New York

Michael Biberstein

Lang & O’Hara

Michael Biberstein makes fake paintings, but very earnestly. Through the forced unification of distinct historical modes—either 19th-century Romantic or early Chinese landscape painting with black monochromes—Biberstein creates works of extreme tastefulness and beauty rather than the campiness characteristic of much so-called Conceptual painting. His acts of appropriation are less those of the cynic who aims to expose the inadequacy of painting than of a grail-seeking pilgrim. Perhaps Biberstein’s dedication proceeds from blind faith in painting’s ability to reveal metaphysical truths, but his works demonstrate that blind faith also informs acts of perception; in short, we often see what we think we see.

The painterliness of his simulated romantic landscapes is fairly convincing, but, upon close inspection, the execution lacks the expressive zeal of the true believer, which is perfectly in keeping with their status as surrogates. The supposedly evocative and sublime quality of a craggy mountain valley, rendered in an expansive, atmospheric perspective reminiscent of the work of Caspar David Friedrich, is paired in diptych with a flat black monochrome, itself a perennial repository of the spiritual in contemporary art. Another painting, sealed with a layer of varnish like an old master painting, depicting a rocky grotto mysteriously aglow with amber light, is enshrined atop the ubiquitous black monochrome pressed into service as a blank predella.

The mystery of the East is substituted for the mystery of nature in a series of panels in the style of early Chinese landscape painting. The initiate would never mistake these for original Oriental works; nowhere do the simulated ink washes (here actually acrylic) on unbleached linen coalesce into convincing details. These sweeping stains only tenuously retain their identity as landscapes, yet their abstract qualities are palpably seductive. By interspersing the Chinese landscapes with mute black monochromatic panels, what should be antithetical partners resonate with complementary harmonies. The critique implied by juxtaposition of fake representational and real nonrepresentational painting—can one make a “fake” monochrome?—threatens to dissolve into a captivating material play of texture, light and dark, and opacity and translucence.

This hedonistic ruse, however, is a necessary evil if only because it makes it plain that these works are not exercises in dialectical catechism. Although we know from the outset that the landscapes are fakes—even if the Chinese paintings are at least as alluring as the real thing—it’s not immediately apparent that the same is true of the monochromes. They are, in fact, not paintings at all but merely stretched black fabric that masquerades as painting. If the monochromes were actually painted, Biberstein might well have thrown into question their designation as real or fake and, thus, the very basis upon which the critical distinction of authenticity rests. As it is, doubt is given only a cameo role. The party is over as soon as we get the point that perception is informed as much by our assumptions about what we see as by what is empirically there. There is one question not so easily resolved: what ground does Biberstein leave himself as a painter? Rather than opening up a new frontier, these works reiterate the limitations of painting, rehashing, albeit beautifully, a clichéd endgame position.

Jan Avgikos