Philadelphia

Georg Herold

Laurence Olivier Gallery

Georg Herold’s work describes a world where uncertainty is certain and meaning is hard to nail down, a world where the artist, by his sheer persistence and good humor, is the one who can (barely) hold it all together. Herold has strong ties to his own cultural and esthetic heritage, particularly to Joseph Beuys and to Sigmar Polke. Beuys’ legacy was the poetry of the material world; Polke provided the humor with which to approach it. In addition, Stephen Ellis makes a convincing case for the bearing Herold’s East German origins have on his work, accounting for what is elusive and cautious in Herold’s approach—the heightened sense of formal reserve of this work. These qualities speak most clearly in this exhibition, binding together what is humorous, sometimes political, and often ironic in Herold’s art.

Most of the pieces exhibited here announce the artist’s resistance to specific categories and, ultimately, to specific meanings. Through a limited selection of common materials and basic structural forms, Herold questions the activity of the artist, the status of the art object, and the possibilities of meanings the object might evoke. Five pieces make use of bricks. Untitied, 1989, features six sets of three bricks at parallel angles across a raw canvas. Their configuration is specific, but not clearly referential. Their physical weight pulls the canvas down and away from its traditional realm of pictorial illusion, suggesting that it would be ludicrous to expect that a painting could really hold an image. The progressive droop of the bricks also adds a sense of real time and process to the piece. In Spitale Konstruktion (Hospital construction, 1988), a frame of roof lath is screwed into four bricks, one at each corner. The wood is split, the bricks are cracked, and the whole thing is attached to the walls by two nails. Despite the offhanded presentation, the work’s simplicity and directness are visually attractive. By using primary structures and taking a position of criticality, Herold refers to the visual and theoretical vocabulary of Minimalist art of the ’60s. He writes the title in Russian across the frame; by adding this linguistic dimension, he further complicates, formally and politically, the meaning of the piece. In Repose Sociale (Social relaxation, 1988), a large triangular canvas has a single, vertical brick attached to it near its center. The piece is copper electroplated, giving the surface an inviting glazed finish. Its placement, nearly six feet off of the floor, creates a precarious viewing situation—one stands under the protruding brick—and reconfirms Herold’s interest in the phenomenal.

Bricks also turn up on the floor, carefully stuffed into a pair of sheer panty hose in Woman in a Compromising Position, 1989. This piece was made in Philadelphia during the installation of the show. Its exhibition here makes a strong nod to Marcel Duchamp’s Etant Donnés; (Given, 1946–66), which is permanently installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, just a mile away. Herold’s bricks have always functioned as a kind of readymade, taken out of their original context and transformed into a flexible art image. The association here is even more particular, as Herold mimics the most famous “spread legs” in art history. Where Duchamp used a wall of bricks to control the viewing of his piece, Herold has turned the image inside out, making the bricks the stuff of desire, controlled only by the transparent grip of the panty hose. At the same time, Carl Andre’s brick/floor pieces of twenty years ago come to mind. It is as if Herold had spread the legs of this historical precedent, while dressing it with a sexual identity.

Gift of the Year, 1986, brings a variation of Herold’s idea of the absurd into focus. A podiumlike table made of rough wood has two round holes cut out of the top. A bulbous cactus emerges from the left hole, a lit electric bulb from the right. Herold offers no information to tie these two objects together, but manages to provide a convincing expression of intention through the clarity of the forms and presentation, turning the unlikely pair into an obvious match. The questions raised about their relationship are not answered but accepted. It is as if the absurdity we have always known has been confirmed through a concrete visual image, and this confirmation is somehow reassuring.

Eileen Neff