Jiří Georg Dokoupil


Jiří Georg Dokoupil is a famous painter despite his insistence that he can’t paint. In vain he once tried to paint like a proper Impressionist. After working at it for more than a year, he simply gave up. Even at that time, though, he already had a reputation as a painter. As part of the Cologne-based group Mühlheimer Freiheit—which at the beginning of the ’80s took to the paintbrush in protest against rigid Minimalism and intellectual Conceptualism—he gained international renown. This was at a time when most progressive thinkers were of the opinion that painting was dead.

But painting, it turns out, was far from dead. Not only the Mühlheimer Freiheit group, of which Walter Dahn was also a member, but also the Berlin painters Salome, Rainer Fetting, and Martin Kippenberger, along with Hamburg’s Oehlen brothers, all seemed to be painting anything and everything, quickly and in vibrant color. As an answer to Fetting’s images of his boyfriend standing naked under the shower, which were quite fashionable at the time, Dokoupil, in collaboration with Dahn, painted the “Duschbilder” (Shower Paintings), 1982– 83: a kitchen stove under the shower, Lenin under the shower, and so on. In 1985, Dokoupil exhibited “Corporations and Products,” a series of paintings and clay models of familiar logos—Rolex, Perrier, and the like—done in a playfully archaic style that contrasted powerfully with the sober style of the actual logos. The show in Cologne was a minor scandal; it would be several years before this sort of engagement with the aesthetics of the logo became fashionable. Back then, painting came easily to Dokoupil; it was all great fun, success came unexpectedly, paintings were sold before the paint had time to dry. But was it really painting?

Retreating, at least part-time, to the Canary Islands, Dokoupil began to paint from nature. That was not much fun—more a series of disappointments. Despairing, he hit on the idea of producing paintings by means other than brush and paint—with the soot from a burning candle, for example. At first these “Kerzenbilder” (Candle Paintings), 1989–, took their themes from current events, especially media images of immigrants; later their motifs became more varied—witness the soot leopards he painted in 2002.

Dokoupil left his native Czechoslovakia as a teenager in 1968, a break that still shapes his work today: The interruptions and jumps visible everywhere in this show bear witness to a loss of identity, which is replaced by playful appropriations of varying intensity, by what Judith Butler calls “performative identity.” Thus Dokoupil is at times a painter of nudes, albeit with a candle; at other times he creates paintings using mothers’ milk; at still others, by rolling car tires over the canvas. He can also be a landscape painter, though these paintings are produced with soap bubbles. Because of these jumps, his exhibition in Hamburg could look like a group show, each section the work of a different painter. The catalogue, too, deliberately avoids providing any sense of continuity. With his latest works, which have Buddha as their theme, Dokoupil has at least returned to using paint some of the time, if not the paintbrush—so he still has a chance to become a good painter after all.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.