New York

Jiri Georg Dokoupil

Robert Miller Gallery, Tony Shafrazi Gallery

Jiri Georg Dokoupil stretches technique to the limit. At times, he seems to give us expressively meaningful images and forms; in other instances mere visual meandering—ironically ineffable marks. Thus, he seems to be working in the paranoid-critical vein of Modern art. But there is a difference: he is not attempting to tease a preconceived unconscious into showing its perverse self, but, rather, to make us conscious of the ordinary perceptual tricks we play on ourselves. In this thinning of meaning to a mindless minimum, he shows himself to be post-Modern. He seems to be saying that we do, indeed, read things into what is “really” unreadable or unintelligible, but we shouldn’t take our reading—nor the unintelligibility—too seriously. We shouldn’t make too much of art; it is at best a kind of rhetorical clowning that may or may not refer to something significant beyond itself, affording comic relief for the otherwise tragically overburdened psyche. I welcome Dokoupil’s nihilism and unpretentiousness—his deflation of art in the very act of acknowledging its power over the mind—especially in an art world that often deceives itself into believing that art can articulate the tragedy of the world in all its complexity and make a social difference. The ludicrous interminableness of each of his series, full of routinely superficial novel works, confirms his mockery of the great expectations we have of art.

Dokoupil shows us the threshold of imagination repeatedly and recklessly reversing itself—the fluid, casual boundary between the visually meaningful and the meaningless. The black and white beach scenes at Tony Shafrazi seem to disintegrate into the soot from which they are literally made. At the same time, in the burst color-bubble paintings also at Shafrazi, and those made with the help of a tire at Robert Miller, Dokoupil plays with the tension between abstract painting’s magical power of evocation and its tendency to degenerate into empty if exciting decorative surface. Dokoupil suggests that art is a matter of putting dumb, even waste, matter to interesting visual use—that it is a kind of ecological joke on the eyes.

His abstractions seem to be a timely ironic response to the new surge in abstract painting, but they neither revive transcendence nor simulate gesture. They seem to suggest that the language of abstraction is dead, but that it can be made user-friendly if spoken in an unstilted way. Or perhaps he is only cynically saying that abstract painting, while suggesting an arcane script with profound import, has become a matter of fashion; each work is like a new dress tried on for narcissistic effect.

Thus Dokoupil’s abstractions seem to exist in a realm between deadpan trivialization and profound nonsense poetry. They make us conscious of the fact that abstraction is a cross between the philosopher’s stone and the Blarney stone. It aspires to present the ultimate formal truth of art but ends up depending on the spectator’s romantic reaction to it. More than other art, it awaits the spectator’s interpretive generosity and goodwill. He or she must be truly willing to suspend disbelief, that is, the suspicion that the matrix of abstract gesture may in fact be opaque—so much Sturm and Drang signifying nothing. Dokoupil dadaistically pushes the limits of abstraction’s credibility; he not only nihilistically suggests that it has outgrown its age of transcendental innocence, but that it has nowhere to turn but toward the “difference” of empty novelty, which, in fact, amounts to indifference, intellectually and expressively.

But hollow novelty does make a peculiar difference, which I think is the ultimate nonnihilistic point of Dokoupil’s abstractions—the smile on the Cheshire cat of painting; painting’s representational body comes and goes, but its evocative and provocative painterly intensity remains and can be renewed. Thus, Dokoupil’s abstraction, while as anxiously self-manipulative and masturbatory as any post-Modernist art, is a kind of last-ditch defense of art as such. It asserts that the comic intensity, achieved by whatever Silly Putty, “self-deconstructing” means, is the last refuge for and final fertilizing gift of abstract art to our exaggerated self-consciousness. Dokoupil’s abstractions play the clever fool, because the heroic, tragic days of abstraction and novelty are forever behind us.

Donald Kuspit