Just in the nick of time Jonathan Meese has rolled up like a panzer division, bringing his ribald "Dictatorship of Art" to New York. Meese's everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to exhibitions hasn't changed, and here we get paintings, bronze sculpture, video, and a performance, War "Saint Just (First Flash)."
Meese continues to explore depictions of power, specifically our fascination with historically abusive authority figures. In the past his work has focused on Hilter, Mussolini, James Bond's Blofeld, and Humpty Dumpty, among others. In this exhibition Meese presents a clutter-filled room of oversized painted plywood furnishings for world domination (desks, control panels, lecturns) -- except everything is a little rough-hewn and oversized. And the propaganda strewn throughout, a little wacky. He seems to be on a pogrom against 1. "My Pretty Pony," 2. Martin Heidegger, 3. Scarlett Johansson, 4. Walt Disney, 5. …well, you get the idea. Piles of such cultural detritus have been swept into a giant pile waiting for immolation, under a hand-lettered sign that reads "DIKTATUR DER KUNST." It could be easily taken for an adolescent statement about "The Man," as it were, had this mise en scene not borne such a striking resemblance to Zuccotti Park. Indeed, we are even reminded of Joseph Beuys's propagandistic statements, such as "Art is Capital" and "Every Human Being is an Artist" -- somewhat disingenuous platitudes passed off as philosophical aphorisms. Meese addresses the viewer on a less lofty and more genuine level, with placards and posters that state "Art is Total Beauty," "Art is Toysoldierism," or "Art is Total Lolita." His conflation of surrealistic aesthetics and abuse-of-power histories would seem just plain silly if it didn't keep pointing back to how often art and power have crossed paths historically. Think of the painter/dictator Adolph Hitler, the writer/watercolorist/Prime Minister Churchill, or the landscapist/General/President Eisenhower, for example.
Where the work really goes deeper is in the four self-portrait paintings in the second room. All are in very traditional oil on linen, sketched rapidly in a very Late Picasso style, and incorporate such "signature" Meese-ian elements as Iron Crosses, Adidas stripe logos, and elements of text. All of them have paragraph-long titles. They harken back to a period in German painting after World War I when painting itself was a highly politicized act, particularly when depicting the human form. In France many called for a "return to order," for an art that celebrated the physical integrity of the body -- the body made whole again after the ravages of the war, and later, the industrialization of society. For the first time since the Industrial Age began, populations were more urban than rural, labor was becoming more intellectual than physical, and technology and greater freedom of travel were shaping a society that was gradually detaching itself from the land. Artists began to celebrate the "heroic" human form, suggesting the "ideal" body, as derived from Classical and Renaissance models. Even artists such as Braque and Picasso, who had so recently been committed to Cubism, began to paint in older, more traditional styles. The German Expressionists took a more "primitive," rough approach to painting, focusing on gesture, primary colors, and bold handling in their work. Meese clearly draws on these sources and combines figurative distortions, such as flattened, mask-like faces with snout-like noses, black eyes, and graffittied phalluses; he mixes dramatic paint handling and dramatic tonal contrasts with paramilitarist symbols and goofy medals. His work calls to mind Picasso's musketeer paintings, with silly generals parading around in made-up costumes -- silly until we compare them to real-life characters, such as Gaddafi in his Michael Jackson uniforms.
Whether Meese would approve such a reading of these works is questionable. Seriousness doesn't seem to rank high on his list of what Kunst should be. We might be thankful for that, because if he were serious it would be kinda scary. - Bradley Rubenstein
Bortolami Gallery is at 520 West 20th Street in New York, New York.
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.