Thomas Locher, GIOTTO.2.G-W-G, 2013, digital C-print, Acryla, aluminum frame, 66 5/8 x 69 3/4 x 4 3/4".

Thomas Locher, GIOTTO.2.G-W-G, 2013, digital C-print, Acryla, aluminum frame, 66 5/8 x 69 3/4 x 4 3/4".

Thomas Locher

Thomas Locher, GIOTTO.2.G-W-G, 2013, digital C-print, Acryla, aluminum frame, 66 5/8 x 69 3/4 x 4 3/4".

The Berlin-based turbo-Conceptualist Thomas Locher has explored the rules that govern language since the late 1980s. His credo: Art is a matter of the text. In his recent show “Homo Oeconomicus,” Locher (always an advocate of strict order) lined up his works along the right side of the room, where one could scan them right to left; the remaining walls were bare. This exceptionally disciplined gallery installation reflected Locher’s commitment to rigorous formal consistency—a real case of bullheadedness, the easygoing Viennese would say. As suggested by the title, the works on view examined the relation between language and economy: structures of exchange, credit, trust, and credibility.

The exhibition opened with the fifteen-part photomontage series “Small Gift. To Give. Giving. Given. Gift, If There Is Any . . . (J.D.),” 2006/2013, whose title makes reference to Jacques Derrida’s Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money (1991). That book is a hairsplitting study of the (im)possibility of the virtuous gift as distinct from the base quid-pro-quo deal; Locher nimbly annotates the text with red squiggles and question marks and combines it with a visual counterpart: politically charged imagery from media archives that shows hands performing a variety of gestures. They grasp, grab, point, stretch out toward others. Locher makes concrete what remains abstract in the text, scrutinizing art as aesthetic and semantic information and, finally, as a social bonding agent.

The first two works in a new series, GIOTTO.1.W-G-W, and GIOTTO.2.G-W-G, both 2013, celebrate critical engagement and aesthetic challenges, or, put simply, context and form: Locher dedicates the pieces to today’s favorite class enemy, the evil, profit-hungry banker. Enrico Scrovegni, the son of the wealthy banker and infamous usurer Rainaldo Scrovegni, whom Dante’s Divina Commedia has burning in hell, had a chapel built in Padua, Italy, where he would pray for the sins of his father; the chapel is adorned with frescoes by Giotto, which are among the pinnacles of European art. Taking a post-Dadaist cut-up approach, Locher has extracted pieces of Giotto’s depictions of the kiss of Judas and the washing of the disciples’ feet in the shapes of, respectively, the letters G-W-G (Geld-Ware-Geld, or money-commodity-money) and W-G-W (Ware-Geld-Ware) and stacks them up as “dialectical images” (Walter Benjamin), referencing Marx’s account of the process of exchange between money and commodity. Locher montages the historic fragments into images that remain ambiguous both in terms of space and on the level of content.

The show concluded on a muted note, but its restraint was what made for a grand finale. In Homo Oeconomicus, Credit / Opening Credits, and Homo Oeconomicus, Credit / Closing Credits, both 2013, animated text scrolls across a diptych of flat panel displays: terms, definitions, questions, statements—words and sentences in white on a black ground. These constituted the referential system of the exhibition, functioning like a movie’s opening or closing credits, gesturing toward the time-based mode cinema shares with the economy. As the lines slowly scroll past, the viewer has just enough time to sense the subtle humor behind the sometimes contradictory assertions, comparisons, and equivalencies. The semantic information in the opening credits is tied to aesthetic elements: Courbet’s The Stone Breakers, 1849, for example, or Sir Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace in London (1851). Shadowy images in the background illustrate the things that credit can buy: banknotes, cars, expensive kitchen gadgetry.

Is Thomas Locher the Buster Keaton of Conceptual art? The bone-dry esprit with which he communicates his concerns has much in common with Anglo-American deadpan: immovable, unemotional, standoffish. And always straight to the point.

Brigitte Huck

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.