New York

Helmut Dorner

Brooke Alexander

Helmut Dorner’s work is post-Modern painting at its most masterful and convincing: an ironic, hybrid reprise of Modernist modes handled as measured nuances. The uncanny urgency that seems to lie just beneath the lacquer-slick surfaces suggests a smothered eruption or the threat of explosion. In Dorner’s work, appropriation has just the right touch of anxiety, of uncertainty within knowing self-consciousness. He has mastered Modernist formalism in all its preciousness, yet rendered it with a staccato syntax that makes it seem fresh and irksome, and somehow no longer quite Modern. The result is ingeniously resonant painting, whose esthetic appeal lies far from the sterile beauty of so much post-Modern painting, indeed beyond the false beacons of beauty and ugliness. Dorner has given painting a genuine future that neither denies what has been nor blindly endorses it. He has opened a new territory for painting, or, rather, shown that painting can still map a terra incognita.

Um (all works 1994) suggests the wildness lurking in some of the hybrid arrangements: deceptively simple, contradictory grid patterns and geomorphic shapes—all abruptly interrupted in mid stride, and united only by an impassive gray tone—are brought together to create an effect of sublime incommensurability. On the other hand, in Vio Dorner keeps alive the illusion of quirky process so crucial to Modernism, through the use of a peculiarly self-conscious, chance-laden brush that at first glance seems ironic, but on reflection genuinely insecure. (Something similar occurs in Ono and Ham, and, with different means, in BLA.) Dorner’s imperturbable (if somewhat “off”) geometry and petrified yet vital, highly fluid gesture come together brilliantly in TR. A common quirkiness, a quiet dissonance, unites the geometry and gesture, and a common self-containment and poise, a strange stasis, makes the paintings seem peculiarly monumental, almost ecstatic.

For all their subtle daring, there is an air of magisterial calm and autonomy to these paintings. That daring is conspicuous not only in the arrangements—the weird immanent logic generated by the hybrid organization—but also in the ambiguous detailing. The plastic handle and broken, scratched zip down the center of Oli invite an intimacy the painting finally repudiates. It seems even more daring—the title itself suggests specificity but never lends itself to interpretation. Although the title evokes Freud’s Es (usually translated as id, but more properly as “it”—as instinct—and Dorner’s paintings are “full” of conscientiously suppressed instinct), the lacquer serves to deny drive, which is readily signaled by oil. The anonymous surface markings and impacted-imprinted grid that constitute it have the quiet intensity of an absolute recognized and rendered—in a stuttering, inadequate way, which is the only way absolutes make themselves known.

Donald Kuspit