Jonathan Meese’s voodoo: magic mark making in everyday life.

Rev March 3 2014

German bad boy-painter Jonathan Meese has two very strong exhibits up in Europe now (images to follow from galleries care of Contemporary Art Daily), one in Vienna (Museum der Moderne), the other in Copenhagen (Bo Bjerggaard Gallery, to April 26, 2014), both indicate a clarification of what he is all about. Conventionally, it would be said that Meese’s work exists in a continuum of traditional germanic expressionism, but that is true only in so far as maybe that sort of painting always remained closer to ritual and agency than abstract formalism. But the idea that art exists for the expression of the modern painter is grounded in the modernist notion of the artistic agency being seated in the soul of the artist as genius. And yet today it increasingly looks like artists are simply highly creative human beings who have the same needs and desires as you or I, so they act on our behalf as kind of “priests” to make meaning in very similar ways that we do in our own lives. In any case, I have no interest in what art expresses of an artist’s soul, so that I may worship at their altar, but what an artist can do to help me, by example, express of my soul, through the agent of a work of art, that is something else.

In fact, Meese still does his “high” art world art, with a sort of Max Beckman aura, and this remains very solid, if traditional in modern terms.

Meese Schach-dem-Balthys-800x402

But then, more and more, he is wandering into the making of daemonic icons, beings, with a presence and reality beyond painting, rendered in paint,

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But then has got more interesting in his low real world art. In Vienna, he situates objects and furniture in the gallery, and his painting is set on walls behind it (this itself would be the subject of a separate article, as this positioning makes all of his paintings “haunted,” technically speaking).

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What this says is that he has broken down his practice into the zone of schematic “bad painting.” Bad painting is painting that works off of the more basic impulses for people who do not collect contemporary art, keeping images on the walls of their homes. Even if they cannot afford art, they find a way to put something up there. And these images are not high art, they are part of personal culture. And, as such, they represent things that the person admires or idolizes (cult), things they ask help from (intercession), things they offer (votive), and then things they enlist to protect and bless their home (apotropaic). What this means is that Meese has distilled painting down to its pure in-real-life agencies. On the walls of the house, things worshipped becomes icons, things prayed to become shrine images, things offered become good luck charms and things guarding become apotropaic devices. In these, there are the household gods, or lares, and the household demons. This is undoubtedly why there remain demons in Meese’s art, they protect him, the act of painting them offers him protection.

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The fact that they are big, mono-colored and rather grandiose also means that he is trying to envision what they look like, existing in the world beyond the walls of the house. They are not, that is, pictures in the house, they are “windows” into the fears of those in the house, that look out on the greater figures that encircle their lives. Populating the world at large, in the atmosphere and sky, with whatever we fear knocking on our door at night is a Germanic or gothic thing, in the tradition of the Nemesis, unaccomodatable to modernism, and here it is.

meese Parsifal the loser

The fact that Parsifal (I’m not addressing the personal mythology in Erzlosung here, it means deliverance) is red also means that, when art is reduced to agency, the space between it and rite is reduced as well, so it is close to things like blood markings, and to blood itself. The gap that Benjamin thought opened up in art in the modern era is, in such work, closed, and it is in this zone where the pressure of the art-life nexus as it were reduces painting to the hyphen and to a practice of pure mark making. In this equation, marks made on canvas are a direct counterpart, and learn from, and trade in, marks made by persons for various agentics reasons (whether face painting, body painting, sacrificial painting, sacrificial giving sign of, etc), on surfaces, walls (this is why the space between painting and graffiti) and also bodies, in real life.

It may be, because this one is apparently done by Johnny Meese, that Meese has gained entry into this simple means of metaphorical painting by way of children’s drawings, fine, but then they go somewhere. But this is a lovely painting too,

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Most of the best of this more reduced mark making painting is
shown in Copenhagen. Here, Meese demonstrates his strong grasp of figure-ground
relations, and how they intensely overlap in the mark making level of
discourse. His paintings, like the auxilliary works of Bjarne Melgaard–see the
small faces in and around this larger work, for example (shown at Gavin Brown
last October, for example).

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But this is what I am thinking of, its method is so similar, it is uncanny, something is definitely happening: Melgaard had lots of these, dashed off, but all very nice mark-paintings (and right on the edge, by the way, between figure and abstraction, so there is that too)


These strike one as very fundamental, knocked down to an almost automatic level. They seem to be prompted by a pressure gesture, some simple, single gesture-material device or some new material or color. (I conjecture that Melgaard squirts out a blob of thick paint, then simply presses it down with a board, then lifts it up, voila: that simple act is what I am calling a pressure-gesture or application, ie there is no painterliness in it). As for Meese, this painting looks like it is the sum of six pressure-gesture applications, voila.

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In this the application of paint on canvas is likewise simplified and generalized to compare to a similar application of a squishy organic liquid to a surface, such as a cosmetic to a body (and so Melgaard imitates makeup), shaving cream on a face, or, misused, on other surfaces (whenever raw material wanders from its acceptable use, it ends up with a vandalistic air), frosting a cake, whatever it might be. Though these simple substance-gesture-surface applications are not far from Freudian smearing, they are a step above, as they have correspondence in the forensic reality of modern life. They are the “painting” that we all do in real life (whether it be rolling deodorant on under an arm or putting toothpaste on a toothbrush).  I think his fingers got involved in this remarkable little tour de force,

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And then in this, there is also in this work, in its compressed quality, the inducement of a kind of light dream state, a glass onion level of communication by symbol, or, a marked symbol, either a symbolon, specifically inspired by a body site directly below it (see the manikins below), or a sigil, a symbolic mark made in the process of a ritual event or act. As a result, these painted acts are not unlike other material applicant acts, and because they have a specific and general purpose the applicant is fast and easy, economical and pointed, that is, they have a point. They are, that is, marks, not strokes. The art is in the economy, and then in the variety in the economy: the polysemy. When Meese makes use of white, for example, maybe it is, metaphorically, compared to shaving cream, and that gives him all sorts of ideas, or maybe it reminds him of cake, and there are all sorts of ideas there, but, either way, it gives him a lot of ideas, and then he exploits his facility in economical application to create figures in substance in paint built up out of this basic metaphorically delimited material. And the art here, and proof to me that this work is humming, is in the bouyancy or livelieness of ideas, evidence of a high state of mindfulness (the opposite of automacity found in their real life counterparts).

