New York

John Willenbecher

Hamilton Galleries

In a hushed light hang six “paintings” by JOHN WILLENBECHER, each made up of three panels. In each. a thick rope hangs from two pegs, suspending spheres, cones, and, in one work, tetrahedrons. Both the panels and the volumes are speckled in a way that is ethereal. Kitschy.

Rope? Let’s see. Willenbecher has used drapery before—maybe he is concerned with things hung. suspended crucified? In the poster for the show, a reproduction of Saint Serapion by Zurbaran, the saint is shown martyred (he preached the Word to the Moslems), hung by the wrists from rope. arms raised in a Christ-like gesture. which is at once a forfeit and an embrace of the world. Fine. A painting Willenbecher likes. An allusion to crucifixions (a paradigm both of art as a transcendent medium and of painting as a suspended object). Perhaps a parody too.

On the poster is the show’s title: “Capriccios and Grottos.” Capriccio is a lively musical form, but here, I am told, it is a reference to a suite of prints by Tiepolo. Hence the paintings’ strange titles: A Bacchante with Satyr and Fauness; Young Man Seated, Leaning Against an Urn; Death Giving Audience. These are art historians’ descriptions. not Tiepolo’s titles: and Willenbecher uses them, he says. because they are so matter-of-fact, so revealing of the prints enigmas. Thus they work both as a slap at art historical interpretation and as an homage to Tiepolo. an homage that is also an allusion, a graft of meaning.

Ironically, the titles announce the great themes of painting (death. passion, philosophy), its great characters (satyr, young man): great emblems (pyre, urn, globe). They swell with content, but nothing is depicted—they are “empty.” The titles have sucked out the content. Is the work then a parody of modernist “purity,” by which painting, like music, suggests nothing but itself? Perhaps to Willenbecher any description (i.e. ascription of literary content) is false.

There is humor here: the spheres and cones, though emblems of the Beyond, are also objects—obstacles to the paintings’ ethereal space. Maybe now transcendence is just that. a joke. Maybe. to Willenbecher. the only transcendence is down, through the necessary vulgarisms of kitsch-culture. Is he too, like Lynda Benglis and John Torreano, a “cosmetic transcendentalist” (Donald Kuspit’s term)? It seems so, for in the paintings Kitsch meets Transcendence and slays it.

At first I was offended by the paintings. Campy crucifixions, I thought were they not so juvenile, they would be blasphemous. But to be such a stern inquisitor is to be easy game for Willenbecher. And I was not that offended. The work made me think how archaic, how futile blasphemy has become.

The work is parody. A parody of art as sacrament, as a medium between this world and the next. A parody of the artist as martyr, as transfigurer of seen reality (remember the old Cézanne dictum: “treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone . . .”) A parody of “abstract” paraphrases of Old Masters, etc.

These ideas may come to us as cliches, reductions; but parody too is a reduction. Though it makes us aware of cliches, it preserves them, in the worst sense of the word. It reifies the already-reified, when what is needed is revision, a re-seeing of old truths. Parody is thus its own bind, subject to its own reduction. At its best, however, it relieves us of pretension. But it must be timely, as was Pop’s parody of Abstract Expressionism’s grandiosity. Otherwise it is too easy to dismiss because it dismisses too easily. When it becomes a mode, as it does here, mockery becomes a real flagellation, humanization becomes humiliation.

Hal Foster