the work with a series of traits, whether sites, names or moods (‘naive’, ‘refusal’). The pieces peek from massively oversized, greyish passe-partouts that cover the walls of the gallery. An unpainted MDF shelf divides the space like a ribcage, carrying two paper sculptures of heads intersecting one another: the artist’s self-portrait as self-division.
Simon’s drawings renounce the constancy of a single style for a gorgeous pluralism; they rove past artistic forebears like dreams we touch, unravelling. A fin-de-siècle air wafts through several, carrying the balmy fantasy of proto-surrealist Max Klinger, or the mildly hallucinatory sentimentalism of turn-of-the-century painting and drawing. Others wear the expressionism of Lyonel Feininger (cued, like Sonia Delaunay, in one title); a party scene is busy and urbane, like an Ernst Ludwig Kirchner city scene. There’s a vague inkling of a story: a holiday, maybe a threesome, most likely a heartbreak.
‘The Third Person’ is an artist’s ode to a set of artistic practices, like memories, that belong not to anyone but to many; to the troubling possibility that we might not ever own, so much as borrow, experience. Hence the poignancy of Simon’s titular inventories, which disarm the results of that experience into a series of words; as one title runs: image, natural, drama, others, situation, voyeuristic, behavior, kirchner, city, bw, afterwards, gray, 1900. The grasping categorization here is telling: it fails, leaves out so much.
Simon’s anaphors for the floating dross of human experience are tragicomic. They lack the brute perversity of Balthus or his brother, Pierre Klossowski. But, like them, they murmur towards a feeling common to artists, yet rarely expressed: the sense of distance or cold love to the works and worlds that they themselves create. This motion is exemplified here through the rigid, almost painful self-categorization of Simon’s titles. Forms of artistic self-distancing have precedents in the aleatory experiments of the surrealists, or the literary usage of sobriquets. But Simon’s typologies of the life of a ‘third person’ do not renounce agency through strategic positioning, or its outsourcing, but through their earnest-seeming attempts to acknowledge that we all contain holes. The personalities we cherish, like the selves we maintain, are but colliding bundles of stray stems.
What to do with minor, past artistic styles? With works, or figures, fallen out of circulation? With experiences that grow patchy, as if they were lived out rather than within us? Simon’s inventory of moods, memories and styles attempts to re-assemble these less than account for their deterioration. We get the contents of a life’s experience; marbles spilled and then imperfectly yet lovingly picked up again. But for whom?
Philipp Simon, ‘Die dritte Person' (The Third Person) is on view at Schiefe Zähne, Berlin, until 23 March.
Main image: Philipp Simon, ‘Die dritte Person' (The Third Person), 2018, installation view, Schiefe Zähne, Berlin. Courtesy: Schiefe Zähne, Berlin