Cologne

Juan Pérez Agirregoikoa, the machinist leninist forest, 2013, acrylic and charcoal on paper, 63 x 78 3/4".

Juan Pérez Agirregoikoa, the machinist leninist forest, 2013, acrylic and charcoal on paper, 63 x 78 3/4".

Juan Pérez Agirregoikoa

Juan Pérez Agirregoikoa, the machinist leninist forest, 2013, acrylic and charcoal on paper, 63 x 78 3/4".

“I am a good man, I always tell the truth,” says the Spanish artist Juan Pérez Agirregoikoa, and he’s not being ironic. Yet he’s fully aware that to tell the whole, actual truth—expressing the reality of things just as they are—is impossible because it would require transcending the limitations of language. The fundamental dilemma addressed in Agirregoikoa’s work, then, is how to express the truth given the inherent limitations of communication. Agirregoikoa’s “truths” take the form of somewhat cryptic aphorisms, often blending historical references with language reminiscent of political slogans. These were initially spelled out on large, colorful banners: GOD BLESS YOU VIOLENCE, reads a work from 2006; CENTRO CULTURAL GOËBBELS, proclaims another from the same year—messages that are deliberately demonstrative, a rabble-rouser’s rallying cries, but also, crucially, deeply ambivalent. Then pictures joined the words: John Wayne as a cowboy, gun cocked, next to the word SEMBLANCE, styled to bring the Polish SOLIDARNOŚĆ to mind in a 2007 work. Solidarność and the Hollywood gunfighter; pop stars, harlequins, and dictators; revolution and Superman; culture and a kick in the head—are these the truths Agirregoikoa wants to send out into the world? He seems to be reminding us that revolutionaries are seducers no less than movie stars are. Agirregoikoa’s portraits of truth blend some of Goya’s flintiness with the brashness of American comics.

Agirregoikoa’s work thus relentlessly questions the truth-value of cultural traditions, an approach everywhere on view in the recent exhibition of his drawings, “Culture is what is done to us.” The show’s title, a quote from the Minimalist artist Carl Andre, was programmatic: What mutilations, Agirregoikoa seemed to keep asking, has tradition inflicted on us? Leafless tree stubs, erect like penises, form a Romantic forest that suggests not only Caspar David Friedrich and the desolation of nature but also the male delusion that extends to the quest for political utopias, as the work’s title, the machinist leninist forest (all works cited, 2013), would indicate. The bulging eyes hanging from leafless boughs in family tree see everything. And then there are the rats in meeting, creatures whose likeness has always been an allegory of human behavior, their tails contorted into dollar signs and other symbols of our culture of greed. Scanning the pictures almost the way we would a comic strip, we look for further instances of ambivalence, and yet we let ourselves pulled in by these drawings, so gaily colorful at first glance yet so diabolically dark at heart. Indeed, that’s the artist’s strategy: to make pictures that seduce us into accepting their disturbing insights.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.