THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Michel Ségard
The Coronavirus pandemic has brought about bizarre situations in the art world when it comes to reviews. Many major galleries have resorted to virtual exhibitions on their web sites. One such is Galerie Templon in Paris (and Brussels). One of this gallery’s two showrooms in Paris is featuring an exhibition by Norbert Bisky called “Desmadre Berlin.” Bisky is an East German artist born in 1970. What is strange is that this review is being written by a Frenchman born in German occupied northern France during WWII and who now lives in Chicago. How international and transgenerational can you get? “Desmadre Berlin” (Screwed up Berlin) has been on view virtually since March and was just recently reopened as stay at home orders have been eased in Paris.
Norbert Bisky is not very well known in the United States. He has had only eight U.S. shows: four shows at Leo Koenig Inc. in New York City in 2004, 2005, 2007, and 2012 and group shows at Elizabeth Leach Gallery in Portland, Oregon in 2002 and 2004, Nicholas Robinson Gallery in New York City in 2009, and at the Hall Art Foundation in Reading, Vermont in 2017-2018. Also, MoMA owns 14 works on paper from 2003. In Europe, however he is very well known having had shows in most western European countries as well as in Australia, Brazil, China, India, Israel, and South Korea.
Bisky’s considerable technical skill is based on the Socialist Realist propaganda painting and posters he grew up with. It is the backbone of his mature, contemporary style. He follows in the footsteps of the New Leipzig School and shows some influence from that group’s David Schnell and Schnell’s explosive compositions. This group of artists (the most well-known being Neo Rauch) were confronted with the task of finding a new relevance for their work and turned largely to surrealism for inspiration. They would have been very comfortable in Chicago in the pre-Imagist era with the likes of Seymour Rosofsky and Don Baum. Although also originally from Leipzig, Bisky’s work is not like theirs. He studied with Georg Baselitz and later with Jim Dine. His work is more akin to British artist Jenny Saville and Canadian painter Andrew Salgado, two artists known for their contribution to the resurgence of portraiture. (See New Art Examiner, Vol. 34, No. 4, “Portraiture Rebounds and Refocuses,” pg. 12) But his work is not really about portraits, although they play a central role in many of his paintings. His portraits are more symbols of a utopian past that probably never was, rather than likenesses.
Before examining the particular pieces in the show, Bisky’s technique deserves mention because he is a superb painter. Although he uses oils, his application is very thin and has the translucence of watercolor. He has unsurpassed anatomical mastery. His ability to delineate musculature is as good as you will see anywhere—and comparable to historical masters. And he has a vibrant sense of color. His favorite color scheme is a purple/yellow complementary pair because purple and lavender contrast so perfectly with Caucasian flesh tones (see the reproductions of SNAX, Monuman, and Wedgie below). He does have two flaws: his blocks of pattern are often distracting and sometimes fail to serve as anything more than a fig leaf or a formal compositional device. The other is that he occasionally uses a splatter technique to apply random black dots to a painting, usually on the face of the subject. To this viewer, it is unnecessary, distracting and a bit of a gimmick.
“Desmadre Berlin” is purported to be a look back to the Berlin nightlife that existed after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. I think it is more than that. This show has as much to do with the present world as with the past. The painting Noctambule is a prime example. The central image of this painting is the portrait of a beautiful young man with a furrowed brow, limpid eyes, and a doubtful or quizzical pout. All around him is chaos: Bauhaus-style buildings at skewed angles, fragments of a wallpaper(?) pattern, another young man climbing an unseen structure, and a dark turbid sky. The central face functions as a utopian icon for the present, looking into the past and wondering what to make of it. In the similarly composed Peyote, the buildings are newer; the sky is lighter; the figure in the distance appears to be falling but is in a dance pose; the pattern fragments are based on camouflage; and the young man’s expression is one of “so that’s where we are.” The two pieces are shown almost next to each other in one room of the gallery, allowing a read of past-to-present. The name of this second piece also suggests the function of a seer, as peyote has been used by American native shamans as a tool to see into the future—to say nothing of its role in the 1960s counterculture and its role in the worldwide drug culture as well as that of present-day Berlin.
LEFT: Norbert Bisky, Noctambule, 2020. Oil on canvas; 78 3/4 x 59 ½ in. RIGHT: Norbert Bisky, Peyote, 2020. Oil on canvas; 78 3/4 x 59 in. All image courtesy of Galerie Templon, Paris – Bruxelles; © Adagp, Paris, 2020.
In these two paintings, the central face is unobstructed. But there is a trio of paintings that have Bisky’s signature chaotic elements partially obscuring the face. The face in SNAX has an angry, shouting expression, and it is peppered with black dots (intentional splatter?) along with a few fragments of the background pattern. Similarly, the face in Monuman has these characteristics, but in addition, one of the pattern fragments appears to be coming out of the person’s mouth, like spittle. Both of these pieces are quite large, measuring 7 ½ feet tall for SNAX and almost 8 feet for Monuman. A smaller piece, Wedgie, also has this signature treatment, but in this work, the figure is not as disturbed. He appears to be almost wistful and seems to be holding a bow. These three pieces indeed convey the chaos and anxiety suggested by the title of the show.
LEFT: Norbert Bisky, SNAX, 2020. Oil on canvas; 78 ¾ x 59 in. CENTER: Norbert Bisky, Monuman, 2020. Oil on canvas; 94 ½ x 74 ¾ in. RIGHT: Norbert Bisky, Wedgie, 2020. Oil on canvas; 51 x 43 ¼ in.
