Michel Majerus

We know what lies beyond the looking glass, but what if Alice had stepped into a painting? The Berlin artist Michel Majerus shows us what Alice might have found: distorted images of virtually everything that has ever appeared on canvas. A sampling of Majerus’s painterly quotations could be seen at the entrance to the Italian Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. Painted directly on the facade, Complexity/ Inhale Exhale, 1999, literally transformed the building, which contained an enormous collection of contemporary artworks, into the space behind a painting—hinting that Majerus will likely soon plunder its contents as well.

In his most recent show in Berlin, one could find allusions to Carl Andre, Tom Wesselmann, Claes Oldenburg, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Ryman, Frank Stella, Lawrence Weiner, and Sigmar Polke, among others. Mailbox (all works 1999), a giant empty frame made of white drywall, like a Minimalist interpretation of a TV set, dominates the space. Standing to the side, one could see through the frame to the wall behind, where, suspended on a sheet of aluminum honeycomb, Bravo, an enlarged, computer-generated copy of a crumpled-up page of a local television guide, shows the detritus of a day’s viewing. Both works are cheeky comments on our insatiable desire for images.

Two enormous paintings overtook the side walls: Tresor depicts a floor plan of a bank on one end and becomes a study of shades of white on the other; Pure Pragmatism offers words (taken from the essay on Majerus in the Venice catalogue) and images whose patterns were generated by a finger-painting computer program and then rendered by hand. Perhaps appropriately for an artist who tampers with established paradigms, the title of the exhibition, “Sein Lieblingsthema war Sicherheit; seine Thesees gibt sie nicht” (His favorite theme was safety; his thesis—it does not exist), pays homage to a hacker who has lately received much attention from the German press.

By referencing the work of so many other artists simultaneously, Majerus explodes the continuum of art history. He also challenges the privileging of the auratic, which places originals before—and above—copies, and suggests that while original artworks continue to have higher market value, thanks to the media reproductions have more power.

The strongest piece in the show wasn’t on the walls, but under one’s feet. Mirror’s large polystyrol sheets turned the floor of the gallery into a reflective surface. As you moved through the space, you saw both the artworks and yourself reflected from a dizzying, ever-changing perspective. Collapsing the distinction between spectator and spectacle, Majerus transforms the experience of the exhibition into an instant moving picture in which the visitor is at once director, actor, and audience.

Majerus’s real tools aren’t so much paintings, then, as the elements that support them: the frame, the wall, the exhibition space. On these secondary surfaces, his gestures become visible, acquiring an added significance and subtlety. One edge of Pure Pragmatism ends at a doorway; T2, another white arch, camouflages the beams in the gallery ceiling; Enough Triangle mimics the form of the skylights. This engagement with the architecture of the space provides moments of pure pleasure. Majerus may steal his images from the pages of art history, but he always leaves his own signature on the frame.

Jennifer Allen