Stephan Jung

Stephan Jung’s recent exhibition seemed to encapsulate the paradoxes of German reunification. On the one hand, the gallery Eigen + Art is known in New York and Paris as a locus for underground art in what was formerly East Germany; on the other hand, it presents the work of Jung, a student of Joseph Kosuth, who initially seems more interested in conceptual issues than in making politically motivated work. Where the East German artists are concentrating more and more on video, Jung opts for a simple family scene that is not only in the tradition of realist painting but also monumental. Surrounded by images of everyday objects that the artist copied from a catalogue, the painting seems like a frozen monument to the commodity: the consumer fantasies associated with the economic miracle of the late ’50s surrounded by ’90s high tech. Is this piece an ironic commentary on the state-sponsored art of former East Germany? Perhaps. In its dimensions, it also points to and revisits the esthetic/culture industry.

What is represented expresses something about the conditions under which the subject of the work was perceived: Family Picture, 1994, reflects the history of East/West Germany, especially because of Jung’s technique. It is not coincidental that this painting recalls Gerhard Richter’s, Party, 1962, made after his flight to the West. Today Richter’s painting is viewed as one of the icons of postwar German painting—a metaphor for concrete political conditions. Similarly, the paintings of Markus Lüpertz and Georg Baselitz (who also fled to the West) show the separation of history and social identity that resulted from the division of Germany.

Jung took all these factors into consideration in making Family Picture, and, paradoxically, the medium he chose is part of a tradition that has often been viewed as either one with the political machine or free of political commentary altogether. Unlike Richter, Jung is not pointing his finger at the utopian follies of a socialist collectivity but at the individual whose “freedom” is defined by family, home, and the commodity. Here, the satisfaction of the individual’s desires in a capitalist system leads to isolation, and consequently to the decline of the liberal society that capitalism is supposed to engender.

The typical happy family of the ’50s in the center of the image does not exist any more: parents live apart, children prefer the street and the computer to school. Jung’s image wanders between nihilism and morality-and a hard finish. Family Picture describes a social condition and the rhetoric that surrounds it: Jung’s stereotypes are not current; they are historical. This work serves as a memorial to a capitalist model that was once only a symbol but is now a reality in the East.

Harald Fricke

Translated from the German by Charles V. Miller.