Henning Bohl

Galerie Karin Günther/Nina Borgmann

Kabuki fascinates us with its emotional intensity, achieved through splendid costumes, expressive song, and complete mastery of the body. It is less about the expressive potential of complex plots than about the virtuosity of the performers, their faces covered by masks of makeup that grotesquely mimic facial expressions. The narrative sequences, which follow a strict set of rules, provide the framework for the formal principles of the theater, which always remain the same. Henning Bohl adopted Kabuki as frame of reference for his latest work, Theater Heute (Theater Today), 2004, and, in his own rather idiosyncratic way, connected it to modernism. A large, freestanding wall of abutting canvases partly covered the windows of the gallery like a translucent screen. Attached here and there to the wall are ornamental motifs such as bamboo stalks, a masklike face with rosy cheeks, small birds, and hearts, all cut out of scraps of colored paper and affixed to the canvas. Bohl has exercised considerable economy: Not a scrap goes to waste. For example, the “negative spaces” left over from the cutting out of the bamboo stalks can be seen again in their leaves. The organic forms seem to have been hastily, perhaps casually strewn on the canvas, and vaguely recall Matisse’s paper cutouts.

The title of the exhibition, “Kabuki Heute, (Theatre Today)” made this under- stated reference explicit, evoking the Japonisme of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which influenced Matisse and the Fauves. The use of handi- craft recalls the side of modernism that proposed to encompass everyday living, but at the same time it becomes clear that this utopian claim is defused in the moment of appropriation. When Bohl ponders the fate of modernism and the final destiny of its ideals, he has at the back of his mind, say, certain carpets with Josef Albers–like squares produced by IKEA, the home-furnishings store from the land that remains the standard-bearer for the welfare state, a treasure trove of social-democratic interior decoration. Bohl makes an ironic reference to the space-saving philosophy of the Swedish furniture-maker-to-the-masses, placing one of those peculiar three-cornered IKEA side tables as readymades in each of the four corners of the main gallery space and a fifth in a corner of a second room. These tables share in the economical approach to materials visible in Bohl’s paper silhouettes: No space should be wasted—quite the contrary, it should be cleverly used. IKEA’s practical idea of everyday life is activated in the exhibition, subsuming the white cube of the gallery within the work. In this ironic usage, the seemingly bourgeois, narrow-minded gesture of spatial economy in the IKEA universe is traced back to its formal content.

Against the backdrop of today’s widespread artistic critique of modernism and avant-gardism, Bohl takes a singular position. The hook for his work is often provided by a humorous theme spurred by his own personal interest and not directly associated with modernism (like Kabuki, in the present instance). From there, Bohl weaves a loose tapestry of references and poetic appropriations, resulting in a pictorial idiom of lightness and irony.

Nina Möntmann

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.