Roberts and Tilton
Through April 2, 2011
(Reprinted from ArtSlant.com)
Eberhard Havekost’s paintings are blurry. This simple fact is what makes the painting complicated. Something has to precede the act of blurring. Even his most color stroked works can’t help but suggest they come from somewhere, from a photograph, from a landscape, from an image of some sort. For this reason, some commentators refer to Havekost’s paintings as spectral, as haunted, inhabited by spirits and ghosts. We don’t know the ghosts but we suspect their presence. Other commentators prefer the idea that his works are paintings that don’t want to represent, that play on the idea of painting’s ultimate failure to provide any firm reality, that work the gap between what is and what is speakable and knowable. Whatever your orientation in the debate (I promise I take a firm stand in this myself), something is blurred and that something, though displaced and removed from us through the blurring, is quietly present in every Havekost exhibition.
His show at Roberts and Tilton, Take Care, presents such blur and mostly the source images can be easily recognized—Spiderman, a television, vegetation, two horizons, a rucksack, ice, and a couple of disturbed screaming figures. One work is incredibly close to losing the sense of a source image entirely, Wand B09/10, 2009-10. However, the title and extended viewing brings it back into the world of images, it is a Rorschach of sorts, almost symmetrical but slightly distorted, ultimately a strange register (currently it thwarts my attempts at understanding it as image). All the paintings are painted in flat, muted tones or hazes of quick color, painted wet on wet. Barry Schwabsky’s term for Havekost’s work is correct, they are “sluggish.” That’s what we have here, delayed gratification, sober renderings. The paint, chalky and matte, runs as easily as cold molasses.
The work has many hip, “straight from the contemporary art playbook” moments. The overall diversity of the imagery does not lend itself to any narrative (story telling or historical coherence), placing both the political (which needs a social entry point) and the personal at arm’s length. The Spiderman image, Solitude B09/10, 2009-2010 makes use of the lost profile (or when a face is turned from the viewer as to not give you access to any of the subject's “inner life”). The lost profile is considered a hallmark of post-war portraiture, where apparently we’ve lost faith in the ability of a portrait to reveal much of anything about a subject (see Gerhard Richter’s Betty, 1988).
This lost profile function is played out in even more dramatic fashion in the three panel work, Flatscreen 2 (1,2,3), B10, 2010. This analytic yet elusive approach to a blank television (which again gives us nothing of its inner life or purpose) is like the functional approach of Bernd and Hilla Becher in their early serials, giving us a rational look at an exterior without a story, mixed with the haphazard work of someone like Wolfgang Tillmans in his Concord series, which finds a plane moving quickly across the sky, able to be glimpsed but not captured.
Perhaps the most abstract works in the show, Horizont 1, B11, 2011, and Eis (Ice), B11, 2011, give us the overall theme: we think we see something; we try to make it out, but ultimately any attribution of meaning or cultural positioning to the blurred image is speculation and projection by the viewer. Writers are fond of quoting Duchamp’s “The spectator makes the picture” when faced with Havekost work, and rightly so—you can certainly see these works as the flotsam of an over-mediated culture, an overly cropped, positioned, strategized, and interpreted society that is more uncertain of its own meaning and story as ever. Havekost redeploys (another hip term) the flotsam as representations of us, of us that cannot represent much of any truth other than our failure to find coherence in a troubling world. In failing to represent, he shows representation’s doom of continual failure.
There should be a crisis here and, for me, there certainly is a crisis to be seen in Havekost’s work. Perhaps more than the two painters he is continuously compared to, Luc Tuymans and Richter, Havekost has journeyed to the edge of a culture where the explosion of imagery in of all different formats and media has led only to the destruction of the image’s power to carry a message, to issue a sting of reality to the viewer, to call forth a specter of lived experience.
The reason why Eberhard Havekost is farther towards doom than Tuymans or Richter is he does not allow as many touchstones, as many meaningful breaths of meaning in the swirling turbulent ocean of broken images. In Richter’s Atlas of photographs, for instance, we find the personal and the political mixed with the banal (and the same goes in Tuymans’ canon of imagery as well). To extend the issue to photography, even Thomas Ruff, that priest of the particulars of how photography carries meaning and then carries meaning away, finds a strange human animation in his jpeg series.
Though similar in effect to all of his other painted black and white photograph interventions, Richter’s Uncle Rudi, 1965, for example, has just enough symbolic registers (that uniform, the cocked hat) to complete a number of humanist goals—the reanimation of repressed history, the acknowledgment of a terrible truth, the ability to get at real historical meaning through art, accomplishing what neither the photograph nor a straightforward representation of the photograph could have done on its own.
Similar truths, strangely, come forth in the obscured and minimal paintings of Tuymans of horrible moments in the history of Belgian Colonialism or
Havekost, on the other hand, leaves me troubled and adrift, without an anchor in world of flooding images. The specters that some commentators detect, for me, come without bodies and without names, like the afterglow of an image that I did not quite see. The noble failure that other commentators detect is not, in the end, noble enough for me. Havekost is a different painter from Richter and Tuymans, absolutely a singular voice, but he is not necessarily a voice I enjoy dwelling upon.
However, I cannot entirely say this with a straight face. There is Spiderman, Solitude B09/10.
This beloved character, a superhero, stands, cropped at the knees, bent forward as if examining something, the stark whiteness of the background giving forth no information. Spiderman is a spectacle figure, a pop icon, a character with an entirely known mythology. He is Peter Parker. He’s an enigma. He is both.
Havekost, in brilliant fashion, gives us an image of a pop figure that is decidedly not pop—this is no Warhol Superman, this is no Polke broken screen. Spiderman is not allowed glory yet he is not allowed disgrace either, he just stands somewhere between the known and the disguised. The painting itself, how it is employed, its coyness, its pale shyness, is an unusual metaphor for such a recognizable pop figure. The touchstone here, a known entity of culture, is thus reanimated in a new and unusual way. This is a good painting.