The art of getting stood up is a really underappreciated socially performed, culturally infused situation; one that allows either for a quiet moment of recollection, a brief panic attack or a chance to revisit the long lost virtues of people gazing under the winter Berlin sky. The always unexpected old lady running through the streets with a pain in her heart and a smile drawn across her face, or all those lonely lost polar bears searching for a place under the midnight sun to bronze their snouts, they all complete the scenery I was faced with while waiting.
Considering the practice of Berlin based artists Ulrich Vogl and Walker Brengel one’s bound to get tangled up in a fragmented network of simulated references and wonderful absurdities. Grounded upon two totally different traditions, their process follows a personal trail and manages to retain its individuality, while at the same time opening up to a thought-‐provoking dialectic. Even though they both showcase a unique sensory procedure regarding the way they approach their work, one almost gets the sense of a fluid narration being told; not in the sense of a strict argumentative and cohesive show that points fingers and raises its voice just to make its point come across, but more as a set of strategically placed whispers. Something laid out there for us to come across
Vogl utilizes a clear conceptual quality of manipulating, breaking down and repurposing his source material, while at the same time retaining a cunning sense of humor. On this particular occasion the artist worked on a series of maps, which he distracted from their original context and converted into something new; in other words, a process of transition seems to take shape. Some of them remain exactly the way there were intended, maintaining a witty sense of the ghost known as the readymade, while others are re-used and slowly make their way to the dark side of the moon. Spray painted, cut in half, broken down into millions of pixels, hiding themselves behind foggy glass surfaces, or breaking away from the power of the frame and melting into the wall, Vogl’s maps resist canonical approaches and come alive within a broader context of contemporary practices. The viewer comes face to face with what at first glance seems nothing more than a detailed satellite map, depicting the world just how it is. Yet the minute Vogl’s carefully inscribed details come out of their hiding spots, the Real starts running for its life; the moment the illusion shatters, we are left with nothing more than a powerful inquiry around the very same concept of perception. The paradox of imagining the world around us usually follows a dual trail between the almighty power of the Truth and the fragile charm of the Phenomenon, stretching between an essentialist “it is what it is” and a reassuring “I do, I do believe in fairies!” Vogl positions himself on that exact threshold, utilizing the object in its proud post-conceptual status in order to play with quotes, formalist nightmares and the secret charm of Semiotics. What one might just so easily dismiss as “Italy” on a map, as indicated on a piece titled Alpen – half restored, turns out to be a carefully recreated lie. A painstaking restoration of the one half of the original map, a huge undertaking that took conservator Claartje van Haaften almost 200 hours to complete, serves as a vital starting point in the process of unraveling what’s true, what’s not and everything that lurks between the two.
An airy metal structure carrying two air plants, a series of flags as well as a laundry hanger made out of plastic tulle fabric in pastel tones are furthermore tethered with the idea of mapping and re-imagining the Real. The pieces allude to the concept of an empty space, captured on an everlasting loop between an opening and closing gesture that echoes both spatial and temporal understandings. The flags are fixed on a large wooden basis and positioned really high, while the two tulle pieces face the viewer on an eyesight level and from a slightly elevated point, reminiscent of a bird’s eye view perspective. Working both as a group, as well as individual entities Vogl’s newest body of work presents itself as something ever-changing and organic that’s bound to evolve into unexpected directions. With a critical stance against the power of the Symbol and the desire of the Form the air plants will unavoidably bloom, engulfing his hollow flags and absurdist maps.
Walker Brengel, on the other hand, addresses the process of (Re)mapping from a different standpoint. His work ethic derives from an intriguing engagement with the materials, the languages and the modalities of painting. Mapping out the boundaries, the centers and peripheries of its voided spaces, looking at the absolute nothing and laughing at his own reflection, Brengel makes the case for new readings around questions, we thought we were never going be asking again. How does one reflect on the heritage and the histories of continental painting, where do we position the new materiallities and understandings surrounding that horrid old zombie we solemnly swore never to bring back from the dead? On the occasion of the show presented at Opdahl, Brengel shows a series of new large-scale canvases, ranging between opaque tones of black, shades of pale pink and dusty yellow and a group of totem-reminiscent sculptures, made out of industrially produced building materials. They breathe and misbehave, they desperately want to win you at a staring contest and they tease you in an attempt to lure you into their imaginary worlds. For it is only then, when you come face to face with the monster, that you begin to realize how mislead you’ve been all along. The black squares and whites on whites of the avant-gardes serve as a reference point in order to unlock the critical aspects and medium conditions of contemporary painting. If the history of modernity reads as a search for some form of purity, the way painting is conceptualized well into the 21 st century can no longer be dismissed as simple quoting process, but takes the form of an ongoing confrontation. The almighty and powerful black square is reduced simply into a black square and put back into its frame, while the flat surface of the canvas that gave birth to countless imaginary words bleeds into the wall fusing the boundaries between space and painted surface. The fine line conforming both transforms itself into a tangible condition that may or may not truly exist, making Brengel’s oppositional stance even more subversive. The paintings are not a strict and self-restraint entity, but are aware of our gaze, therefore incorporating the viewer himself, who emerges as an almost performative presence.
The sculpture/structures occupying the physical space relate to the paintings and bring the whole project to an end. Promptly titled Totem – Untitled each piece consists of concrete building blocks and colorful foam commonly used in construction sites that the artist found and incorporated into his experiment. The totem-like structure becomes a gateway to an almost ironic take on western metaphysics, exemplified through the spaces left open that allude to the idea of the human soul residing in the center of the body. Here that very same center is carved out and left hollow. The soul, as conceptualized through a long one sided western history of Thinking has been long gone and Brengel’s practice ends up using its distorted politics of the surface and the power of the object to bring her back.
With the smell of oil paint tickling my fingertips and a pair of plastic air plants inside my heart I went on with my day. The polar bears are still searching and the lady will never stop smiling.
By Haris Giannouras