Klosterneuburg, Austria

Hubert Scheibl

Sammlung Essl

Hubert Scheibl is exhibiting nice fat ducks and a crocodile just outside Vienna. It’s a bit of a surprise to see such a menagerie being put on display by a long-standing practitioner of the gradually eroding artistic discipline known as abstract painting, but in his quest to surreptitiously absent himself from the realm of the oil-on-canvas—his activity in this field currently being shown at the Essl, Austria’s largest private museum, under the telling title “Fat Ducks”—Scheibl is resisting the sorts of surefire methods made popular by Gerhard Richter. Instead, he is working to expand his turf not only within the medium but as a commentator and author of occasional marginalia.

With ten impressive large-format works (some up to nearly twelve by seventeen feet) of varied palettes, Scheibl starts out on familiar territory. But his titles coax the viewer to see his programmatically nonfigurative, nonnarrative works differently. Scheibl has laid his bait for the viewer in the form of cinematic quotes whose sources range from Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. He specifically dwells on the black humor of the Coen brothers, whose characters tend to unleash full-blown catastrophes during their attempts to become the masters of their fates: Was da kommt, kann man nicht aufhalten (What Is Coming Cannot Be Stopped), 2008, and Sagen Sie’s (Say It), 2006. A great avoider of pathos, Scheibl presents atmospheric abstract painting as a miniature dialogue when, for example, he quotes Hal 9000, Kubrick’s neurotic computer, after he has trounced his future victim Dr. Frank Poole in a game of chess: Vielen Dank für das sehr unterhaltsame Spiel (Thank You for a Very Enjoyable Game), 2008, and then praises David Bowman, the only member of the crew to survive in the film, who turns HAL off: Das ist eine sehr schöne Zeichnung, Dave . . . (That’s a Very Beautiful Drawing, Dave . . . ), 2008. In his or her mentalities, the painter is not so different from the most human computer in the history of film: Both will continue to pursue their missions despite all obstacles and, if necessary, “unhindered, and alone.”

In the rotunda, which joins the two large exhibition halls of the museum, Scheibl dishes up a veritable novelty: The installation )Coccodrillo imbalsamato) (Stuffed Crocodile), 2008, combines forty-two elegant drawings with a crocodile-skull sculpture on shredded automobile tires. Scheibl sets up his metaphor of the predator, garbage, and death with sly irony, placing a human skull in the reptile’s head, which is adorned with binary code. In this way the world’s oldest animal brain, this emotion-free reptilian specimen, 100 percent programmed for survival, is set against the culturally refined, social mammalian model—the human brain. And what do you know? Both of them wind up as detritus on a putrid heap, sinking in an unstable pile of rubber. Admittedly these slicks were manufactured by Ferrari— who else?—and have come diritissima from the racetrack. In the background, on the steeply ascending rear wall of the rotunda, which forms a sort of shaft, one sees the skeletons belonging to these skulls already dangling from ropes in delightfully elegant sketches. As Scheibl said the press conference, in the work of the great master Cy Twombly you can see how “an intelligent line” differs from “a boring, botched one.” The same distinction can be observed in Scheibl’s work as one luxuriates in his parodic crypto-diagnosis of the world’s condition.

Brigitte Huck

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.