New York

Jiři Georg Dokoupil

Sonnabend Gallery

While I was looking at Jiři Georg Dokoupil’s new sculptures and paintings, Robert Smithson’s 1966 drawing A Heap of Language came involuntarily to mind, with its pyramid of words, heaped up like objects, a chain of potentially cabalistic incantations but drained of power in their translation to a visual medium, as something to be seen and not heard, transformed into empty ciphers bankrupt of meaning. Dokoupil’s The Five, 1986, has come a long way from Charles Demuth’s I Saw the Figure Five in Gold, 1928, with its allusion to poetry, or the number “5” as Jasper Johns painted it, with all the pseudopassion he could muster, yet still concerned to give the impression of expressing rather than recording the number. In Dokoupil, the yellow “5”—with a hand-stenciled look a la Warhol and mounted on the grainy lines of a black cross against a garish red field—seems farcical and melodramatic, a charade of a “cliché” (But is it a displacement of the yellow star that Jews had to wear, as the Nazi colors suggest? This arbitrary thought opens up a new, German level of meaning in the picture.) There is a Max Ernst wit to this, as to La Anunciación, 1986, and especially the appropriations of Der kranke König (The sick king) and Double Jesus, both 1986, but without the dependence on the unconscious and the element of violent fantasy on which the art of the Surrealists was so oftenbased. After all, by now the unconscious has been turned inside out and has surfaced as another facile idea rather than life’s deepest mystery.

Masterful staging of semiotic surface is what Dokoupil’s art is about, but with an Aristophanean sense of farce. His works focus on the words that play such a big part in our lives, especially the names of institutions, that, staged in logos, have acquired the credibility of the inevitable. The names in Dokoupil’s wonderful brand-name sculptures and paintings—in which the “signs” of prestigious museums and corporations (MOMA, Whitney, Guggenheim, Bank of America, Citibank, Chase Manhattan, Exxon, and Paine Webber, among others) are equated as all representing the same kind of profit-motivated, money-making machine—become like the Dadaist chorus of croaking frogs in Aristophanes’ play. The letters of the grandiose names intricately rise and fall, worming their insidious way into our consciousness. In Dokoupil’s visually whimsical treatment, they possess an inflated esthetic presence, in mock confirmation of their prestige.

Dokoupil, with that Sisyphean restlessness of the most brilliant artists today, embroiders “truths we hold to be self-evident” with a mischievous visual humor that seems a defense against the powers that be and the feeling of helplessness they induce among us all. In 1986 love can only be a bankrupt idea, surviving as a stage presence—a prop—which he spells out in gothic letters in Love, 1986. Dokoupil makes it, as he does his other “representations,” visually operatic in the very act of confirming its merely “nominal” character. Art itself becomes another facile yet libidinous facade of language. By treating the pretentiously important in intimate esthetic terms, Dokoupil not only debunks the big names and the grand concepts but calls sly attention to the pathos of our relationship to them. An untitled 1986 painting shows a banal little contemporary figure awestruck in front of a majestic, largerthan-life-size mummy mask seen through a window (perhaps a commercial copy of King Tut’s mask, in allusion to the traveling museum exhibition of Tut’s treasures ten years ago). This vignette seems to encapsulate our present-day tragicomic situation, in which we are belittled by the mythically great, in whose presence we are nothing more than poor spectators of power, artistic and otherwise.

Dokoupil executes this work in the slick style of semiotic simulation that the power structure itself uses to mythologize itself. But he brings out the hollowness of the great image, by cutting it down to artistic size—by staging it, in a sense, as an artistic folly. Indeed, I think of his work as a new kind of praise of folly. He takes us beyond Duchampian irony, with its nihilistic enlightenment about codes, by restoring us to the false innocence of art. If we recognize that power is fated to end up eventually as dead art, we break its hold on us. Today, we have become more fascinated by the power of art than by power as such, which may not be the greatest leap forward in psychic emancipation but at least is some kind of self-improvement.

Donald Kuspit