New York

Peter Bömmels

Sonnabend Gallery

In the brave new conceptual art world of semiotic orthodoxy and reductionism—of semiotic stereotypes—is there a place for the German painter Peter Bömmels, with his Grimm’s-fairy-tale world of horrific metamorphosis and his preoccupation with death and dissolution? In trying to escape “the code” and its supposed neutralizing effects, does the work only become more victimized by it, and self-neutralizing? Bömmels’ Gothicism might be thought merely another part of “retro fashion” and the culture of nostalgia and quotation, another dumb effort to “rehabilitate the referential” and to create presence through seductive surface. Many of his pictures tend to “degenerate” into their surfaces—encrusted papier-mâché in some cases, human hair in others; is his peculiarly Germanic effort to retain “the real” (in perverse form) simply another sign of how unretainable it is? One could argue that the Gothic imagination is the last holdout against reality, creating uncanny, seemingly oppositional images that actually reflect the world more urgently than it is ordinarily experienced; but has the “era of simulation” overtaken Bömmels’ retardataire Gothic vision, cooling it into another code? Perhaps, with Bömmels, two terms traditionally considered dialectically opposite—(fantastic) art and (everyday) reality—have at last become commutable.

Let us recall, however, that as long ago as André Breton’s “Surrealism and Painting” (1928), “reality itself” was said to be “in question” “in this epoch.” And Giorgio de Chirico experienced “a world full of uncanny signs,” presentiments of archaic meaning-structures that could never be thematized into an acceptable reality, that were in a sense totally simulated “worlds.” Let us recall also the idea that to continue to be “Modern” we must label the historical past a false world, from which we have not so much developed as broken away. Perhaps the sensation that art participates in an era of simulation gives it credibility in its continuing “modernization” of appearances, the only task it understands; art can be all the more ruthless and comfortable in its activity of simulation when it believes the world itself is simulated.

Bömmels’ figures have the look of the Northern ornaments discussed by Wilhelm Worringer in Form in Gothic (1957), the elements in Dürer prints, for example, that to Worringer give the “impression of a formless, ceaseless activity,” a “labyrinthine” movement with “no centre . . . no point of entrance, no point of rest.” Indeed, Bömmels’ figures seem an arbitrary way of closing the line. Bazon Brock has discussed the sexual symbology of his allegories, describing his figures as “stele people” and noting the color effect as that of “an opened body.” Certainly the sense of dealing with a strange, protean flesh, as much vegetable as animal, is strong. Hair, whatever its graphic value—and Bömmels seems to have taken to it in search of exactly the kind of “living line” articulated by the Gothic—is after all a kind of flesh. One recalls—totally out of context, but wonderfully relevant—Yukio Mishima’s observation in Sun & Steel (1970) that he had “to learn the language of the flesh, much as one might learn a foreign language,” later in life; in effect had to relearn the “original” language of the body after learning all the adult ones. Bömmels’ images, with their studied grotesquerie and fantastic spaces, are an attempt to recover that original language through uncanny signs which do not quite add up to a code—or which form a code that is unstable, constantly being created, destroyed, recreated, lost and only partially found. It is this language of the flesh that questions everyday reality.

Do Bömmels’ Gothicized natural forms permit us to speak of his work as surrealist, evincing a surrealism of quotation? Not quite, for the language of the flesh—a strange, foreign language because always a forgotten, lost one—offers choppy sentences in a temporary code. It is a fantasy language, constantly evaporating yet leaving behind sensual meaning-structures which are hardly analyzable in terms of “a lover’s discourse.” They are like skins shed by the flesh in its desire for an ever-new means of expression, for a way to make sensation into language, even if it always relapses back into sensation. Bömmels’ images argue that art has a Gothic role to play in the modern world: to remind it that the bite of sensation must still emerge from artistic simulation. Art is the gargoyle on the cathedral of the world’s self-consciousness, again and again shrieking “flesh.” It is the nasty little bat in Dürer’s Melancolia 1, 1514, an uncanny sign teaching the foreign language of the body. Bömmels’ queasy pictures remind us that art is not about sucking up to the surface of things with impunity. Doing so, one might find oneself in a strange embrace—not what one thought one would get, in one’s adolescent hopefulness, when one allowed oneself to be seduced by all those “simulations.” There is more to the imagination than meets the eye.

Donald Kuspit