Los Angeles

Roger Herman

Roger Herman employs the stylistic vocabulary of German Expressionism as a distancing device for a more conceptual exploration of painting itself. Yet whereas artists such as Anselm Kiefer and Markus Lüpertz envelop this critique within the context (read “neurosis”) of recent German history and myth, Herman pursues more overtly autobiographical and philosophical themes. He is, in many ways, an alienated romantic, asserting his faith in pure expression through painting, while simultaneously questioning the viability of the image in an age of media appropriation. He is very much like an artisan who tries to rationalize his own creativity under the aegis of Jean Baudrillard’s "ecstasy of communication’: where sincerity and passion are inevitably drowned in a sea of pluralistic images.

This parallel of subjective expression and objective deconstruction echoes in particular many of the self-destructive tendencies in the films of R. W. Fassbinder and the writings of Peter Handke. In Herman’s case, painting acts as both psychological catharsis and representational deceit, emotionally gratifying on the one hand, intellectually suspect on the other. In the past, Herman has expressed these contradiction; by metamorphosing sentiment through the empty rhetoric of dramatic scale. Photographs of his parents, for example, were transformed through painterly bluster and crusty impasto into vacuous archetypes, while historical icons such as Vincent van Gogh and Harry Houdini were blown up into billboard-sized cliches, their once “heroic” aura reduced to Andy Warhol–esque banality. These works were all the more poignant for their precarious balance between artistic hope and despair, between stressing painting’s stylistic vitality and its seeming irrelevance.

Herman’s recent work reinforces many of these conceptual tenets, underlining the antinomies between image and meaning by a marked drift toward abstraction. A large untitled diptych of 1985 presents two images of the same anonymous high-rise apartment building from the same angle and perspective. Rendered in a broad, gestural style, this faceless architecture represents the flip side to K. H. Hödicke’s series of paintings of Berlin’s monumental buildings from the late ’70s. While the latter are notable for their emotional resonance, achieved through stark contrasts of light and dark, Herman’s redefinition of the International Style is sterile and neutral, limited to washed-out colors and repetitious details. Similarly, a pair of office interiors also executed in 1985 offers us little but ugly alienation, a sense of difference expressed only through color and a closer perspective of the exact same desk arrangement. Here, both painting and life itself are emptied of meaning, leaving us with the mere representation of both literal and metaphorical abstractions.

As if to step back from this “no content” void, Herman also offers us painterly appropriations of found photographs featuring a piano, dancers, a nude woman, and two elephants. Although the nude and the elephants are realized in a brighter, more kinetic palette, figure and ground are already beginning to merge, creating an ambiguous sense of perspective bordering on the allover techniques of the Abstract Expressionists. Unlike them, however, there is little or no emotion here, and Herman seems more interested in reasserting the bankruptcy of the representational image, irrespective of the style or painterly vocabulary one uses. It is to Herman’s credit, though, that the emptier his paintings become, the more powerful they appear as honest symbols of a creative impasse.

Colin Gardner