Martin Kippenberger Raft of the Medusa
Skarstedt Gallery | March 3 - April 26, 2014
In Raft of the Medusa, all three floors of Skarstedt’s townhouse-turned-gallery exhibit Martin Kippenberger’s fervent study of Theodore Gericault’s infamous 1819 painting, occasioned through a series of photographs, sketches, lithographs, paintings, and even a rug. These various mediums constitute the 49 works on display and include photographs of Kippenberger (taken by the artist’s wife, Elfie Semotan) reenacting the gestures of each figure on the raft; sketches on hotel stationary stationery from all over Europe examining these gestures; and the subsequent lithographs and paintings that combine these studies. In this burst of self-reflective work, made in his last summer (1996) at age 44 (1996), Kippenberger is the only model. For an artist as famous and controversial as Kippenberger to portray himself as starving and shipwrecked is inevitably a humorous/wry? exaggeration of the idea of the tortured artist, and yet the series unfolds elegantly throughout the space; exuberant color and haphazard gestures are underpinned with a quiet meditation on the relationship of the body to death.
The central painting of this show, “Raft of the Medusa,’’ differs greatly from the original. Here, catastrophe is treated with a comic hand: complementary blocks of bright red and pale blue flatten and separate space in the same way that a cartoon suggests space and depth—with a single layer of solid color and line. The reference to cartoons is enforced with a text bubble in the top left corner of the work that reads, “Je Suis MeduseMéduse.” The rejection of Gericault’s Romanticism for the comic is an apt decoy for morose themes. While Gericault’s composition draws the eye towards an invisible ship on the horizon at the very moment the shipwrecked realize their fate is about to change, Kippenberger depicts the rescue ship as a cartoon with a black, haphazardly painted line. Kippenberger’s version of this denouement is shown via a dark spot in the horizonless painting, reminiscent of Van Gough’s last work, “Wheat Field with Crows” (1890), in which a flat background is dotted with black crows.
A wool rug, woven with into a to-scale floor plan of the original raft and placed on a two-foot tall pedestal across from the painting, expresses the physical side of mortality. It cleverly juxtaposes the flailing, abstracted figures of the canvas (which are smaller than life), and the standing figure of the viewer, whoich suddenly feels quite large when one imagines sharing the 20’ x 60’ vessel with the Medusa’s 145 other survivors (only 17 were rescued). The combination of abstraction with the historical is in keeping with Kippenberger’s all-too-true representations of the world delivered under comic pretense.
Looking at the text in the painting—“Je Suis MeduseMéduse” (translation: “I am the jellyfish”)—provides a wider context. Rachel Kushner notes in the catalogue essay that jellyfish haunted the waters in which the survivors floated, and that they jumped in hoping to be eaten by sharks but instead, were merely stung. In this appalling story, abject circumstances lead them close to death, and yet death is elusive. Kippenberger emphasizes this contradiction in his contemporary take on the art historical. By repeatedly painting and drawing his own body as he faces death, he playfully denies mortality while also reaching towards it emphatically.