Norbert Bisky, Pichador (Graffiti Artist), 2012, oil on canvas, 55 1/8 x 43 1/4".

Norbert Bisky, Pichador (Graffiti Artist), 2012, oil on canvas, 55 1/8 x 43 1/4".

Norbert Bisky

Norbert Bisky, Pichador (Graffiti Artist), 2012, oil on canvas, 55 1/8 x 43 1/4".

When he was a younger artist, Norbert Bisky felt he had to deal with his childhood years in what was then still East Germany, or, as he told me recently, to “paint the GDR out of my soul.” His later work demonstrates a broader concern with themes such as violence, death, intoxication, and physicality. In his most recent exhibition, “Paraisópolis,” Bisky made a new and promising turn to a more abstract handling of content and pictorial space.

Thirteen oil paintings were presented along with twenty-two small watercolors on paper, all related to Bisky’s recent travels in Brazil; he’d also invited Brazilian artist Guilherme Dietrich to show some works on paper. It’s obvious that the intensity of color, light, and energy of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and Salvador left traces in Bisky’s work, as did the way Brazilian culture has developed by devouring and appropriating foreign and colonial influences. One could think about Adriana Varejão’s “cannibalism” as a relevant context for Bisky’s latest exhibition. The show’s title refers to one of S.o Paulo’s biggest favelas, and can hardly be read without irony. All may appear colorful, light, and happy—an urban paradise, as the name might be interpreted—but underneath it is violent, primal, and carnivorous.

Typically, two distinct realities are overlaid in Bisky’s paintings. One is a scene or narration: a portrait or a group of human figures entangled in some action (sex, sport, violence). The other reality is the organization of paint, its colorful dynamism conveying a sense of order and virtuosity. Bisky has a talent for small details that enliven the whole composition. He often paints young men or scenes with male bodies, such as Tagged, 2011–12; Al, 2012; or Tropicana, 2013. These sexually charged images have become something of a trademark. But the artist’s forte is not really the adoration of the flesh, which ends up seeming too private a pleasure, the sexy imagery somehow falling flat. Yes, physical experience and sensuality are essential to Bisky’s work—but not necessarily as subject matter. The paradox is that the artist’s flair for sensuality doesn’t appear so much in images of the body, but rather in paintings where direct depiction of the flesh is transcended.

Three recent works, Antropofagia I-III (Cannibalism I-III), each dated 2013, are the finest examples of the new abstraction that has entered Bisky’s work. Though these paintings still contain recognizable figurative elements, they are fragmentary (for instance, a sleeve where a hand comes out); most of the composition is abstract. Forms float or swirl around in a space without gravity. The viewer’s attention likewise floats freely instead of being directed to any specific scene. Bisky’s endeavor to digest Brazilian culture has helped him grow as a painter. The excitement of outside appearances has been restrained by a deeper inner coherence, creating a new balance. Surprisingly, this controlled intensity and abstraction can even be found in a figurative work such as the portrait Pichador (Graffiti Artist), 2012. The face of this tagger is hidden behind a red-and-yellow scarf; only his eyes are visible. The sense that so much is hidden under a welter of colorful patterns and dynamic lines gives these paintings their power and mystery.

Jurriaan Benschop