New York

George Dokoupil

Tony Shafrazi Gallery

George Dokoupil’s newest candle paintings of various displaced peoples are based on news photographs. Entitled “The New Immigrants,” his recent show had an aura of journalistic topicality that allowed him to enter the realm of ethically weighted visual art with a vengeance. What could be a more universally viable theme than the suffering of people fleeing their home countries only to enter societies that have trouble accommodating and accepting them?

Does Dokoupil (himself an immigrant to Germany from the Prague Spring of 1968, when Dubçek’s “socialism with a human face” was defaced by Soviet imperialism, and now an immigrant to the U.S., as his Americanization of his name from Jiri Georg to George underlines) artistically live up to the horrendous occasion of his theme? Does his transformation of his documentary photographic sources add anything beyond a certain ironic flair? Certainly clothing the photographs in a more funereal black and white than they originally had (the paintings are conceptual in technique, but also meaning) suggests mourning for the living dead, and burning the candles symbolizes the sacrament of remembering those people, makes them more available for introspection.

Indeed, Dokoupil memorializes and internalizes the photographed scene, so that it seems to be something we have personally experienced and remembered rather than the relic of what someone else saw in passing. He personalizes an anonymous, if recurrent scene, making it seem less alien and remote, suggesting his own identification with the refugees, and his awareness of what it feels like to be one—an uncared for stranger at the mercy of a strange land. He breaks down the unconscious distance a photograph puts between us and what is photographed by investing his hand in what would otherwise be an essentially mechanical product, and his use of candle soot makes it seem haunting and inherently full of feeling. Perhaps above all, he reminds us of the reality of death—that death and social catastrophe crop up everywhere today, haunt, indeed stalk, our consciousness. What makes them more outrageous is that they are man-made: Dokoupil shows us scenes of ongoing neglect.

Thus Dokoupil’s paintings, through their deceptively simple, quiet use of candle soot to transform social scenes that have become all too commonplace, intimate the futility and the irremediableness of the world today. The paintings are at once a brilliantly ironic reprise and a synthesis of socialist realism and German neo-“neo-Expressionism,” and as such completely one-up the shrill, socially oriented art that abounds today, which is often facilely conceptual. Dokoupil’s series is shrewd; it turns accessible, socially powerful images into peculiarly eloquent, soft-spoken abstractions. His art shows empathy, even tenderness for the victim, rather than hurling contempt at the victimizers, as “politically correct” art tends to do, a strategy that not infrequently ends up idolizing the victimizers, confirming their power, however unwittingly. His art accuses without condemning and taking revenge, reflects on the consequences of violence rather than using it against itself, which can only infinitely extend it. And yet, of course, the burning of a candle is an intimate destruction, but its artistic use is intimately constructive. Dokoupil’s subtle, modest paintings are truly remarkable achievements in a world of ideological and artistic bluster and braggadocio.

Donald Kuspit