Magnus Plessen, The Blue Bench, 2015, oil on canvas, 49 1/4 × 76 3/4".

Magnus Plessen, The Blue Bench, 2015, oil on canvas, 49 1/4 × 76 3/4".

Magnus Plessen

Magnus Plessen, The Blue Bench, 2015, oil on canvas, 49 1/4 × 76 3/4".

First as tragedy, then as finish? Foremost slick and somewhat antiseptic, Magnus Plessen’s latest paintings, exhibited under the title “nineteen hundred fourteen,” seek to also bear historical weight. Since 2014, the artist has painted subjects meant to evoke the disfigured victims of World War I, conceiving this centennial cycle as a four-year touring exhibition, with stops, according to the press release, in “every major country involved in the first world war.” Does that include Switzerland?

This confusion aside, the assorted oils can be said to effectively (face-)lift cranial motifs from Otto Dix’s 1924 cycle of etchings, Der Krieg (The War), yielding stylish semiabstractions in stonewashed Day-Glo cyan, fuchsia, yellow, and emerald, arranged on dark, vertical, timber-wall-like backgrounds. Plessen’s primary interest seems to lie in the simulacral properties of the medium employed. Countering pictorial flatness, the variations of facial craters, sometimes juxtaposed with oversize single hands or the odd piece of skeletal furniture such as a chair or bench, look as if torn from the canvas, or opposite, as if applied with tape—subjected to an entire routine of surgical prepping and bandaging. The logic behind the collage-like process of adding and subtracting painterly tissue, however, remains as circular as the attempt at historical reflection, tending to void any purported criticality. Where Dix’s individual plates, such as Dying Soldier or Skin Graft (Transplantation), unfold their formidable hideousness precisely by being, respectively, grotesque and sarcastic, these are also the very affects Plessen, at least according to the gallery’s explanation of the work, supposedly “eschews.”

The decision to steer clear of such approaches when engaging with mass defacement may be plausible from a certain historical perspective—for instance, in light of the bankruptcy of Benjaminian shock value in a mass-mediated society. Yet where and how exactly does a practice that premises itself on historical narratives as grand as those of the Great War stake out a position vis-à-vis an image culture in which grisly content occupies practically the whole spectrum—from the horrors circulating in gnarly interwebs to the cover of Time magazine?

A 1921 vintage advertisement from the Basler Nachrichten (Basler News) touting sightseeing trips to the onetime bloody trenches of Verdun, France, accompanied by an audio recording of Karl Kraus’s polemical response, “Reklamefahrten zur Hölle” (Promotional Trips to Hell), from the same year, provided a needed if slightly disproportionate tangent to the other works in this exhibition. Much like Dix, Kraus was reacting directly to the very recent history of warfare both of them had experienced firsthand. As evidenced in both artists’ vocabularies, however disparate, war, as traditional an art-historical subject as there can be, is not a timeless entity but a highly specific apparatus of a given historical conjuncture. That includes its particular aesthetics, all of which the painter of modern life may want to address—no matter from which historical point of reference if the work is meant to perform a critique of violence, its textures, and its attraction.

Daniel Horn