Claus Carstensen

Gimpel Fils

Our century of art reveals a rich and populous subcultural world of work of—or on—excrement, excretions, and fluids. To name a few: the prissy urinal of Marcel Duchamp, as well as his later semen painting; Piero Manzoni’s canned shit; Andy Warhol’s oxidation paintings; Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ, 1987; the brown stuff of John Miller’s and Mike Kelley’s art; Carolee Schneemann’s menstrual blood; and Helen Chadwick’s Piss-flowers. Do we really need to add to this scatological sweepstakes? Claus Carstensen seems to think we do that there is a good deal left to be said about art and the future through piss-and-paint.

In this exhibition, Carstensen’s works were nearly all monochromes—rich, dark fields of emulsion pushed and pulled with hand, brush, and bottom. These surfaces are meant to look fecal, even though some are simply mixtures of urine and oil paint, or deftly handled brown ink on glass. With the news photograph of a neo-Nazi giving the salute while wetting his pants, we are challenged by the menacing world of adolescence. Carstensen’s works—like Painting (Fucked Up), Defacement, 1993, Territorial Pissing No. 6, 1993, and Territory Panel with Stigmatized Self-portrait and Abstract Forms, 1992–93—exemplify the fundemental principle of this sort of project: shit and piss are primarily synecdochal, only secondarily metaphorical. They are the missing links in the chain of being. And if Jasper Johns were less sophisticated and less clever, we might now be admiring a bronzed, painted turd rather than a coffee can loaded with brushes.

As we delve deeper into the various organic messes at our critical disposal, we find, not surprisingly, that excretia and organic effluents serve a host of different, often competing, ends: in the world of Western art, at least, the quality of feces to prompt “reading in” as opposed to “looking at” is universal.

The absence of the artist in Modernist painting is another stock theme Carstensen draws on in this series, where the urine and oil paint stands for something like the signature, or a state of grace. The act of urinating on one’s paintings, while likened to the basic behavior of territorial marking, is profoundly utopian. But in laying down the law and the limits, so to speak, of taking the piss, Carstensen invokes all that is patently absent, spent, or lost. The works are simultaneously a challenge to looking and a monument to those who do look.

The drive toward authorial presence is irresistible to Carstensen. The absence of the artist is annunciated, like it or not. Better to do it in a sophisticated manner, and for a good reason, one which should have more pertinence to a spirited defense of being than the cynical demands of artistic innovation. Sorry to disappoint; the desire to appear as though one is saying “I made this, piss off” turns out to be irrepressibly disingenuous, and a constant irritation to the social and political pretenses within which it is framed.

Michael Corris