Then there is a pair of large pieces that can only be described as softcore erotica. The figures in Tanztee and Stadtbad are shown from the chest up, and both seem to be encompassed in sexual anticipation. Tanztee (the only black model in the show) is surrounded by fragments of a map of Berlin, but they are positioned in such a way that they suggest butterfly wings. Meanwhile, the model in Stadtbad has his hands (tied?) behind his back and is confronted by a phallic form to his left—something that his facial expression suggests he is trying to ignore. The tension in these paintings is heightened by BDSM props positioned in the center of the gallery on pommel horses. They include whips, rubber gloves, chains, collars, etc. The practice of placing props in the gallery along with his paintings has been a recurring theme in Bisky’s exhibitions. To be fair, the props are sometimes sculptures that he has created—but not this time. And to call them an installation would be a stretch.
LEFT: Norbert Bisky, Tanztee, 2020. Oil on canvas; 78 ¾ x 59 in. RIGHT: Norbert Bisky, Stadtbad, 2020. Oil on canvas; 78 ¾ x 59 in.
The thing that these three sets of paintings have in common is that they are all portraits of beautiful young men, and they all have homoerotic undertones. But the underlying reference of the beautiful athletic young man is the propaganda paintings and posters of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). In Bisky’s paintings, these figures are aspirational, utopian images of conditions that never were and never will be. There is also a subtle leftover of Nazi supremacist undertones that can be perceived by older Europeans like this author. In interviews, Bisky has strongly denied this intent.
“Desmadre Berlin,” installation view of Tanztee and Stadbad with some of the BSDM props.
A fourth group of works are collages of oil on canvas painting fragments affixed to mirrors. They are a jumble of body parts, portions of faces and abstract forms. These are truly chaotic. Two of them, Gmf and Emdi, have faces that might actually belong to women. Gmf is particularly ambiguous because the feminine face is juxtaposed with a detached masculine arm. That juxtaposition is not present in any other painting in this show. Is Bisky perhaps addressing the contemporary concept of gender neutrality within the context of the social chaos that he portrays?
LEFT: Norbert Bisky, Gmf, 2020. Oil on canvas on mirror; 23 5/8 x 19 5/8 in. RIGHT: Norbert Bisky, Emdi, 2020. Oil on canvas on mirror; 39 3/8 x 31 1/2 in.
But now we get to the meat of the exhibition! Five of the paintings in the show are about overt gay sex. Lab depicts an orgy going on behind a man whose head is encased in a purple rubber mask revealing only his open mouth. In Rummelsburg, another orgy scene is partially covered by pattern fragments whose sources are wallpapers from GDR government housing. Chem Party also contains the wallpaper pattern fragments, and they partially obscure a scene that is just getting started. What is unusual about this piece is that the models are not as well built as the models in the other paintings; they are getting a little thick around the middle. Vector is a tangle of naked limbs in what is obviously a sexual episode. And finally, Lustgarten, part of the collage series, contains a hand clutching a green cloth and a form below that looks like a pierced penis. A sixth piece, Hyperarousal, is not overtly sexual and shows only a well-muscled torso, but as one of the mirror collages, the walls of the gallery room are reflected in the piece making for a striking juxtaposition, because what you see will depend upon where you are standing. And this is the room that contains as props a collection of restraining gear used in BDSM play.
“Desmadre Berlin,” installation view of Hyperarousal and Acid Tram with a collection of bondage props.
LEFT: Norbert Bisky, Chem Party, 2020. Oil on canvasr; 78 ¾ x 59 in. RIGHT: Norbert Bisky, Vector, 2020. Oil on canvas; 51 1/8 x 66 7/8 in.
The only historical references in these pieces are the wallpaper pattern fragments that refer to the GDR past. Bisky claims that they mainly refer to the nightlife that emerged in Berlin after 1989. But, what are these paintings really about? Careful examination of them reveals that the participant in these orgies display no pleasure in what they are doing. Are these encounters a drug to blot out the misery of the present? This hypothesis is partly supported by the titles: “Chem Party” suggests the need for pharmaceutical help in achieving sexual satisfaction; the Rummelsburg part of Berlin has a number of gay nightclubs; and "Lustgarten" translates to pleasure garden and is a park in central Berlin. Sex, then, just becomes a way to forget. This “soma for the people” attitude is supported in another painting in the show, Acid Tram. In this painting, a young woman is dancing in a trance-like state with someone copying her moves behind her. She seems completely unaware of her surroundings and is effectively dancing alone. So, is this what is “screwed up” about Berlin? It seems to be a larger statement about Western society altogether.
LEFT: Norbert Bisky, Hyperarousal, 2020. Oil on canvas on mirror; 39 3/8 x 31 ½ in. RIGHT: Norbert Bisky, Acid Tram, 2020. Oil on canvas; 51 1/8 x 66 7/8 in.
Although at first glance, this exhibition is titillating, it is ultimately depressing. All those gorgeous faces are as real as the putti in Renaissance and Baroque paintings. Ultimately, the more you study it, and in spite of its lush color, the show generates a sense of loneliness and despair that seems to be insurmountable. Existential angst has long been an important part of the German Zeitgeist, and it has played a significant role in exposing humanity’s faults. Bisky has successfully mined it for the content of this show. Nevertheless, for the rest of us, life must go on. But where in all this chaos is love?
Additional works by Norbert Bisky can be seen at the Galerie Templon website, Templon, Exhibitions, Norbert Bisky. The online exhibition of "Desmadre Berlin" can be seen at http://viewingroom.templon.com/en/norbert-bisky/.
Michel Ségard is the Editor in Chief of the New Art Examiner and a former adjunct assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is also the author of numerous exhibition catalog essays and former curator of KPMG's Chicago office art collection.
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