Yann Gerstberger, Piano Bar (Fitzcarralda), 2021, tapestry, 106 3⁄8 × 88 1⁄2". Installation view.

Yann Gerstberger, Piano Bar (Fitzcarralda), 2021, tapestry, 106 3⁄8 × 88 1⁄2". Installation view.

Yann Gerstberger

The first impression was overwhelming: all those colors and shapes! French-born artist Yann Gerstberger, who now lives in Mexico City, covered all the interior walls at the gallery with colorful chalk murals. The first wall on the right, for example, was taken up by rectangles in light blue, orange, and gray—a distant echo, perhaps, of the rigorously geometric painting of European modernism. But then scrawled circles supervened: possibly allusions to the sun, or simply doodles, graffiti like that we see every day on the street. Positions that not so long ago might have seemed far apart—historicist abstraction and a usually ephemeral form of vernacular expression—were fused in a single floor-to-ceiling picture.

The mural on the rear wall was very different. Organic, vegetal shapes in shades of blue and brown interwove to form an ornamental design that might have seemed to owe some of its floral elements to Islamic tradition. A picture, though not a painting, hung on this wall, too: Holy Water, 2021, is made of hundreds of dyed strips of cotton fabric, cut from an utterly banal household implement, a dust mop, and glued to a vinyl backing. Bordered with trim from Peru, the composition radiates a tactile materiality. Gerstberger’s term for these pictures, which resemble rugs but are not woven, is assemblages. In Holy Water, a mostly orange field lined with what might be archaic glyphs serves as the background for organic forms that rise from what blue tones near the bottom (and the title) suggest is a body of water. Some viewers see a stylized bird or a bird’s skeleton found on a beach. The iconography, which draws on botanical representations and, more importantly, on ornamentation rooted in Mexican folk art, recurred in the other pictures on view. The exhibition’s title, “Zugunruhe,” borrowed a German word used by ornithologists to describe the restlessness that overcomes migratory birds before they embark on their annual passages.

In a small showroom, the visual effects were so strong as to verge on the hallucinatory. The walls of the space were covered in strong, sometimes dark colors. Brown and black dominated, in no small part because Gerstberger here used charcoal in addition to chalks. The accumulation of thickly layered organic forms engendered a slightly oppressive atmosphere, as in a mausoleum or burial chamber. On one wall, another large cotton-strip composition featured the show’s only representation of human forms, with three figures standing in water rendered in a naive expressionist style. The artist lifted them from a drawing he found in a bar; hence the title of the 2021 work, Piano Bar (Fitzcarralda), whose subtitle feminizes the title of Werner Herzog’s 1982 movie epic Fitzcarraldo.

When Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica presented his now legendary installation Tropicália—a parody of Minimalism incorporating elements of vernacular culture such as a parrot, palm trees, and a popular TV show—in Rio de Janeiro in 1967, the European and American proponents of the period’s dominant Minimalist and Conceptual art decried such contamination. Critic Clement Greenberg considered kitsch—as he saw the culture of the masses—to be in opposition to advanced modernist art; German cultural theorist Theodor Adorno was similarly unsympathetic to popular art and music, dismissing them as inferior imitations of high art. Yet artists around the world have again and again found inspiration in the products of folk and vernacular art, from Russians studying icons and lubki in the early twentieth century to the artists of the Bauhaus drawing from folk art, which was exhibited in 1932 as “art of the common man” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Today more than ever, as Gerstberger demonstrates, the results can be imposing works without distinctions between European modernism, popular art, graffiti, and ethnic traditions.

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.