Los Angeles

Karl Haendel

Vielmetter Los Angeles

An artist inclined to make and exhibit lists, Karl Haendel produced a document in 2007 subtitled Things I Tend to Draw. Included were “boy stuff that flies” and “boy stuff that drives,” items referring to his large-scale renderings of SUVs, rockets, and other mega machines and evoking the dry, emasculating humor imbuing the images’ presentation. In his first solo exhibition at Susanne Vielmetter, Haendel limits his focus to “boy stuff that sails,” specifically the tall ship Endurance of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s trans-Antarctic expedition of 1914–17. In a famous tragedy of the “heroic age of Antarctic exploration,” Shackleton’s vessel became trapped in ice and was slowly crushed. The crew miraculously survived by enduring an eight-hundred-mile journey by lifeboat to South Georgia, a remote island in the southern Atlantic.

Haendel’s practice is centered on reproducing found images as drawings, and the suitability of his medium and technique to the current subject matter is revealed in ever-surprising ways. Using as his source a series of oft-reproduced photographs taken during Shackleton’s journey, he convincingly renders dark, gelid waters and snow in its myriad forms, from shimmering powder to icy, chalklike chunks. Soft, downward strokes depict the haze of moisture crystallizing into snow; crosshatching renders the sky heavy with a blanket of clouds. Exaggerations of tonal contrast dramatize the war unfolding among crewmen, nature, and their unwieldy vessel. Whereas in some drawings the ship’s intricate rigging and dogged crew are silhouetted black against glaciers sculpted from negative space, elsewhere, in a rendering of a photo negative, Endurance rises up from its glacial trap white, like a ghost from the dark, against a thickly laid bed of textured scribbles. The ship’s final state—a pile of splinters and a mass of tangled rope—cleverly resembles one of Haendel’s abstract scribble drawings, a building-size version of which can be seen on the facade of LAXART nearby.

The Shackleton pictures are hung salon style across two corners of adjacent rooms sharing a wall, as if the exhibition were a monumental photo book standing upright, pages splayed. Indeed, Haendel’s drawings often seem like efforts to return the image to its origin as a photograph, whether crisp and precise, mysteriously grainy, or seductively glossy (an effect simulated by thickly laid graphite). Even the way in which they are drawn follows a pre-photographic process: The overhead projector Haendel uses is a modern-day camera lucida, an optical device William Henry Fox Talbot relied on before discovering a way to give his pencil over to nature.

“Using a photographic source is a way to stop time, or also to kind of elongate it,” Haendel explains. This relationship between still images and slowed time is drawn out in a second series, “All the Clocks in My House,” 2010, in which snapshots of digital readouts on the television set, thermostat, microwave, and nightstand are rendered into epic still lifes. The pairing of these images with those of Shackleton’s voyage is initially a shock; moving across the gallery from one series to the other feels like switching rapidly between dreaming and wakefulness. Yet the clocks keep the heroicisim of the Shackleton voyage in check, lending humor and threatening to trivialize the bleak scenes, while the voyage images bring forth the slowed-down, hyperreal quality of the domestic vignettes. In the latter, pencil articulates better than photography the modern home’s brushed aluminum surfaces and floating dust motes in empty corners. The final element of the exhibition, Karl’s Little Red Book, 2010, is an edition of thirty unique photocopy books with layered images—of watches, calendars, lists, comic books, and olives from emptied martinis—that evoke the artist’s favorite modes of keeping or spending time.

The impatience, fear, and dread of watching one’s life of suburban domesticity dribble away through a succession of mundane failures and glances at the clock is played against the pregnant slowness of tragic time—the time of grand failures represented by Shackleton’s expedition. But in bringing together both experiences, Haendel’s work also seems to suggest that, in either case, all is not lost, for failure will go as quickly as it came. It is only a matter of survival and plodding on.

Natilee Harren