Tal R

Tal R has a distinctive way of explaining his paintings. “I constantly have this hot- pot boiling and I throw all kinds of material into it,” he told an interviewer some time ago. More recently: “I do painting a bit like people make a lunch box.” Add the fact that his London solo debut—comprising thirteen bright and unruly mixed-media works, four embroidered cloth banners, and an installation of thirty-two drawings—was titled “Lords of Kolbojnik” (the latter word being kibbutz slang for the rubbish left over after a heavy meal), and it’s hard not to wonder, sometimes, whether the Israeli-born, Copenhagen- based artist hasn’t missed his vocation.

But only sometimes; and certainly not in front of a work such as Lords of Kolbojnik, 2002–2003, whose collaged slivers of multicolored paper, radiating dizzyingly outward from a central vanishing point, culminate in a monstrous fringe of pasted-on images of robots, mandalas, crystalline cells, and, predominantly, human figures with oversize, horned heads. A weird but characteristic contradiction: The artwork looked occult but felt sweetly innocent, evoking as it did happily unfashionable teenage nights spent marinating in greasy sci-fi and Aleister Crowley and making creepy collages for the hell of it. The same disjunction marked Last Garden, 2002—a cemetery filled with twinkling, colorful, Popsicle-shaped tombstones—and Cusines, 2002–2003, a seemingly self-demonized quintet of figures, their heads swapped for African masks, a Popeye-like face, or a giant tessellated egg. Both of these were painted with charmingly untutored immediacy, as if Tal R wanted simultaneously to channel the lost impetus of early childhood and of an adolescent goth phase (much of his imagery, he has stated, comes from his own past). And both seemed to be powered by the methane produced by long-compressed autobiographical waste.

Mingling with these excavations were pastoral intervals like Up, 2002, whose orange, green, yellow, and brown baubles amble, in a pleasingly sub–Mary Heilmann fashion, across a plain white ground. This new approach for Tal R was explained by the artist’s declaration that the exhibition was “a group show by one artist,” which also accounted for the quartet of tapestries featuring schematic images of cobras and butterflies. Alongside his programmatic use of stitching and collage and the fact that, in many of his paintings, the image is hemmed in above and below by horizontal bands dotted with paint squeezed fresh from the tube—a constraining ego splattered by bubbling id juice—Tal R’s self-splitting was one of several structural nods to a notion of polymorphous and barely integrated selfhood.

Short of an irrationally interesting fragment of imagery to spark off, he’ll wrap those painted borders around any old kitsch scene (the silhouetted women lounging under palm trees in Daloa, 2003, for example), activate the surface with a polychrome shitstorm of extruded gobbets of paint, and cross his fingers. But when, to borrow his culinary metaphors, Tal R’s ingredients taste homegrown rather than store-bought, we get real results. Look at the ghoulish, naive, sophisticated, and affectionate New Quarter, 2003—seven variously Afroed, gold-chained, and homburg-sporting dudes posing in front of a clutch of skyscrapers, boosted from the cover of an obscure funk album and filtered, once again, through a scratchy approximation of a six-year-old’s aesthetic sense—and tell me that gastronomy’s loss isn’t painting’s gain.

Martin Herbert