New York

Walter Dahn

When Walter Dahn last exhibited in the United States five years ago, his reputation was closely identified with the then recent influx of German neo-Expressionist painting. At that time, his work was discussed in terms of its painterly style rather than its critical content. It is only now that the hype surrounding neo-Expressionist painting has subsided that we are able to grasp Dahn’s larger conceptual project. His recent exhibition of paintings and sculpture interweaves sociopolitical commentary with art-historical subversion, demonstrating the range of his critical agenda.

Dahn’s artistic process is best characterized as an excavation of Western culture’s material refuse and its reintroduction into culture. He admits human failure into his work in the form of the inevitable residue of obsolete material production. Refuse not only supplies the source for many of his images, it figures at the level of the canvas support. Instead of priming his canvases with fresh white gesso, Dahn silk-screens discarded printed matter, doodles, and other ephemera culled from the garbage can directly onto paint-splashed studio drop cloths. The horizontal friezes and vertical totems appear to have been trimmed from the larger stretched drop cloths that he last exhibited in Cologne; the grounds on which he paints are themselves refuse from earlier artistic activity. His process is one of resignification. He takes an image with a prior communicative value and recontextualizes it, imbuing the discarded with a second life.

Dahn’s work reflects the Fluxus legacy associated with his teacher Joseph Beuys, and like Beuys, Dahn’s materials are capable of signifying sociopolitical issues normally extrinsic to art. Just as his canvases are stained with neglect, the world-scale crises his paintings explore are themselves the result of ignorance and indifference. In Nervous System, 1989, Dahn stacks two repeated silk-screened images in a vertical cinematic totem. A cartoon of three trees in a cloud of exhaust left by a speeding car is alternated with an image depicting a procession of Egyptian-style figures escorted by armed soldiers. Pictured in profile, each figure holds a letter above its head which together spell “Apartheid.” Nervous System collapses racism with environmental decay, suggesting that these separate evils are perpetuated by the same political, social, and economic self-interest.

In A. J. and Choir, both 1989, Dahn reproduces Alfred Jarry’s own drawing of Père Ubu, the protagonist in the play Ubu Roi. Poisoned by his own power, the farcical figure of Ubu embodies a hideous combination of self-righteousness, cowardice, gluttony, and dangerous cunning associated with authoritarian rule. Like Jarry, Dahn turns the character Ubu into a general metaphor for power and its abuses. Dahn’s modest paintings pack a strong punch. They assault our social institutions by pointing up their complicity in the horrors of racism, global pollution, and the extinction of natural resources.

Kirby Gookin