New York

Rainer Fetting

Raab Gallery

In the center of the gallery’s main space was the “objective” key—a real goldfish bowl, full of real goldfish—to this highly opinionated exhibition. It was a statement of attitude, at once cynical and whimsical, on the goldfish bowl of the art world. The walls were covered with painting after painting of fighting or prowling fish, some with human heads, all looking rather truculent. Two little paintings—New York Fish Bowl (all works, 1989), of a bowl full of goldfish, and Empire Fish, of two fish fighting, with the Empire State Building in the background—made the point as explicitly as possible. For the last six years Rainer Felting has spent more of his time in New York than in Berlin, and these pictures represent his biting, sardonic view of this city and its art scene. Yet all is not bleak caricature; the fish are painted with a deceptively facile fluidity that is, in some instances, graceful and caressing. No doubt this is meant to indicate the fishes’ oneness with the element they swim in, but it also suggests a certain affection for them. Felting has a bittersweet relationship with the denizens of the New York art depths, who seem trapped by their “fishy” nature, as well as by the little glass house they live in—the little teapot in which they have their tempests.

In a smaller adjoining space, Felting paid a kind of tribute to Marcel Duchamp. He created a Duchampian alcove—a kind of secular chapel—called Plumber Corner, where a fixture existed without its sink, and a painting of a figure warming himself over a small heater was placed next to an actual heater (Man and Heater). Among the other paintings here was Sumatra, showing two of Fetting’s favorite models—one young and black, the other old and white—standing naked and side by side at their respective urinals. The work is a kind of insider’s joke, like much of Duchamp’s work. The biggest joke is that Duchamp, who repudiated painting, is assimilated by it. For Fetting, Duchamp’s persona seems of more interest than any of his ideas. The fascination with Duchamp is not unrelated to the fish works: he is the biggest fish of all, so celebrated that he can stand undisguised in all his vulnerable human nakedness and still be unembarrassed. Indeed, I take that to be the ultimate subject of Fetting’s outwardly lighthearted, inwardly grim pictures: the unashamed quality of New York artists. Fetting seems to be suggesting that what interests them is less the making and displaying of art than the exhibiting of personality. The real spectacle is the artists—the scene—not the art. Fetting’s exhibition is social commentary of a sort. It seems latently specific; his fish seem to be particular characters. Yet for me the choice work in this exhibition is Head, 1984, a devilish sculpted head: it is at once vital and elegant. It also seems to have a certain affinity with the Joker in the Batman comic story, and to reflect something of Fetting’s own persona.

Donald Kuspit