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And he does some wonderful things with white paint figures here: breezy, economical, clear, ritual, merely marked and yet fully figured, totemistic, and then solidly grounded, with good line and good shape too. It is a kind of perfect, if slightly elevated form of graffiti.  (here, like a surgical instrument left inside a body, he leaves a piece of sponge in the painting, to remind us it might have derived from that so simple form of school-based fake impressionism).

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He also gets a lot of ideas by superimposing a sigil over the discipline: and then he plays off of that, with whatever paint he makes use of. And so the works where he spins his imagination in circles off of the iron cross, devising all sorts of metaphorical suggestions from it, are also very, very good: assured, economical, clear, ritual.

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And I say ritual because, and this is the final element of this kind of work that I am so interested in, and which is a necessary aspect if this work is said to belong to a “new magic” strain in art, he leaves behind in the trace of the mark-making a clearly readable track of in what sequence and at what speed the marks were made: you can actually go back over the form and trace it back from D to C to B to A to find out how this magical alchemy took form, and yet you would not be able to reproduced it as it is (the miracle of childlike simple mark making). (Nonetheless, this transparency, gives the work a repeatability, that is, you can participate in it, not just look at it, and also a magical sequencing, which always impresses humans). Because of that diachronic transparency, I believe again a new ritualism has entered Meese’s work. He requires that sequential clarity, to leave behind a record of the event of this ritual act, not its process, in the painterly sense, but its event, in the sense of a ritual act, done to worship, ask, offer or ward off evil, for example (that is, I am not saying this is process art, this is event art). It is this transparency that, as it were, completes the transaction of these works, and in it is in their carefree transparency, revealing all their tricks, and yet still being magic, that makes them so complete, almost breathtaking, as “art.” (I can all but trace the path of its inception and creation in this one: there is no covering of one’s tracks in ritual art).

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And then in Copenhagen he felt he needed to provide evidence of the prehistory, as it were, of his own painting, and so he created an installation in the form of a jail cell block holding in it many of the prisoners of his popular culture based image bank, including many manikins. Since manikins provide him with a readymade form and ground, he, as painter, is relieved by their presence of his need to do either, so he can concentrate on rendering his presence in the most economical possible form of his mark making, mere graffiti of the self then (Julian Schnabel got down to this level a generation ago). He also again makes terrific use of the iron cross to enlist these manikins in the cult of his sigils, whatever their personal meaning.  In each case, the iron cross touches off a creative frisson, and the manikin is caught up in it, ergo it is art.

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Here’s another one, again the iron cross generating ideas, then, too, here, painting in 3D, Kelley-style placing a stuffed animal in her lap

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In that one, the “painting” is in plastering marks, I think, in this one, symbolonic responses, nervously, to triggers of body parts

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He also, again breathtakingly, explores those other nonart
places in life where prehistoric bad painting and mark making might occur, such
as mirrors written on in lipstick by lovers or killers leaving messages of
revenge or terror on bathroom mirrors (an example here from the very poor
Urban Legends: Final Cut.

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He has a few wonderfully compact and succinct mirror paintings. Since I love the motif of things written on mirrors in horror movies, I of course love any art painting on mirrors, so long as they are marked in an agentic manner. This one has an iron cross and a bunny, in about sixteen marks, done)

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CAD focused a lot on this one (below), as if convinced that it, in its simplicity, it was trying to tell us something about the future of painting. And so it is: it is painting after the end of the history of painting, or before the history of painting, either way will do. But it is painting-in-life, painting as mark-making, knocked down to the schema level, communicating in sigils, making its ground in simple gesture-applications, and, most importantly, leaving in itself, and in its simplicity in itself, a record of its application as a ritual event in not so much the creative life but in the personal cultural life of the artist, devoted to certain icons and totems, enlisting the help and guardianship of certain demons, painting them all to call them forth, to conjure and to summon, to make contract, promise or a pledge, to offer and sacrifice. (the face made, economically, out of an ankh sign).

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Meese then has rolled back the history of painting to its prehistory in an anthropologically charted “everyday aesthetics.” He paints the kind of image that anybody might want to put up on their walls, behind the lamp, over the dresser, over the couch, something to make them feel at home, safe, protected, cozy, committed, dedicated, inspired, whatever, art and its pretentions in itself firmly placed in the background of personal desires (in this, then, in the long term Meese and others picking up on the project laid out for postmodern postpop painting by Karen Kliminick). Here, he represents, everyday life marking by handprints, of course it’s a cliché, but it marks the work as his, by handprint ID,

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For all these reasons, then, because Meese seems to have broken through to a new, clear-eyed territory for his art, enlivened by a bouyant new vocabulary of marks, over which he appears to have full command, I think his latest work is a major breakthrough, in his art, and in the art of mark making, in what I am calling event art, rite (ritual) art, or new magic art.  In any case, it is very good work.

Disclaimer: This is a POV review based on current thinking on the artist’s work, without vetting by artist or gallery.