Throughout time, heroes have been borne from antagonism. Emerging from brave struggles demarcating Us from Them, Good from Evil, Above from Below, the figure of the hero announces the successful resolution of opposition, and becomes the very embodiment of Truth. Today's 'hero,' however, is an unhappy child of relativity, suffering from Attention Deficit Syndrome. He has lost his weight under the gravity of good-natured pluralism, no longer able to topple tyrants with tiny but well-placed stones. Given the exhibition title, 'Return of the Hero', one reels in anticipation of all variety of irony and spin, prepared to locate the bulge of tongue in cheek.
The curatorial conceit of 'Return of the Hero' is to counter paintings by father figure artists who left the former East Germany in the 50s - Georg Baselitz, Sigmar Polke, and Gerhard Richter - with their Western prodigal sons: Gunther Förg, Martin Kippenberger, and Albert Oehlen, successful, German painters struggling in the amphitheatre with Idealism v. Realism, Capitalism v. Comm-unism, Representation v. Abstraction, and Sincerity v. Irony. The big ones. Underlining each of these struggles are interpretations of authority: Who has it? How does one get it? And, perhaps most importantly, what is it and what can be done with it? The way these differing interpretations manifest themselves is in one's attitude, and attitude in German art is one of the few reliable clues with which to unravel an artist's work.
In his 'abstract' paintings, Gerhard Richter brackets the heroic gesture with an attitude of poker-faced irony. A representative example of this series shimmers and glows, seducing one to forfeit common sense and plunge into the limitless depths of his convincing spatial illusion. A moment's recovery time breaks the illusion, as Albert Oehlen whispers in your ear that 'common sense' is actually 'historical sense'. From across the room, he points a dirty finger at Richter's ambivalent authority, with a muddy and sloppily-rendered 19th century interior. As if a bad joke were not enough, Oehlen has glued mirror shards to the canvas to underline the perceptual trickery of representation.
Georg Baselitz' Trap (1966), providing the least equivocal attitude towards heroism, expressionistically depicts a sturdy salt-of-the-earth type at rest under a tree. The decisive, quick strokes suggest mastery over material and broadcast a strong, unwavering sense of identity with callused hands. Sigmar Polke's work counters with the most provoking and complex response to the simple description of character. In Indian with Eagle (1975), he overlays a line-drawn portrait of an American Indian with an eagle painted on Lurex, a synthetic quilt-like material. The tension between cultures and histories vibrates with seemingly irreconcilable contradiction, a testament to the irreversible directions of different histories, and most pointedly, different interpretations of heroism itself.
It is Martin Kippenberger, however, who sits most confidently within the framework described, insofar as the idea always includes its antithesis: the anti-hero. Incessantly placing himself in his art (thereby making himself into a work of art) Kippenberger shifts between affirming and negating the worth of transvaluation, the possibility of salvation. A self-portrait from 1988 shows the underwear-clad artist suspended in mid-air by two small balloons, his distended beer-belly underscoring the impossibility of this feat of levitation.
In his concurrent solo exhibition titled, 'The Man with the Golden Arm', Kippenberger pays homage to golden-voiced Frank Sinatra, whose own catalogue raisonné, displayed on the gallery's coffee table, proves him to be a prolific painter as well. Dozens of golden-framed drawings on an equal number of different hotel stationery sheets show Kippenberger (or whoever actually drew the things) mimicking Sinatra's transparently derivative and dumbly sincere painting styles. Also in the exhibition are five wall-mounted, bronze, cartoonish reliefs. Affixed to each are various pieces of bric-a-brac, ranging from a chewed rolling pin to sponge feet to whatever is colourful or makes Kippenberger giggle. On the floor below each of these works are their respective 'crates', geometrically shaped to accommodate their idiosyncratic forms, announcing self-consciously their status as interchangeable commodities. Here, as with everything Kippenberger makes, is an attitude compounding sincerity and irony, a rootlessness and restlessness which satirically disarms the authority necessary for heroism and exposes the folly of the struggle for Truth. Kippenberger the anti-hero roams free: he fears nothing, for he always carries an arsenal of tiny - but accurate - stones.
First published in Issue 20