Tilo Steireif

Robert Walser-Zentrum
Marktgasse 45
November 19–December 23

Tilo Steireif, untiled, 2012–13, watercolor and ink on paper. From the series “The Robber,” 2012–13.

In 2012, Tilo Steireif, a Swiss artist whose research-based practice has favored photography and installation, began work on a suite of aquarelle and ink cartoons inspired by German-speaking Swiss writer Robert Walser’s posthumously published novel, The Robber. The labor posed two challenges: It was Steireif’s first foray into watercolor, and The Robber—a digressive novel with a weak plot first published in German in 1972 and in English in 2000—doesn’t easily lend itself to visual exegesis in the way that the Book of Genesis did for Robert Crumb. Walser’s novel begins briskly: “Edith loves him.” Edith being a waitress and estranged paramour of the Robber, an impoverished “good-for-nothing” from the Swiss capital of Bern whose precarious lifestyle—he is more lotus-eater than criminal—chimes with the author’s own traumatic biography. Still, Steireif emerges as a mordant guide to Walser’s elliptical modernist text about a solitary walker with urbane habits.

Installed in three rows across three walls in a small room that has previously shown Walser’s idiosyncratic microscripts, Steireif’s 112 clear line cartoons (all works untitled, 2012–13) are tonally reduced. The worn-out Guston pinks and variations of “sky blue audacity,” to quote the novel, lend his visualization of petit bourgeois anxiety and listlessness an understated pathos. One panel shows the Robber, who bears a striking resemblance to a mustached Walser, examining his bleeding heart while on a walk. The cartoon is faithful to the book, gleefully so, grimly depicting what is understood as metaphorical introspection in the text. But Steireif is ultimately an empathetic interpreter of the writer’s world of homburgs, cigars, carousel rides, strange monuments, and low-key despair.

Sean O’Toole