PRINT September 2007


When choosing a title for his first solo exhibition outside his native Germany, held in the summer of 2006 at New York’s Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, Hamburg-based artist Dirk Stewen selected a literary fragment that evoked both the melancholy psychogeography of his host city and the refined poetic instincts of his conceptual program. The phrase he settled on, “Even in its blackness, the sky did not rest,” appears near the end of City of Glass, the first book in Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy. In the tale, the protagonist, an accidental gumshoe named Daniel Quinn, finds himself in an Upper East Side alley, stuck on a misbegotten stakeout of a man who, unbeknownst to him, is already dead. A bewildered private eye, Quinn has nothing to do but contemplate the sliver of sky visible between the looming buildings:

[As] the days passed he began to take pleasure in the world overhead. He saw that, above all, the sky was never still. . . . [T]here were constant little shifts, gradual disturbances as the sky thinned out and grew thick, the sudden whitenesses of planes, birds, and flying papers. . . . One by one, all weathers passed over his head, from sunshine to storms, from gloom to radiance. . . . Even in its blackness, the sky did not rest.

Like City of Glass, Stewen’s work suggests a world where the job of the “detective” (or the artist) is less to solve than to define a mystery whose existential outlines are unstable. Stewen’s adjacencies of image and thing represent an attempt to assemble new meanings through a study of the “little shifts” and “gradual disturbances” that pass across his field of vision, a search for resonances in certain images and forms, especially when experienced in sympathetic proximity to one another. Indeed, the deformation of familiar narrative tropes in City of Glass—an ostensibly hard-boiled detective story that, when cracked open, turns out to be anything but firm—provides a further analogue for Stewen’s own treatment of established idioms. Translating cryptic aggregations of low-key artifacts into a language of improbable poignancy, his combinations employ forms that alter the meaning of his images, and images that alter the meaning of his forms, via a strikingly personal presentational syntax. Since graduating from Hamburg’s University of Fine Arts in 2001, Stewen has managed to build a deeply persuasive body of work that captures moments of poetic flux both in the structural components of his individual pieces and in the larger conceptual cadences of his installations.

The centerpiece of the Bonakdar show was a suite encompassing a half dozen of the artist’s signature thread-and-confetti collages on black photo paper. Festooned with constellations of sutured lines, candy-colored speckles, and dangling strands of cotton filament, they, too, suggested an observer’s impressions of celestial activity, like uncanny galactic maps. Interspersed among the sewn works (and sometimes twinned with smaller thread-and-paper pieces) were photographs with curious subjects. In one, a young man talks on a pay phone; in another, two small monkeys cower. A different room held a sequence of small watercolors on antique paper, whose gestural lightness suggested influences such as Michael Krebber or Luc Tuymans and whose content included loosely rendered figures as well as arrangements of delicate rounded shapes and drips, evoking fruit or flowers, created with pastel washes. In a few cases, modest three-dimensional elements like wooden dowels and metal rings were displayed alongside these paintings, and, slowly but dramatically, the pairings—in concert with the purposeful rhythms of the room containing the thread-and-paper and photo works—began to suggest a subtle overall logic, an organizing principle to the entire environment, which was marked by the same offhand elegance and structural restraint that defined the individual pieces.

As it happens, these are the basic lineaments not just of Stewen’s US debut but of his work in general: A typical show includes the collages, watercolors, and photos, shown in isolation or grouped with three-dimensional objects whose forms in repetition often begin to suggest sexual accoutrements. In the case of three pieces involving outboard elements at Bonakdar—Dessert, Antwerpen, 2005; Fruits, Antwerpen, 2005; and Interieur, 2006—the steel circles evoked cock rings through which wooden rods like s/m switches were threaded; elsewhere, ribbons have recalled whips. Charged as they are, the kinkier items ask the viewer to register their function, yet they also can be read as externalized formal elaborations of the qualities of line, shape, and draping with which the two-dimensional work is structurally concerned. There is never one dominant resonance in Stewen’s works—a fact underscored by his inclusion in “Very Abstract and Hyper Figurative” at Thomas Dane Gallery in London last spring. The show, curated by Jens Hoffman, was a Broodthaersian “museum of painting” that posited a sharp division between figuration and abstraction, but Stewen’s pair of confetti collages seemed to confound the distinction, appearing as both cartographic abstractions and as representations—possessed as they were of internal depth—of fantastical night skies. It is precisely the oscillation between specific cultural significance and simple formal immanence that characterizes Stewen’s art and situates it at that nexus where poetic meaning and bodily presence meld in such a way that each is lyrically destabilized.

If Stewen’s idiosyncratic artifactual vocabulary has remained remarkably consistent, his aggregations have continued to grow in size and sophistication. At Bonakdar, the larger conceptual frame of the show needed to be, as it were, assembled from a series of discrete moments: the watercolor assemblages in one room; in another, the collages and photo adjacencies, both implied and explicit—as in a memorable pair, titled Linksrum and Rechtsrum, both 2006, the former featuring a found image of a wind-tossed palm, the latter its flipped twin. Each image was paired with a blackened sheet whose dotted-cotton seams, trailing off the bottom edge, echoed the sway of the tree’s fronds. Yet new assemblages seen in solo exhibitions this year at Berlin’s Atle Gerhardsen, Düsseldorf’s Galerie Dennis Kimmerich, and in the traveling group show “Pale Carnage” that originated at the UK’s Arnolfini last spring are more sweeping and complex than ever before. Stewen’s untitled contribution to “Pale Carnage,” for example, stretches some twenty horizontal feet and encompasses nearly a dozen different elements from the artist’s lexicon (including photos, inked paper, watercolors, and more) bracketed on either end by a pair of rod-and-ring assemblies, like abstracted quotation marks. Another gorgeously languorous untitled sequence includes one of Stewen’s dowels, under which was hung a single photographic image—again a tangle of hot-weather flora—followed, from left to right, by a series of blank paper pages in inked black, age-yellowed cream, sky blue, and dusky rose, the final edge trailing filaments of thread like seepage from a wound. In new pieces such as these, Stewen’s work reads like the poetry to which it aspires: marked by stops, stutters, and silences, suffused by both gloom and radiance, and punctuated by the sudden whitenesses that inevitably interrupt, and enrich, our own patches of sky as we scan for signs of meaning.

Jeffrey Kastner is a frequent contributor to Artforum.