Georg Herold

Among the West German artists who came into prominence in the ’80s, Georg Herold somehow missed out on the international notoriety of his friends and occasional collaborators Martin Kippenberger and Albert Oehlen. Until now, no exhibition has covered Herold’s entire career in depth. Though this traveling retrospective happily corrects the oversight, it is disappointing that it won’t be seen outside the German-speaking countries; Herold deserves a bigger audience.

Like many established German artists, Herold grew up in the East and made his reputation in the West, having studied art on both sides of the Iron Curtain. This schizoid background has always shaped his work, which frequently sets its critical sights on the reigning symbols of the socialist and capitalist systems. In his 1985 Interessante Kunst aus Westdeutschland (Interesting Art from West Germany), four bricks cemented together end-to-end droop awkwardly from a canvas covered in a beige wash, the earthy brown calling to mind Beuys while the protrusion visually puns on the clichéd machismo of much German art exported abroad. Along with bricks, another of Herold’s favorite art materials has been roofing lath (Latten), likewise a humble and broadly familiar building material. Herold’s lowered-expectations approach to materials is typically augmented by titles that operate like punch lines, completing the objects’ narrative setups.

Herold’s clearly telegraphed jokes and clumsy-looking craftsmanship are deceptive; a subtle thought process lurks behind the apparent simplemindedness. His is a philosophical humor that relies on tautologies and clashing contrasts, inspired equally by Duchamp and Wittgenstein. J. C. Raspe, 1990, is a portrait of the Baader-Meinhof member done in caviar on canvas, one of several such images employing the pricey delicacy to reproduce ordinary media photos. Here the visage of a dedicated critic of capitalism is rendered via luxury goods, the painting itself comically appreciating through its production values. In one of Herold’s early lath pieces, Goethe-Latte, 1982, a two-meter length of wood leans against a wall next to another less than half its size. The name GOETHE is written on the longer one; the other carries the phrase im vergleich dazu irgendein scheißer (roughly, “by comparison, some loser”). With minimal means, the piece speaks eloquently about, among other things, the perceived inaccessibility of cultural greatness under postmodernism.

The thinking man behind Herold’s self-projected image as a manipulator of wood and brick appears in several video works from the past five years, projects that bring his deliberately antiquated sculptural practice up to date without succumbing to the seductions of high technology. Teaching Sculpture III, 2001, captures the artist’s furrowed brow in close-up as it moves up and down, the “thought wrinkles” attesting to a lifetime spent working through the tough problems of the discipline Herold teaches at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. In a group of fifteen videos displayed on mini-televisions and collectively titled Angehöriger einer fremden Kultur (Member of a Foreign Culture), 2002, Herold sports a variety of outfits and hairstyles while playing sign-language interpreters. Not formally trained in the practice, he does a convincing job of parodying its characteristic hand gestures and facial expressions. As in all of Herold’s work, art’s limited capacity to “speak” is laid bare through humor; yet in assuming an intelligent viewer, his jokes lead to contemplation rather than expire in a short-lived burst of laughter.

Gregory Williams