On ViewGalerie Richard New York
June 20 – August 16, 2013
The mercurial spirit of the trickster—that mythological agent of mischief and disruption—presides over the current show of paintings by German artist Sven-Ole Frahm. Insouciantly titled A Hole in the Wall is Nothing to Worry About, this is the artist’s first U.S. exhibition, and with its playful boundary-crossing between seemingly fixed categories and impish reversals of conventional hierarchies we are goaded into a kind of awareness that transcends dualistic thinking.
In the 18 paintings on view, the artist’s signature approach of cutting and sewing together pieces of painted canvas is sometimes coupled with a new unconventionally shaped support that transforms the works into quasi-sculptural pyramidal forms. The contradictory nature of the artist’s destructive/constructive process generates tensions between ostensive opposites of all kinds. In a beguiling interplay between showing and hiding, for example, multiple layers of solid, usually bright colors overlap at various angles, each taking pains to partially reveal those underneath. A tension between painterly illusion and physical attachment heightens the drama; many of the paintings’ layers are in fact strips of canvas sutured to the works’ surfaces. In several of the paintings—such as “Untitled (#155)” (2012) and “Untitled (#123)” (2011)—a tantalizing conflation of presence and absence generates the tension. Here, pieces of the canvas have been removed with clean incisions, leaving gaping holes that expose the wall behind and circles and rectangles that announce themselves only in absentia. In one such instance, a circular excision remains partially attached; dangling in front by its lowermost edge, its exposed fleshy pink back side becomes a mocking tongue. Occasionally, pieces of the work’s structural armature migrate to the front of the canvas in the form of wooden slats attached to the painted surface. Sometimes painted, sometimes left raw, these elements further confuse conventional distinctions between front/back, inside/outside, painting/not-painting, pointing us beyond rigid binaries to an awareness of the more complex epistemological ground of both/and.
One important effect of the work’s willful disruption of assumed categories is a radical democratization of form. Features conventionally deemed unsightly and insignificant stand on level ground with those to which we customarily ascribe value. For example, the paintings’ persistently visible seams (sometimes accompanied by large knots of loose thread hanging conspicuously from grafted strips of canvas) are pictorial gestures equal in status to that of the declarative shapes and meticulously executed incisions. With the usual valuations effectively neutralized, what might otherwise amount to a cacophony of juxtapositions becomes instead a kind of expansive inclusivity that challenges us to examine the extent to which ordinary awareness is governed—and indeed limited—by arbitrary categories. With this in mind, one becomes keenly attuned to every minute detail of the gallery’s space. Glancing upward, the circuitry of the ceiling’s visible air ducts acquires an elegance every bit as compelling as the paintings with which it shares its space.
Moving through the gallery with sharpened senses, one has to suppress the urge to do what the paintings teasingly entice us to—namely, to lift their veils and peer behind and into their forbidden zones. Nowhere is this urge stronger than with the show’s largest and arguably finest piece. “Untitled (#157)” (2013) is, with fitting contradiction, both the oldest and most recent work in the show. While the last to be completed, it contains, as one of its sewn-in components, a fragment of one of the artist’s early gestural paintings. The work consists of 16 rectangular pieces of canvas sewn together and stretched over a massive, geometrically complex, undulating armature that protrudes at five pyramidal points. With the exception of the single gestural section, its entire surface is covered with a chartreuse yellow whose high gloss creates a dramatic dance of reflections and shadows on the mountainous terrain of the surface. As optically dazzling as it is (especially with the gallery’s lights off, the surface is a wonder to behold), the real allure of this painting lies in what it both flaunts and refuses us: knowledge of the curious structure in back that only the wall can see.
But knowing all the secrets would, of course, ruin all the pleasure—and denude the work of its deeper import. As trickster mythology reminds us, ambiguity and paradox are not just destabilizing forces; they are also openings onto hidden truths and indeed necessary sources of creativity and renewal. Whenever cultural conventions become too rigid, some Hermes must come along and poke holes in the structure to remind us of the artifice of our constructs. Suspicious of fixity in any guise, the trickster never allows us to settle too firmly in any one direction, always insisting on glimpses of truth from the pivotal perspective of the threshold. From this vantage point, a hole in the wall is also a window, the wall that surrounds it also a frame. Without the trickster, we might never be enticed to look at either, and that would indeed be something to worry about.