Mahlergruppe, The Great Workaholic, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 57 x 51 1/8".

Mahlergruppe, The Great Workaholic, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 57 x 51 1/8".


Galerie Christine Mayer

Mahlergruppe, The Great Workaholic, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 57 x 51 1/8".

Painting is the art of bringing something into being on a surface. This involves analytic, discursive, and sometimes subversive possibilities. Painting’s formal attributes have been pursued to exhaustion in the history of the medium, but the sort of painting that lays claim to sociopolitical relevance has become somewhat rare. The field of the explicitly political has seemingly been ceded to other media and genres. How painting can now be practiced as a critique of our age without falling prey to the irony of the 1980s or drifting off into a moralistic position is evident in the work of the Mahlergruppe, which was founded in Munich in 2008. The name puns on “group of painters” (Maler) and the famous composer, as well as the verb “to grind,” mahlen.

Visitors to the show “Look. Navigare necesse est” (Look. Navigation Is Necessary) were confronted by a series of large-format acrylic paintings and several sculptures that feature a dense mixture of motifs and figures taken from pop culture. The repertoire of figures ranges from such children’s TV characters as SpongeBob SquarePants and the familiar German icon Käpt’n Blaubär to the Kellogg’s rooster, from the German pop star Herbert Grönemeyer and Hamburg hip-hop artist Samy Deluxe to Katy Perry, Prince Charles, and various members of the Munich art scene. The leveling treatment of fictional and real figures reflects the general mediatization of the world, in which Prince Charles really gets accorded not only the same degree of attention as SpongeBob but also a similar level of political relevance.

But the Mahlergruppe is not simply putting images on shuffle: Each painting has been put together as a specific setting dedicated to a characteristic theme of recent history: Spartacus (all works 2011) reflects the financial crisis and the 2007 bank run in London; Vintage presents the Berlin of the 1970s with motifs from the 1981 film Christiane F; Vic West, an aluminum cast of a rock star’s vest, points back to a stereotyped notion of the ’80s. Together, the works present a panoramic overview of contemporary culture in the Western world—a world that, given its intrinsic absurdity, is hardly in need of exaggerated portrayal, since its own grotesqueness is already so evident.

Instead of sketching a cynical caricature of the present, the Mahlergruppe is concerned with laying bare structures and contexts, which in their pictures are subjected to a rigorous painterly and conceptual analysis. Their goal is, among other things, to reclaim painting as a medium of universally valid storytelling, without, however, abandoning formal principles or the immediacy of the pictorial. And so the pictures they execute as a group follow strict, premeditated decisions concerning composition, color palette, and format that specifically reflect questions of both form and content. At the same time, their pictures are marked by an ethereal quality, a distanced if not melancholic reserve. This corresponds to the works’ pale, almost naive “look,” a bleached, washed-out, “vintage” character attained through the use of strongly diluted acrylics. The Great Workaholic, a portrayal of Danzig’s medieval Crane Gate, with its built-in mechanism for lifting cargo, is designed to be a coded self-portrait of the Mahlergruppe: The enormous building functions as a never-wearying worker, unloading the ships that dock beneath it. As an architectural archetype, the structure presents an ongoing anachronism—a fitting image for a sort of painting that claims a legitimacy that goes beyond questions intrinsic to art, making it more akin to classical forms of history painting.

Daniela Stöppel

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.