Bern

Michael Krebber, MK/M 2014/15, 2014, acrylic and spray paint on canvas. Installation view. Photo: Gunnar Meier.

Michael Krebber, MK/M 2014/15, 2014, acrylic and spray paint on canvas. Installation view. Photo: Gunnar Meier.

Michael Krebber

Kunsthalle Bern

Michael Krebber, MK/M 2014/15, 2014, acrylic and spray paint on canvas. Installation view. Photo: Gunnar Meier.

Just as any exhibition held every two years can be called a biennial, a piece of fabric hung on a wall, with or without paint on it, can plausibly be called a painting. And yet, just as the idea of a biennial carries a lot of baggage, so does the notion of painting, and the oeuvre of Michael Krebber constantly works at posing uncomfortable questions about it. 

This was the second and smaller iteration of this New York–based German artist’s survey, “The Living Wedge,” which originated at the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves in Porto, Portugal, curated by João Ribas and Valérie Knoll. The fifty-six pieces shown here, dating from 1986 through 2016, installed in seven galleries, included early figurative drawings, modified readymades, and neo-expressionistic paintings; Krebber’s later work tends toward abstraction. Two groups of works were displayed in particular depth: On view were ten sections from the sixteen-part Flaggs (Against Nature), 2003, and all six sections of MK/M 2014/15, 2014. Flaggs features found fabrics—two kinds of green gingham; a black cloth with white polka dots; and a dark, flannel-like material printed with an illustration of a horse running under a full moon—while the nonrepresentational MK/M paintings exhibit infrequent rolled-on blemishes, sprayed dots, squiggly gestures, and seemingly obscured marks, mostly in green and white, which appear to be furtive gestures or events on the canvas. Each work represents a different tangent of the artist’s approach: the readymade or modified readymade in the form of found fabrics on the one hand, and an improvised mark-making on the other. 

None of these works could be considered densely painted or highly labored. Indeed, it would be tempting to dismiss many of them as slight, both as effort and idea. But taken together, they suggest that Krebber might be searching for a picture of a painting, rather than just painting; it is in this sense that he earns his reputation as a “Conceptual” painter. Krebber treats the painting as an assisted readymade, in that the marks he makes seem to be obvious quotations of gestures. His squiggles resemble the marks one makes while testing a new pen, his sprays recall graffiti, his rolled-on paint echoes a house painter’s. The result offers his viewers a series of questions rather than any kind of certitude. Are they merely accidental marks? Is this a kind of postmodern automatism? Is Krebber just making a mockery of painting? A cheeky personality emerges in his imagery, as evoked for example by his choice of a cartoony snail as the central figure for his 2012–13 Bordeaux, France, retrospective “Les escargots ridiculisés” (The Ridiculized Snails), and through such playful improvisations as his use of the poster for his 2003 New York exhibition, “Here It Is: The Painting Machine,” as part of the show’s installation hardware. Copies of the poster were draped over each canvas to keep it from directly touching the wall against which it leaned, rather than hung.

Krebber’s works poke at the idea of painting but also embody painting itself. Imagery, or the hint of imagery, and nonrepresentation are treated equally, sometimes contesting or partnering each other equally, as in the gingham pattern and horse imagery of Flaggs (Against Nature), just as his “found” gestural marks offset his altered readymades. All these elements seemed even more interchangeable when viewed in this unchronological hang. Krebber’s work can be difficult to look at but interesting to see. Perhaps the artist should be considered a trickster painter—intent, not on fooling the viewer but on tricking himself into inventing new paintings. Does he succeed or fail? Uncertainty is the pleasure to be found in the game.

Sherman Sam