New York

Troy Brauntuch, Chanel, 2020, newspaper advertisement clipped from a 2016 copy of the New York Times, 16 × 12 3⁄4".

Troy Brauntuch, Chanel, 2020, newspaper advertisement clipped from a 2016 copy of the New York Times, 16 × 12 3⁄4".

Troy Brauntuch

Dreadful visions can yield beautiful afterimages, as confirmed by the art of Troy Brauntuch. For more than four decades, the artist has produced spectral, infrathin pictures qua pictures: works that are unremittingly oblique but unswerving in their associations with human cruelty. His career launched in 1977 with the epochal five-person “Pictures” exhibition at Artists Space in New York, where he showed silk-screened and lithographic reproductions of drawings by the Führer—renderings of a tank, an opera set—sans context. Such wiles typified the “Pictures” cohort, who picked apart the delusive visual culture of the postwar era on which they were reared. Brauntuch has gone on to lift many masscult images for his work, including sketches made by prisoners at the Dachau concentration camp, sculptures by Josef Thorak commissioned by Hitler, photos of Pan Am Flight 103’s bombed-out cockpit, and courtroom footage of O. J. Simpson’s gloves—all dim, tentative surfaces that acquire, through their sleek transgressions and rejection of clarity, a deathly, complicitous glamour.

“Elegance is refusal,” Coco Chanel once said. The French couturier was conjured throughout “A Strange New Beauty,” Brauntuch’s refined exhibition at Petzel’s uptown Manhattan location. In the first room hung framed New York Times ads for exorbitantly priced Chanel shoes, as well as a holiday announcement the company placed in the paper that simply read: MAY THE YEAR AHEAD BE JOYOUS AND BRIGHT. The felicitation cast a menacing shadow over the second gallery, where Brauntuch indulged his long-held fascination with fascist aesthetics in thirty-two installation shots from the Third Reich’s Great German Art Exhibitions, staged between 1937 and 1944 at Munich’s Haus der Kunst as official counterpoints to “degenerate” modernism. These black-and-white, sometimes marked-up photographs were all sourced from the museum’s Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung research archive and reproduced by the artist on magnesium letterpress plates; each print possessed a transposed, X-ray-like quality. In a related grouping of symmetrical, highly edited exposures, Aryan statues in the regime’s classicist-kitsch style appear behind display cases containing figurines and, through digital meddling, several examples of modern-day Chanel flats and stilettos.

The designer is, of course, infamous for her alleged espionage for and collaboration with the Nazis. With a lepidopterist’s cold reverence for the exquisite, Brauntuch has pinned the germane props onto their bleakest context. The intention of all this distorted museography felt plain and well-placed: See how fascism influences on a subliminal level. But there was something conceptually thin, possibly glib, about the artist’s strategy of ironized connoisseurship. A vitrine showcasing plates used to make nine of the thirty-two reliefs got at the notion of how history is manufactured, but it also highlighted the staler aspects of ’80s-style appropriation in 2020. Unlike his recent conté-on-cotton photo-paintings of, among other things, Charles James ball gowns and Thorak figures—more private meditations on ruin and decadence—Brauntuch’s newer work favors critical distance over critical closeness. As such, its perceived targets—the visual treachery and quotation that attend authoritarianism, then and now, as well as the ethical entanglements of all art institutions—lack the menace befitting their dark urgency.

But Brauntuch’s real quarrel has always been with beauty: what lies beneath it and how to navigate its often seductive amorality. He is a superb technician, and few would deny this show’s funereal splendor. (The artist’s source materials upstage in unsettling: On the GDK’s website, you can participate in the ominous interactive experience of visiting the empty, Nazified Haus der Kunst yourself.) The exhibition felt particularly haunted by Walter Benjamin, a casualty of the Nazis who famously wrote of how an artwork’s “aura” is lost through reproduction. Brauntuch shrouds his appropriations with newer, stranger auras, hoping their allure will blind you to their tragedy.