New York

Donald Baechler

Tony Shafrazi Gallery

Donald Baechler is supposed to be the latest wunderkind. He’s a pseudo-German with a heavy touch of Americana—the graffiti mode, stylized into a cuteness that may be the only mature thing about his art. More precisely, his credentials consist in approval by Jiři Georg Dokoupil, one of the stars of the Mühlheimer Freiheit group in Cologne; an appearance in New York magazine, as one of a number of properly attired young hopefuls; and, in the elegant catalogue words of Robert Pincus-Witten, a “studied increment of inaccessibility.” In other words, Baechler is the latest hope for novelty. He represents the latest effort—begun with Pop’s use of media modes, but going all the way back to Courbet’s populism—to transpose the lumpen, amateur mode to high art, to give the latter a bit of pluck and to politicize or at least democratize it. Baechler has the appeal of a Hollywood extra in the chorus line of the Busby Berkeley Musicale of Modernism: we’ve seen that youth before, and it’s good to know one can still make a career of youth. Of course, it’s become a simplified, trouble-free youth, without either the tantrums or risks of adolescence. Baechler performs the role beautifully, but it’s after all a standard one, the only one he can play; and when adolescence becomes prolonged, becomes a role rather than a phase, stylized smartaleckness (Pincus-Witten calls it “willed aestheticized gawkiness”) is the result.

Dokoupil was right: the large, gray piece called The Big Picture, showing a tank facing down an anonymous crowd compressed into a space not much bigger than it, almost becomes an icon of our situation. The polarization works perfectly, and that wonderful German gray—the Central European cloud cover that seems to linger forever, bespeaking an eternity we can endure only by wearing a gas mask—epitomizes all the inexpressivity of our world. It is a repression so absolute it thinks it’s expression, “soul,” the signal of some special enigma. But of course it’s emptiness personified. Schwarzwald, the next important piece, is also a perfect capsulation of the childlike mode, down to the collaged stroke. Both works are eagerly pithy, alluringly naive. But then comes the bulk of the work: a whole pile of spiral-topped head emblems, supposedly the consequence of Baechler’s Egyptian interest. In other words, a new Orientalism, a magical new uninhibitedness. Are they muezzins with an “alternate” prayer cry? Unlikely; even Oum Kalsoum, “large breasted maternal fetish” that she may be, is, pictorially speaking, a basket case of graffiti flourish.

The work has a bad case of the club version of self-consciousness. It’s a sort of visual trench mouth, like all graffiti—an inflammation that comes from being too long in the trenches of the city, from too steady a diet of pulp visions. But here it’s treated like the red badge of courage—made into an insignia of innocence which, having become a stylish sign of belonging, is clearly all too false. One doesn’t believe in this inner sanctum. Baechler gives us an adult’s drawings of a child’s version of the mask of the adult’s face; the important confusion of face and mask does not occur. The idea works, the reality doesn’t, because the club types don’t really know what it is to be an adult or a child. They enjoy the in-between state of the adolescent, fetishized to keep it fascinating. It’s like watching the movies; one has to keep pitching oneself at an age level whose character one has forgotten. Artists like Baechler are adept at doing this because they have never progressed enough to really have a reason to regress, to recover something they missed along the way. It’s a pity there’s really so little adult art around (and by that I don’t mean the good old-time abstract purity). Anyway, I like the gray.

Donald Kuspit