Santa Fe

Gert Rappenecker

Megan Fox Gallery

It seems that German artists raised on Hollywood Westerns can’t resist the American Southwest. A recent show of overpainted photocopies by Gert Rappenecker included two series: the first based on banal shots of sublime landscapes from travel brochures; the second, on the flatfooted, bad-color images of residential properties typical of the franchised real-estate brochures found in most tourist centers. Of the eleven thickly painted grisaille landscapes, two images were shown in different sizes—medium and medium-large. These appeared to be of the Krazy Kat landscape of Monument Valley and the vertiginous Yosemite rock face. Of course, it matters little what the specific places are, for while Rappenecker acknowledges the one-hundred-year-old tradition of mythologizing the West through photography, his work has nothing to do with rephotography; rather, it displays his fluency with the problems of painting in the age of mass media. Drawing on everyone from Kant to Burke to Benjamin, Rappenecker assumes he is participating in an international conversation.

The landscape works in this show were the most satisfying as objects. Gray-hued impasto renditions of fuming waterfalls, snow-swept jagged mountain peaks, river rapids, and fog forests were fixed to primed canvases so that a flit wide border surrounded each crusty image. The contrast of textures, the monochromatic reductions, the photocopies visible beneath thick skins as in a paint-by-numbers kit, resonated with irony and reinvention. Here, as in a mirage, desire, romance, and cliché were entwined with the incongruities of marketing the wilderness to hordes of tourists— and “original reproductions” to art patrons.

Austrian critic and curator Peter Weibel wrote of this series: “Feelings, sensations, desires, which were once articulated in romantic images, are first broken up and then recycled—after the viewer’s irritation has been overcome, they become legitimate again.” But my own irritation with Rappenecker’s work was never overcome, and this made me wonder if a cognitive dissonance might exist between the art worlds in the US and Germany. While humans are masters of adjusting to ambient discomfort and anyone who has persisted in looking at art in the twentieth century has become quite used to being irritated, my sense of discomfort rested on the feeling that Rappenecker’s show was primarily a letter home—a way to inch forward a long-standing discussion among his German colleagues about mass media, reproduction, subjectivity, and desire, that, arguably, has little pertinence to current discourse about American art. After all, while Andy Warhol, the master of recycling impostor images, was clearly not a theorist, his work was grounded in the understanding that images are bound by context. As for Santa Fe, it is not an arena with major consequences for an artist, but it is an acceptable site with a romantic aura that charges the show with a slight frisson of postmodern irony.

Rappenecker’s exhibition brought to mind Peter Schjeldahl’s 1988 Art in America essay, “Our Kiefer,” in which he noted that after Anselm Kiefer was embraced by Americans and leap-frogged over his elders, his work was rarely seen in German museums. From what I know, within the German system Rappenecker, born in 1955, is still a kid. Of course, there may be little comparison between the Wagnerian drama of Kiefer and the cool strategies of Rappenecker. While both are doing reclamation work, Kiefer cuts a wide unruly swath with major public ramifications and Rappenecker politely carries on a nuanced conversation that rests on a belief in the primacy of European theory.

MaLin Wilson