New York

Dirk Stewen

Dirk Stewen’s assemblages perform a delicate balancing act, bringing together decorative abstractions and enigmatic arrangements of photography, appropriated text, and found objects. Elegant and reserved, the German artist’s second solo show in New York largely reiterated past successes while offering a few surprises. Each of three finely tuned works, Die Assistenten II, III, and IV (The Assistants II, III, and IV) (all works 2008), consists of two collaged compositions, between which a thin black wooden rod leans against the wall. In each configuration, one of the compositions combines three faded, blank book pages and two dots of black confetti, arranged like a pair of eyes. The other, offsetting such whimsy, features a rectangular canvas swath or two sewn to a large sheet of photo paper that has been blackened with India ink; the layers have been stitched together with thread that dangles below the compositions in bright industrial colors.

Named after a diminutive
 brass sculpture by Max Ernst, Deux Assistants, 1967, in which two comically abstract figures look upward with bulging eyes as if in fawning deference to their creator, these works likewise allow for a playful, cartoonish encounter, the eyelike confetti seeming to return the viewer’s gaze. While the individual surfaces appear almost casual, the arrangements overall attain a precise formal tension—amusing and melancholic, ornamental and austere. The trio brings to mind the poetic material juxtapositions of early Blinky Palermo even as the less concise works on view recall the dandyish misdirection of Michael Krebber—for all of Stewen’s aggregate use of photography, printed matter, and prefab materials, his works most strongly take up dispersive strategies of conceptual painting.

A narratively inclined but ultimately hermetic installation from 2008 occupied the side gallery. Titled The Painter, after a group of late oil paintings by Honoré Daumier, the work betrays a Broodthaers-like fascination with the potential of ephemera to serve as primary rather than secondary material. Displayed alongside a piece of folded sky-blue paper is a two-page spread from a vintage Daumier catalogue, the image of one of the titular paintings ripped out and replaced by confetti eyes, leaving only a caption as illustration. The installation also features two leaning black rods, a yellow dowel precariously balanced horizontally on steel pins just below the frame, a daisy chain of accoutrements—suspenders tethered to the wall, a necktie, a paintbrush—as well as small black ladders propped next to a bag constructed out of stitched-together photo paper, all presented beneath the glare of a freestanding light of the type often used when photographing fine art. One might read Stewen’s cancellation of The Painter as a comment on the inability of traditional, medium-specific art to convey meaning now that images inundate people in myriad forms and with ever-increasing velocity, but Stewen’s display, in its tastefulness and opacity, ultimately deflates efforts to interpret, prompting the question of what is critically at stake amid so many empty clues.

Stewen’s collages made with ink on photo paper likewise produce ambivalence; three of the large-scale works, adorned with constellations of confetti and multicolored thread, were interspersed among additional photo, object, and book assemblages as so many structural pauses, but their appeal from a distance appeared rote upon closer inspection. Art-historical displacements, akin to those he produces in The Painter, occur throughout the remaining configurations Stewen exhibited, and the artist consistently suggested themes and critiques that ultimately remained faint. For all of its considerable charm, Stewen’s collection proffered a too-hesitant dialogue with formal precedent and questions of image production.

Fionn Meade