Start with Hieronymus Bosch, lighten with illustrations from an early volume of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, sprinkle in a touch of Robert Hawkins and season with George Condo for a modern flavor, and, voila! You’ve got Paul Pretzer, a twenty-nine-year-old Estonian painter from Dresden. The combination of anthropomorphic, magically whimsical hobgoblins and oblique narratives has been a winning recipe for generations. Pretzer’s renditions are loosely stylized enough to be painterly; rendered tightly enough on board to be termed illustrative fantasy proto-realism (as opposed to photo-realism), and just creepy enough not to be too cutesy. Most visual story telling of this sort tends to be dark and angst-ridden, but whether or not he intended it, his paintings are too good-natured to be genuinely unsettling, and that may actually contribute to their popular appeal.
Several of the pictures are even kinda goofy, such as "The Seventh Skill" (from which the exhibition takes its name), which features three animal heads poking out of their conical, floor-length robes, looking like bizarre religious royalty; a distended nude humanoid figure bending over and poking its long neck backwards through his legs; or "Dr. Kloffkolosch," in which a male figure appears in shiny, red-hooded, antennaed Martian pajamas. The figure in "The Study for Spiderman" has twigs growing topside of his head and"Ohne Titel (The Unforgiven)" features a presumably male decapitated figure in an old-school soldier’s greatcoat proudly holding his own pig head under his arm, like the headless horseman sans horse. Pretzer’s characters are generally posing to the fore in a landscape or against a classical, monochromatic blank background.
It is difficult to say if Pretzer intended what seem to be obvious references, such as "Strawberry Fields Forever," a dripping hollow sack of a plaintive man’s skin draping from a small blackbird’s beak. It doesn’t appear to have anything in common with the famous Beatles lyric, but it does remind me of Michelangelo’s reputed self portrait as Saint Bartholomew executed on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. Even trickier is to avoid getting corny when painting unicorns. There is one beside another pig-faced ghoul who sports a magician’s robe while standing in a prototypical weatherless verdant landscape.
Paul Pretzer is very prolific. All of the paintings -- and more that were stacked in back -- are from 2011. He mines fairytales, mythology, and cartoon humor, arriving at a secular storybook fantasy world that is only slightly sinister. One suspects that although he’d like us to think him weird and deranged, he is most likely a pretty normal, nice guy indulging his quirky sense of historical satire, thankfully with enough confidence and skill not to need to rely on cheap shock tactics or offensive material to engage and intrigue his audience. It’s just strange enough to be witty and amusing without resorting to outright grotesquerie. - Christopher Hart Chambers
Christopher Hart Chambers is an artist, writer, and curator based in NYC.