Critics’ Picks

Ali Mongo, Untitled, 2010, oil on canvas, 4 x 7”.

Ali Mongo, Untitled, 2010, oil on canvas, 4 x 7”.


Ali Mongo

Galerie Crystal Ball
Manfred Kirschner Schönleinstrasse 7 Kreuzberg
June 4–July 9, 2010

Ali Mongo’s first solo exhibition in Berlin consists of thirty tiny paintings. Many are the size of baseball cards, or even smaller, and are characterized by a fusion of figurative and abstract elements rendered in a bright palette. The messy, nearly nonexistent draftsmanship and thematic range—from extreme childlike simplicity to violent perversion—situate the works firmly within the tradition that was once called “naive” painting; the pieces on view here typically feature nude figures and imaginary beings adrift in a colorful, splotchy landscape. In nearly every one of the untitled works, it is possible to discern a narrative; in one, some stick figures and their dog find themselves on a green planet, their arms raised in triumph, having just descended by ladder from their silver rocket, which resembles an erect phallus. In others, anthropomorphic creatures assume catlike qualities and are painted in a ghastly, tortured style reminiscent of Goya’s “black paintings.”

The Mongolian-born artist spends his days painting at Caffe Trieste, in San Francisco’s North Beach, an area long esteemed as one of the birthplaces of the Beat movement and a sort of living museum for the city’s enduring bohemia. Mongo passes his nights in Specs’, an old sailor’s bar near the legendary City Lights bookstore. With the exception of the paintings themselves, and a video showing the artist at work, this is all that is known about this fascinatingly elusive former sailor, who is also said to frequently change his name, as though in willful ignorance of our Google-obsessive era. He represents yet another fine discovery by this gallery, one of the few spaces in Berlin primarily dedicated to the eye-opening expressions of visionary outsiders.