Norbert Bisky, Trilemma, 2017, oil on canvas, 94 1/2 x 74 3/4". © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Norbert Bisky, Trilemma, 2017, oil on canvas, 94 1/2 x 74 3/4". © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Norbert Bisky

Norbert Bisky, Trilemma, 2017, oil on canvas, 94 1/2 x 74 3/4". © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Built in a Brutalist style, the former Saint Agnes Church that is now the König Galerie is anything but a neutral gallery space. The hanging paintings on the high walls of its nave can easily, perhaps too easily, bring out any spiritual aspirations the works may harbor. Norbert Bisky wisely—and humbly, even if some of his paintings appear to be the opposite of modest—chose to resist this temptation. The twenty-six works in this show, “Trilemma,” were presented on three double-sided walls of increasing size, designed for the occasion and placed zigzag in the nave. This arrangement seemed to support a growing tension building up toward a big, explosive painting on the third wall. The first work one encountered on entering, Trilemma Processor, 2017, shows a young man rubbing his eye—seemingly under pressure, if not overwhelmed. He is surrounded by geometric symbols, including one that resembles the ubiquitous spinning wheel that indicates a web page loading.

The show’s title refers to unsolvable matters, equations containing three irreconcilable elements. The artist wanted to touch on the religious idea of the trinity evoked by the gallery’s location but replace it with the secular idea of a trilemma—while retaining the question of what or who we can believe in. A work named Trilemma, 2017, shows a young man turned away, facing a kind of logo consisting of three overlapping ovals. The symbol floats between the figure in the foreground and dark outer space in the back. From the heart of the trilemma symbol erupts a passage depicting fire, people pressed together, an explosion—catastrophe.

Bisky presents us with conflict, violence, and swirling threat. The images here may not have referred to specific events, yet they reminded us of moments of terror that have become part of our lives. Big Trilemma, 2017, shows figures in free fall between buildings—a scene that, since 9/11, has become part of our collective memory. But in the painting it is unclear whether the people are victims of an attack, or whether at least some of them, well-dressed, are floating in a state of bliss. This ambiguity is typical of Bisky. The world is never all good or bad, and there is always a variable in the equation that can’t be solved.  In one of the show’s more intimate moments, eighteen small works on paper from between 2015 and 2017 hung salon style on a single wall. One of these, Madrugada, 2017, depicted a woman who has hung herself; her head is bowed, her hair covering her face, expressing surrender. This smaller piece—sad, sober, and executed with compassion—counterbalanced the explosive in-your-face effect of some of the larger works on canvas.

To hint at the violence that we feel threatened by nowadays is not an easy thing for an artist. Doing so can easily feel disrespectful to the people who have suffered in such attacks; sometimes it simply seems too rhetorical or gratuitous. There are some painters, though, who manage it. Among them are Michaël Borremans, who has incorporated gestures of religious fanaticism into his works, and Bisky, who has his own bright and flat way of painting, driven by a skeptical, observant appreciation of the world. His colorful, dynamic works seem to celebrate life even while depicting horrible things. An act of terror can happen out of the blue, anytime—and that immediacy comes across in his art. It is all happening right now, in the cruelty and contradictions of existence. The worrying part about this exhibition was that the scenes of destruction depicted in the paintings are probably not as exaggerated as they seem—they are all too real.

Jurriaan Benschop