Claus Carstensen/Peter Zimmermann

Once a year, the Esbjerg Art Museum asks a Danish artist to be his or her own matchmaker and invite an exhibition partner from abroad. This summer, painter Claus Carstensen doubled up with Cologne-based colleague Peter Zimmermann under the title “X-pollination (hænging og høring)” (Hanging and Hearing). On first sight, the pairing of Carstensen’s coded surfaces and Zimmermann’s mute, shimmering ones look more like a showdown than a pas de deux—the Copenhagen tough guy versus the Cologne hipster. But they share one major concern that goes to the bone of their style, namely, the emphasis on the biographical. They aren’t high priests of art consecrating everyday objects, as Smithson said of Duchamp; they reconsecrate their own art through biographic feedback processes. Here the work becomes a function of an authorial signature that tries to keep together the forms that are always at risk of being taken apart by time. The works of both artists are also intent on writing their own histories, as testified by the references to exhibition making (Zimmermann’s wall of exhibition posters with added culturaltheory quotes, Carstensen’s painted performance) and by their linguistic awareness (pop in Zimmermann, propagandistic in Carstensen). Both painters are also polymorphous in all the phenomena they mark off, work through, and internalize. The logic of autopoeisis—to create art from art’s own inventory—extends to the gallery space that is used quantitatively, as a breeding ground, a territory to be struggled with and conquered.

For Carstensen, expressivity doesn’t stand for feeling but rather is connected to desire and reason and the parsing of image and text. Painting is, most of all, a battle zone for the artistic signature, where not only the artist’s body but those of others are apostrophized (his daughter is prominently featured, for example). Earlier works make their appearance too: Carstensen used a photocopier to stretch and twist the black-and-white photo of one of his old performances, for instance, and then had a sign painter transfer the image to canvas.

Zimmermann, too, uses a middleman, in the form of digital image processing. His canvases look like geological formations in Technicolor, or like pixel close-ups. The latter is probably closer to the mark, for as with Carstensen this is painting about painting, art about one’s own art. As earlier works by Carstensen and Zimmermann are filtered through Zimmermann’s computer and end up in layered epoxy, gesture and abstraction become matters of strategy and control. What could be taken for some hyperform of Color Field is actually a method of painterly mapping.

Both of these artists work on the basis of biography, a signified that marks what it meets on its way. Here subjectivity is given in terms of what it can appropriate and reinvent as its own. Artists younger than Carstensen and Zimmerman seem, by contrast, to take lifestyle as their paradigm of self-reference—keeping a style together through the navigation of manifold choices. Roughly speaking, the artists of the ’80s operate mainly with an ontology of the subject, later generations mainly with an ontology of things. Carstensen’s and Zimmermann’s work can be said to be vulgar in the sense that T. J. Clark uses the term to describe Abstract Expressionism, as an atrocious visuality and a set of tastes and styles of individuality. This also implies a kind of monstrous generosity, where the full Monty is handed out in a potlatch gesture—because there is a subject that can give something. This is the show’s brain and brawn, its excitement and energy.

Lars Bang Larsen