FRIEDRICH KUNATH The Temptation to Exist (May Contain Nuts)
Andrea Rosen Gallery | March 15 – April 26, 2014
What do rainbow file folders, a scratching post, and German Romantic painting have in common?
This sounds like the beginning of a riddle, but these things are part of the rebus that is Friedrich Kunath’s latest exhibition at the Andrea Rosen Gallery. The initial soft squish of wall-to-wall carpeting underfoot transforms the space while offering the promise of a Gesamtkunstwerk. Casting a wide net, this L.A.-based German artist brings together both geographies in paintings and sculpture with obvious juxtapositions between German Romanticism and American image culture. The show features four intersecting bodies of work that read as a veritable encyclopedia of kitsch.
Lifted imagery from art history, such as Romantic landscapes and objects from Northern Baroque still life paintings, overshadow Kunath’s penchant for biographical content. His compositional devices parallel the early Pop works of James Rosenquist. Like in “President Elect” (1960 – 61/1964), where John F. Kennedy’s face, a pair of hands serving cake, and a hot red automobile cleverly intersect, Kunath has a keen eye for visual puns and preserving a clear connection to his sources. His notational appropriation strategies also suggest a family resemblance to David Salle’s history paintings in Tapestries/Battles/Allegories at Lever House, with both artists utilizing disparate styles and art historical motifs as a grab-bag of raw material. In Kunath’s work, this is particularly calculated as a conceptual agenda that brings montage into a place that is thoroughly domestic and playful. Brightly hued wall-to-wall carpeting is the first indicator that automatically transforms the gallery space into a place where his work can be “at home.” (Rumor has it that if you arrive at the right time during gallery hours, you may even witness a cleaning lady vacuuming.)
The show-stoppers here are works from the series of acrylic and oil paintings, I was thinking about what a friend said, and hoping it was a lie (2013 – 14).These six large, identically sized canvases immediately draw attention due to the chromatic intensity of their rainbow stripes. At first glance they quote the hard-edged works of Frank Stella. Upon closer examination, the modeling of each color stripe begins to resemble the fast food vinyl décor of another era, migrating in an implied ziggurat from one painting to the next. The abstraction inherent in those stripes coheres into top-tab folders on a scale that flirts with becoming a sort of domesticated sublime. Emerging out of one such “folder” in each of the paintings is a trompe l’oeil object of Baroque vintage, such as a memento mori skull or extinguished candle.
All of these pieces feature vignettes of meticulously copied Romantic paintings by the likes of Caspar David Friedrich and Martin Johnson Heade. They are combined with appropriated cartoons and sometimes hack photo-derived pencil drawings. One of the strongest is “I Still Owe You for the Hole in My Heart” (2014), which contains a delicate graphite contour drawing of two women seated in a light embrace, possibly originating from a Matisse sketchbook. It is hard to see from a distance, due to a painted image of a saccharine mountain sunrise seared into the back of the figure seated closest to the viewer. Most notable here is the collision of various languages of appropriated imagery, generating a tension that was not as fully achieved in previous paintings by this artist.
Atypical for Kunath, an artist known for working across media, 2-D imagery dominates this show. The few sculptures included are restrained. Unlike another recent exhibition, you will not find a banana playing the trumpet, but there are multi-tiered scratching posts (the kind designed for cats), that loosely resemble certain pieces by Isamu Noguchi. Upholstered with “oriental” carpets, the silliness of the feline furniture resides in its absurd opulence. It only tenuously connects to the paintings with a few shared threads; one is the transformation of luxury objects (“high art” and artisanal carpets) into the mundane functionality of everyday life. Here kitty towers serve as funky pedestals for still life, particularly sculptures of watermelon in various stages of being consumed. They also poke fun at the lengths to which informed artists must go to reinvent the pedestal these days.
Finally, in the back galleries lurk a series of yellow-drenched sunset/sunrise paintings with titles likely derived from song lyrics about love. Most reviews, catalogue essays, and press releases about Kunath emphasize melancholy and existential crises. To this critic, these themes are subsumed by the artist’s methods of appropriation. The fact that quotations from other artists and song lyrics abound in Kunath’s work leaves one wondering about the boundary between our culture of consumption and something altogether more personal.
“Somewhere in these oppositions lies the aesthetic possibility of slipping on a banana peel.”
Sarah Goffstein is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.