New York

A.R. Penck

Mary Boone Gallery | Chelsea

To this reader, the meanings of the signs that populate Penck’s cosmography have always been rather arcane, not least because they themselves draw upon the symbolic systems of aboriginal or Paleolithic art. Some of the more abstract of these signs almost certainly can be read as representing male or female principles, and Penck has used them as such in the past; other configurations, like the grid of dots, the double or triple bar, or the counterclockwise spiral, seem to suggest life-organizing principles that are not a part of common currency.

The anxiety of interpretation here is that, in the absence of a meaningful—if not necessarily “correct”—translation of a particular code from one cultural system to another, the constitutive signs risk becoming sequestered in the realm of esthetics. Perhaps this is what we encountered a few years ago in Penck’s drawings of open and closed ellipses, triangles, and rectangles. These “punctuation marks,” floating free of a tangible symbolic context, seemed to imply an indeterminacy of identity (which the artist also periodically addresses in his switching aliases). Nevertheless, some of these graphic notations can be reassigned to more specific, and occasionally humorous, functions, such as the identity as excrement that circles and bars assume in the more recent Julius und Ich (Julius and I, 1985).

Aside from the specificity (or not) of its elements, the overall organization of the image commands attention. Penck’s pictographic style presents a challenge to recent representational pictorialism and its insistence on reaffirming the codes of dominant Western visual traditions. Although his work refers to archaic sources or psychic states, Penck’s KR—his Konzeptraum (studio)—remains distinct from the materialist or nostalgic Lebensraum (milieu) resuscitated elsewhere in German art. Like the aboriginal rock surface, or the cave wall, his canvas presents a two-dimensional field—a map—devoid of the conventional perspectival devices of spatial illusion or uniform scale that commonly give the appearance of a command of time and space. Since the harlequinade of overlapping, patterned, or silhouetted figures and hieroglyphs of earlier work, Penck’s lexicon of signs has separated out into discretely spaced entities, isolated and yet trapped in a common force field. His genitally defined stick figures and emblematic fauna and symbols occupy a terrain, but they do not possess it.

Within this map the re is the recurrent figure of the hunter. In Der Jäger (The hunter, 1985), he stands among deer, armed with a spear and wearing an ornamental headdress—an emblem of man’s survival but also the bringer of death and destruction in nature. Elsewhere, he is supplanted by an ambivalent figure in the tradition of the Pulchinello. In The Red Airplane, 1985, he is masked, or blinded, which disorients the surrounding life forms; in Zwei im Westen (Two in the West, 1985), he is a more comical figure who stands precariously on one foot between what appear to be a communal ritual and a hunt, balancing a pentagram in one hand while two shadowy death’s-heads hover above the other. He reappears in The Brain, 1985, holding a brain and a cluster of missiles, trapped between mind and might—a choice to which the more satirical Eagle Against Monkey, 1985, also seems to allude. In this scheme of things, man is a juggler with the tragicomic task of balancing or deciding between order and chaos, life and death.

Jean Fisher