Los Angeles

Lienhard von Monkiewitsch

Angles Gallery

In this post-Conceptual era, when most seemingly moribund painting justifies itself by playing the role of elegy for a “dead” Modernism, many artists have resorted to resurrecting and revising esthetic tenets from the past as a catalyst for propagating the “continued progress” of art itself. As a result, much post-Modernist pluralism, with its connotation of repairing the mystifications wrought by Modernism, is defined by the very same dubious ideology of the progressive avant-garde that it purports to deconstruct. Such contradictions are clearly born of a creative and ideological impasse: the need to justify the transcendental art object in an age when its historical and sociological relevance are in question.

Lienhard von Monkiewitsch’s recent work is typical of this dilemma. This West German artist’s current “wood-paintings” constitute a literal and metaphorical return to the purest of Modernist sources—the transrational concept of zaum (“beyond reason”), developed by the avant-garde Russian poets Velimir Khlebnikov and Alexei Kruchenykh, which Malevich translated into a nonobjective credo through the hermetic purity of the Suprematist square and rectangle. These became representations of what Malevich called that “empty place, where nothing is perceived but sensation.”

This nonmaterial “return to zero” is an obvious historical dead end for any materialist artist striving for formal or painterly “discovery” and “progression.” Monkiewitsch’s solution is to return to this dogmatic, even dictatorial source of perfection and mutilate it. Monkiewitsch makes two cuts through the ideal Suprematist form, as if he were a surgeon dissecting a perfect body to cure the conceptual disease within. The effects are purely regenerative, destroying the reifying effects of an old language by introducing the seemingly dissonant edge of chaos and alienation.

The operative word, however, is “seemingly,” as Monkiewitsch actually works within a strict, serial methodology that is as obsessive as any scientific approach dreamed up by Malevich. Beginning with a progression of drawings, Monkiewitsch makes his two cuts through the Suprematist square or rectangle, then attaches either one or both of the resulting pieces to the outer edge of the “defiled” form.

This process can systematically generate over 1,200 possible shapes without duplicating any one form, and Monkiewitsch is diligent in creating each and every one. Selected forms are then translated onto 5 1/4-inch-thick, contoured wood, the smooth, flat surface of which is covered in rich, dark pigment.

Instead of operating on a transcendental, two-dimensional plane, Malevich’s form is thus mutated into three dimensions, releasing its material and sculptural qualities. Monkiewitsch employs nonreflective pigments, so that one’s eye is deflected away from the implied depth of the picture plane toward its outer edges. When the work is exhibited, overhead track lighting casts a multitude of drop shadows on the gallery wall, so that each object takes on a richer plasticity, ranging from hard to soft edge. The results are a series of dynamic sculpture/paintings that, despite their small dimensions, command a large, indefinable space.

Monkiewitsch is also quick to point out that each form is rotatable, bearing no obvious “top” or “bottom,” so that it can assume a different spatial composition according to the work’s orientation. In many cases, we completely lose track of the process that produced each form, wondering where the two cuts were made and where each segment was relocated to produce the new shape. Although such mystification is part of Monkiewitsch’s desire to reassert intuition and randomness within the Modernist creative continuum, we are always conscious of the fact that these works are grounded in pure geometry. Malevich is still very much present, albeit as a murdered ghost. Now that Monkiewitsch has so obviously killed his spiritual father—a patriarch of conceptual closure—it remains to be seen what his new-found liberation will bring.

Colin Gardner