New York

Wolfgang Staehle

Koury Wingate Gallery

Wolfgang Staehle confronts the ways in which film and television shape our notions of framing in painting. He is an artist who cannot completely abandon the canvas for the screen, and painting persistently returns in his work as the uncanny. Staehle explores the fantasy of the screen and the adequacy of the image it frames more thoroughly than any other artist working in either painting or video today. His work speaks about the space outside the screen, the space that all acts of framing implicitly repress.

Staehle’s tiny monitors peer out at us like techno-eyes. Installed in cardboard boxes, on two-by-fours, or attached to lighting armatures and huge antennae, they look almost organic. In Theory of the Avant-Garde (all works 1990), a monitor suspended from the ceiling repeatedly plays the opening moments of The Jetsons in which George Jetson is outrun by a conveyor belt dog-walk while his dog gleefully looks on. George’s hysterical lack of mastery over both his pet and this machine embodies a kind of structural pathos. This cartoon fantasy of the future is an economical and beautiful commentary on the exhaustion of esthetic avant-gardes. In a cyclopslike structure entitled The Timid Giant, a monitor eye featuring the “Radio City Picture” logo and an image of a turning globe is attached to a huge antenna which can pick up and transmit a signal. The Sequel is one of a series of monitors in cardboard boxes, which play versions of a commercial in which Joseph Beuys endorses a Japanese whiskey. The monitor looks like a fetish instrument attached to a big battery pack, or even a neglected baby, hooked up to a small life-support system.

Staehle’s work suggests that both the picture plane and the television screen have emerged as materializations—as fantasies that conceal from the subject the plenitude of “other” meaning outside the frame. In The Entertainer, a grand piano played by a black musician floats on and off screen to a Scott Joplinesque tune as a red rose glides diagonally back and forth against the firmament. A white monochrome painting hangs behind the monitor. Minimalist painting, the kind of work that Staehle used to do, has become a form of entertainment—decor pure and simple. Like the piano player, the painter is degraded. He becomes a machine that produces nothing more than a repetitive, tiny refrain. The Aesthetic Dimension consists of a screen on a black, high-tech ladder running an old special-effects clip of Pegasus, the winged horse, galloping through the clouds. Though this kind of superimposition photography looks primitive to the contemporary viewer, it must have seemed magical to early filmgoers. It affirmed our suspicion that anything could be made to happen on the screen; desire could be fulfilled, beauty captured, evil mastered, and time stopped dead in its tracks.

If the screen was a 19th-century dream come true, what happened to painting and the picture plane? Staehle deals with this question almost despite himself. The three untitled works derived from misprinted pages of an edition of the New York Times hang behind three raw wooden pedestals with the sign “Reserviert” (Reserved) mounted on them. These works are about the emptiness but also the beauty of the arbitrary surface: the misprinted newsprint resembles the wood-grain texture of the wood pedestals. The signs however, remind us that mindless esthetic pleasure in appropriately coded objects is hopelessly overdetermined.

The Minimalist black and white stripe paintings that consist of two-inch videotape and masonite bear testimony to the void at the heart of all symbolic representation. The programs on the videotape, Snoopy Come Home and Portrait of Great Britain, supply amusing titles for a pair of Minimalist paintings. Staehle is obviously still struggling with what an artist can do with a medium that, for all intents and purposes, has been drained of significance. Re-endowing the picture plane with meaning by incorporating videotape, Staehle makes an object that looks like a painting, reads like a painting but acts like a funereal monument to painting. Painting has been exhausted and yet its ghost haunts esthetic production at every level. Staehle might very well be the first artist who is trying to give the body of painting a proper burial.

Catherine Liu