Künstliche Paradiese

Fear of the end of the world, and an ensuing appetite for ideas and images of paradise, often grow strong as centuries near their close, but in the 19th century this phenomenon had an earlier precedent in the literary works of Charles Baudelaire. A reference to this theme and to the poet was explicit in an exhibition called “Künstliche Paradiese” (Artificial paradise), curated by Zdenek Felix. Its title comes from Baudelaire’s Les Paradis artificiels (1860), and Felix makes mention of the poet in his catalogue introduction. Baudelaire had attempted, in his work and through his use of drugs, to gain entry to a euphoric paradise of the mind, a paradise set apart from the everyday world. This turning away from the world presaged a radical skepticism toward the promises of the modern age.

Today, the promises of the early years of the 20th century are utterly without hope of fulfillment, and, like Baudelaire, we seek various outlets from a prevailing mood of despair. The emphasis of “Künstliche Paradiese” lay less on actual methods of escape than on the idea of art as a sphere of artifice in contradistinction to empirical reality, a sphere through which despair may be overcome and paradise regained. The exhibition included works by George Condo, Milan Kunc, Andreas Schulze, Dieter Teusch, David Bowes, and Salvo.

Condo’s The Cloudmaker, 1984, is his comment on the artist’s role today: it is a painting of the letters of his last name, decorated with fake-looking precious stones and set like sculptures in a landscape. Smoke or mist drifts out of them, as if their function were the production of clouds. The work is an obituary to the idea of the artist as creator of the beautiful and true; Condo implies that the artist is instead a creator of him- or herself (potentially the most deceitful of roles). Where Baudelaire’s estheticism was the highly cultivated flower of his deep distrust of modern civilization, that of his descendants is no more than a card in a high-powered game, the game of blending trivialized icons from the past with contemporary images from the seductive consumer culture of the present, and of forming the two into grand monuments of paradisiacal kitsch.

Of the works in “Künstliche Paradiese,” Kunc’s paintings celebrate the game with the greatest zest, and with a caustic primitivism. His Romantische Landschaft (Romantic landscape, 1985), a face formed in the sky by the outlines of mountains, and with roses for eyes, reflects in a consciously banal way on the contemporary search for the beautiful, the Sublime. Here the many different versions of the artificial paradise come together: traditional images of ideal beauty, fulfillment, cosmic unity, and the divinity of humanity are all shown to be creatures of the imagination.

Schulze’s sensibility was the most abstract and at the same time the most artificial of those in the show In an untitled work from 1985, for example, 12 unnatural-looking pairs of legs, caricatures of cucumbers or sausages, are placed around a table as if guests at the Last Supper. In their spatial arrangements as well as in their informing concepts, Schulze’s paintings reveal a preoccupation with standard icons from art history, which he juxtaposes like pieces of sculpture and integrates with everyday objects and materials to make discomfitingly stylized, strangely ambivalent wholes executed with a distasteful painterly affectation.

Teusch’s sculptures are similar to Schulze’s work in method and meaning. Both artists quote well-known cultural images and rely on sensuous materials and colors and the irrational placement of banal objects in their work. Teusch’s Venus, 1983, an almost completely abstract, flesh-toned construction on a platform simulating a bed, is crowned by a newspaper and a stylized human eye. In Tropische Küsten (Tropical coasts, 1985) two enormous horns protrude from the head of a statuette of the Holy Virgin, an objet trouvé of religious kitsch. In each work, the ambiguity of the common objects attached to the figure breaks down any literal translation of its meaning. Teusch’s work provides an intimation of paradise in its uncertain balance between emotional idealism and the cruel illusions of artificial cultivation.

Salvo’s concern is with Arcadia, the dreamland of classical art. All sorts of echoes from art history stick to these canvases, while the paintings themselves, as material objects, reveal the pure surface and its ability to hold an image as the actual truth of the art of painting. Color and light are manipulated signs, far removed from any empirical reality This priority of the artificial in Salvo’s work makes him the most outstanding figure in the present context.

The dangers Salvo avoids are illustrated clearly in the work of Bowes, another artist whose iconography is populated with figures from the historical repertory of paradise, from Adonis and Bacchus to the Christian saints. But these paintings come across as too casual, like theater sets padded with cultural history. Only one of Bowes’ paintings here was marked by the deep ambivalence between beauty and illusion that is the real key to today’s artificial paradise: a portrait, after Jean August-Dominique Ingres, of a woman gazing blindly out into the distance.

The frank quotations from the Surrealists in the work of Condo and Kunc, the strategic borrowings in Teusch’s constructions, and the staged metaphysical lighting in Salvo’s work might suggest that these artists are building bridges between themselves and the Surrealists. However, from an art-historical perspective, the artists in this exhibition cannot be classified within Surrealism or any other movement. Exploring the vast treasure house of inherited imagery, they seek a liberation from the appearance of truth. Artistic imagination triumphs as artificial imagination.

Is this art self-deluding or meaningful, cynically narcissistic or secretly aspiring in spite of everything? Such questions are at best only conditionally relevant. The paradise described in this show is an artificial creation, a province of creative energy that, in defying empirical reality, establishes itself as a reality unto itself.

Annelie Pohlen

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.