San Francisco

Stefan Kürten

The 25 works included in “Mundus Symbolicum” present Stefan Kürten’s own private Wunderkammer of significant objects. On each canvas, Kürten has painted a neatly arranged collection of several images of a particular genus of thing, including leaves, bones, condoms, potted cactuses, crowns, hand tools, and hats, to name just a few.

Although something about these works recalls Sigmar Polke’s disarmingly straightforward depictions of consumer goods (or maybe Bernd and Hilla Becher’s endless cataloguing of various kinds of water towers), they stem directly from Kürten’s boyish enthusiasm for a very odd cross-section of Americana that includes early ’60s kitsch and relics of the Wild West. Kürten, a native of Düsseldorf who presently divides his time between Germany and the Bay Area, seems to be sending up cultural smoke-signals in the form of his own personal catalogues of tract houses, wedding rings, six-shooters and cattle brands, assembled on murkily monochromatic backgrounds in colors that used to be called avocado, harvest-gold, and burnt-orange.

The impulse to collect plays itself out in a variety of scenarios, ranging from the connoisseur’s selective acquisition of one perfect thing to the scientist’s more broad-based gathering of every possible variant of a form. Although the treasures Kürten has put on display suggest the latter kind of accumulation more than the former, he makes it clear that this is, after all, a world of symbols—i.e., representations of bigger ideas—and not just random groupings of attractive natural and cultural products. The titles of some of the paintings suggest this synecdochic relationship explicitly. A group of liquor bottles is called Dreamland; three resplendent crowns, History; an assortment of suburban ranch houses, At Home (all three works, 1992). Although a few of Kürten’s favorite things are shown life-size, most have been radically adjusted to the same easily readable scale. They are further unified as a symbolic language by his interesting method of picture making, in which the outline of each object is a kind of carbon copy, transferred onto the face of the canvas from an inked plate. Not only does this relatively indirect method give the overall surface of the painting an attractively sooty patina, but, in combination with the near uniformity of size and format in these works, it also invokes the printed page. As a group, these little pictures function handsomely as Kürten’s imaginary encyclopedia of Neat Stuff encountered in the New World. Still, like other symbolic systems, this one appears to function best as a unified whole (although, in truth, no collection of this kind is ever really complete). Separated from each other, these paintings will be more like the desirable, attractive fragments of other cultures we encounter in museums than the convincingly complete world they fabricate when grouped together.

Maria Porges