ARTISTS SPACE | MAY 1 – JUNE 5, 2016.
Critique seeks the truth content of a work of art; commentary, its material content. The relation between the two is determined by that basic law of literature according to which the more significant the work, the more inconspicuously and intimately its truth content is bound up with its material content.
-Walter Benjamin, “Goethe’s Elective Affinities,” 1924.
Great attention, erudition, and stamina are required to decipher Lukas Duwenhögger’s current exhibition. While this is perhaps a Sisyphean task, decoding his paintings, artistry, and intellectual mash-ups is not without its pitfalls and quirks. Gleaning any insights into the work requires repeated and sustained engagement—a challenge I am (happily) forced to accept. This is not to say that the work is impossibly cabalistic, but its alluring, complex web of connections is an undertaking best suited to the optimist or the masochist (e.g., a self-flagellating Catholic boy like myself).
Undoolay offers an enormous breadth of work: forty-five paintings and works on paper, nine sculptures/installations, and two films (only one of which is made by the artist). While presented as a full retrospective of Duwenhögger’s oeuvre,it should essentially be read as a unified reflection that touches on class, race, femininity, masculinity, greed, urban development, homosexuality, morality, ethics, love, sin, and magic.
The exhibition’s title touches most explicitly on the first of these themes; it is taken from a single reference in The Custom of the Country, a 1913 novel by Edith Wharton, that most expert dissector of class hierarchies. (The book’s protagonist, Undine Spragg, a bright-eyed girl from the Midwest looking to climb New York’s social ladder, gets her unfortunate name after a hair-waver product that her father put on the market: “It’s from undoolay, you know, the French for crimping; father always thought the name made it take.”) Similarly, “The Clay Hen” (2015), a short story written by Duwenhögger that appears in a booklet accompanying the exhibition, revolves around a well-to-do woman named Magdalena M; the story’s true focus is her lover, the architect Erhardt,1 and its central image is his clay hen, an architectural symbol of Erhardt’s bisexuality, or his triangular relationship with a man (his lover) and a woman (Anne, his once “ideal spouse”).
In taking these two examples of feminine lust for greed and ambition, Duwenhögger evens out the gender division of moral corruption imbued in the masculine form, while also humanizing sexual deviancy, posing the question, “What is sin?” Parsing the question via pseudo-scientific models of attraction within a specific socio-cultural space—the nouveaux riches—yields the conclusion that there may be no sin, only consequences of human nature.
The German-born artist (who is well into his fifties) immigrated to Istanbul in around 2000, and has been living and working there since. The majority of works on view in the exhibition are classically rendered oil paintings in high 19th-century French style. With a penchant for pastel colors, the Orient, and homoerotic imagery, Duwenhögger depicts primarily male figures—posing at work or in parks, dressed to the nines, and occasionally in surrealistic environments. The thematic structure or triangulation between notions of class, sexual preference, and politics, all suffused within a specific aesthetic (i.e. salon-style paintings of homosexual men of non-Western tradition), is at the crux of Duwenhögger’s work.
In Da Rita (1997), four men are presented in a whimsical space in twilight: what looks like a mound of dirt enclosed by a light-blue plaster wall. The two men to the left, on higher ground, stare off into the distance to their right. One man sits on a rope reel, wearing a soiled white shirt, gray pants, and a cook’s paper hat; the other sits in a Victorian style wheelchair, wearing a black kimono and a pink pom-pom hat. To the right is seated a young man dressed in a pink pastel suit; another man, standing behind him, sports a salmon-colored sari. Both stare blankly at the viewer in an inquisitive and playful manner. The image also includes a cherry blossom tree that starts from the right of the picture plane, while its branches extend to the left (a compositional device that seemingly connects both groups of men); and a miniature architectural space or temple situated in the background, with a warm light shinning through its open door. The multiple elements connote a certain relationship between the old and the new, the sick and the healthy, the repressed and the uninhibited—all anchored by a feeble eloquence towards religiosity and morality.
Duwenhögger’s paintings present a type of magical realism that supplants a world of archaic binaries. It effectively attempts to substitute the mythmaking of society’s moral compass for a more obtuse truth of reality. In doing so, however, the artist only further complicates his own political agendas—recapitulating antiquarian aesthetic forms to critique the machinations of modern life.
One of the more interesting moments of the exhibition, and one that may be glossed over, are the screenings of Duwenhögger’s film From Cotton via Velvet to Tragedy (1991), and Francesco Rosi’s 1963 film Hands Over the City. Both films are screened twice daily downstairs at 55 Walker Street, Artists Space’s sister gallery and bookstore. In From Cotton, the unembodied Barbaralee Diamondstein interviews fashion designer Arturo Pellegrino (aka The Lonely Empress), played by the artist. The conversation, or internal monologue—Barbaralee is also played by the artist through various recordings—is a reflection on the character’s feigned existence as a designer of haute couture, and as a struggling homosexual artist in the midst of the AIDS crisis in the ’80s and ’90s. The film ends with Arturo planning to destroy the Statue of Liberty to relinquish the myth of freedom and justice the monument so (mis-)represents. Arturo sends a message in bottle to invite cohorts to participate in his mayhem, but only finds himself five years later at an AIDS benefit sponsored by Vogue—a sort of forfeiting of his radical leanings to the capitalist machine.
It is important to note that this is only the beginning of the complexities and multiple references inherent in Duwenhögger’s work. While Undoolay is one of the more beautiful and complicated shows I’ve seen, it is fraught with an overwhelming tension: a constant grappling between what is intrinsically moral or ethical, and what is reprehensible in the eyes of society. Duwenhögger perhaps decrees that there is no true difference, that these issues are constantly in flux and never reconciled. But the ascension towards an ethical high ground is never reexamined.
This is clear when it comes to the ethical boundaries of real estate development in urban environments. Hands Over the City isa film about the ambitions of a corrupt real estate developer and city council member of the city of Naples (played by Rod Steiger). The film immediately touches on the subject of gentrification, but most keenly telling in this respect is the exhibition space itself. Artists Space will be leaving its Greene Street location after the show closes on June 5; the building’s landlord plans to renovate it into penthouse apartments. This news brings great sadness; it recalls a sobering quote from Hands Over the City: “The only sin in politics is losing.”
- The character of Erhardt is based on Lukas’s father, who was a prominent architect in Munich. After his death, Lukas found his portfolio, by which “Clay Hen” is inspired. The story is told from the perspective of the artist.