Rob Birza

Around 1990, some powerful local players anointed Rob Birza as The Man Who Will Save Dutch Painting. Overwhelming expectations were thereby heaped on an uneven young painter often given to a facile virtuosity, heavy-handed irony, and an all too hasty form of stylistic eclecticism. However, in recent years Birza has sometimes appeared more focused and convincing——notably, in “Cosy Monsters from Inner Space,” a series of comic strip–style horror paintings and drawings from 1998. The equally successful new series “One Is Free,” 2001–2003, the subject of his latest show (which took the same name), consists of bizarre paintings based on photographs depicting scenes from the Islamic world, often gatherings of bearded men; these are surrounded by frames covered with ornamental textiles.

Some of the paintings show frenzied masses: Shoe-Holders, 2001, for instance, in which the men holding up their footwear in what is (as we all know by now) the ultimate gesture of disrespect in the Middle East. The crowd fills the entire canvas, creating an uncannily closed and massive effect. Most of these works are painted in what might be called a sublimated, extremely refined billboard style. In White Spirit, 2001, the crowd has been painted with more detail than in the other works, in crisp, thin brushstrokes, while in Train Sit-in, 2003, the paint application is much looser: The figures in this dark, green-brownish painting stand or sit huddled around a window in what is apparently a train compartment; the chiaroscuro is faux Rembrandt, the composition resembles a male version of Delacroix’s Femmes d’Alger, and the overall style is late Picasso on a very bad day, with a touch of Alzheimer’s.

The painting One Is Free, 2002, shows yet another group, but this time antiglobalism protesters behind a banner cut off by the left border of the image so that it seems to say ONE IS FREE WHEN OTHERS OPPRESSED and OUGH IS ENOUGH SHUT DOWN NOW! The white frame also has the words ONE IS FREE affixed to it in red letters. This painting evidently stands somewhat apart in terms of iconography, but not fundamentally; all of these groups, all of these protesters, seducers, prisoners, and fugitives are caught in the deterritorialized streams of contemporary capitalism. By painting these media images of groups reacting in one way or another to social, economic, and cultural change, Birza transforms them; his figures are caricatured, and they seem to be in the process of morphing into something grotesque. They are not-so-cozy monsters inhabiting a space where media images intermingle with personal obsessions.

Perhaps the most remarkable painting in the series is Pick-Up Men, 2002. This long horizontal painting, in something approaching CinemaScope proportions, shows a seated group of bearded men up close, looking at the viewer. In the back, Birza has added bands of color that give this image the feel of some sort of strange ’70s, post-Noland television-studio decor (another painting shows similar colored bands floating in the air). Several of the men have raised their fingers; the title lends this gesture and therefore this group a somewhat obscene and insinuating character. Birza seems to be attuned to the libidinal economy of homosocial groups and male-dominated societies; in the realm of media images, this artist’s imagination and the imagination of Islamism overlap and produce strange effects. Welcome to the theocratic bachelor machine.

—Sven Lütticken