New York

Uwe Henneken

Two hundred years after its emergence, Romanticism still transparently, reductively, seems to denote antirationalism, anti-Enlightenment indeterminacy, nostalgia, transcendental individualism, and morbidity. This despite the fact that its meaning has always been nebulous, even to, or especially to, its greatest polemicists. Poet, critic, and scholar Karl Wilhelm Friedrich von Schlegel wrote to his brother August Wilhelm that he could “hardly send you my explanation of the word Romantic, because it would take—125 pages,” an assertion that, as art historian Joseph Koerner underscores in his Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape (1990), “ironizes, through its mock precision, the absence of a definition in Schlegel’s master term.”

Perhaps less triumphal moniker than productive lacuna, Romanticism now returns in shows like the Schirn Kunsthalle’s “Ideal Worlds: New Romanticism in Contemporary Art,” appropriating the work of artists including Hernan Bas, Friederike Clever, Dani Jakob, Justine Kurland, Laura Owens, and Amelie von Wulffen, to name but a few. In these and other cases it becomes heraldically solipsistic, faux naive, or winkingly sentimental. Uwe Henneken’s paintings of sublime Teutonic woodlands have been likewise assigned, owing to their frequent rooting in the perfervid sensibility of Novalis et al. But the Berlin-based artist’s first solo outing in New York, aptly titled “In a Foreign Land In a Foreign Town,” pried him loose from this return-as-contextualization, and his work looked better for it.

The show’s ten paintings and lone bronze sculpture, Passion! Power!! Purge!!! (all works 2006), earnestly bastardized a panoply of styles from Symbolism to neo-expressionism, leaving each one disgorged. The press release claims that Henneken has an interest in the “cyclical movement of cultural trends,” and this engagement with periodicity is indeed apparent. But in his version of belatedness as pop historicism, Henneken also points to the impossibility of qualitative distinctions based on period style: They all look equally tasteless now. And they know it too, thanks to the various interlopers and ciphers—wayfarers, clowns, biomorphic cartoon forms—inscribed into such scenes as The Thirst of Knowledge, Yet How it Is Bought and Aschermittwoch of Life, seemingly answering Clement Greenberg’s condemnation of kitsch as “vicarious experience and faked sensations” with a knowing smirk.

Other protagonists similarly redouble our presence within the compositions, reminding me of nothing so much as motley crowds captured in an installation shot better seen unpeopled. The namesake wayfaring strangers are posed beneath formidable purple clouds and a landscape ablaze with signal orange and musty green (to what end we’re not certain, and neither are they). To be sure, the same might be said of Walter, where Henneken forgoes a residually pastoral landscape for something unmoored. “Walter,” a man in culottes and white stockings, stares into an abyss of frenetic paint strokes, the result of the canvas ground’s prior incarnation as a brush-cleaning rag.

Here, conceptual and physical recycling are one and the same, and this also goes for Henneken’s “Vanguard” series (2005–), for which the artist uses secondhand paintings of antediluvian panoramas as the grounds for his own interventions starring a recurring character dubbed Vanguard. Vanguard #31 is a tranquil arcadia replete with reflective water surface and fertile expanses of trees; but it is also a landscape disrupted by Henneken’s addition of a silly translucent orblike cartoon head (Vanguard) peeking over a distant mountain. The idyllic vista in the picture—and the picture itself—is nothing more than a prop for the production of dissonance and for Henneken’s play of temporal and aesthetic parallax. Neither cultural palliative nor explicit contestation, Henneken’s cannibalistic works are already predigested, the better to reconsume.

Suzanne Hudson