GEM, The Hague’s museum for contemporary art, presents TOTALZELBSTPORTRAIT, a solo exhibition by German artist Jonathan Meese. The title (translatable as “Total Self-Portrait") leads you to think the central person in the show must be the artist himself, but that’s only partially true. The artist’s image does figure in almost all of the works, but paradoxically, according to Meese the works aren’t about him. But then the question remains, why is he in all those paintings?
Jonathan Meese has a clear vision of what art is. If you hear him talk or watch him perform, you either think he is brilliant or has completely lost his mind, but he seems to know what he’s doing. Meese, self-appointed “Meesias,” preaches the total dictatorship of art: it’s art's turn to rule the world after politics and religion. Art is an almighty dictator, with the artist as its subordinate and humble servant. Art doesn’t care if the artist is sick or dying and doesn’t care what the artist wants. According to Meese the only thing left for an artist to do, is to play and he loves doing just that. The whip of his dictator is Meese’s driving force, and as such he is a very productive artist, working in every medium he possibly can. The largest part of the GEM show consists of Meese’s “paintings,” brightly colored collages of paint, words, sentences, images, and objects. His works are childlike, primitive, energetic, and colorful, and his loose style reminds one of painters like Penck and Basquiat (or for a more recent example, Bjarne Melgaard). Unfortunately there are only two of Meese’s bronze sculptures in the show, which employ this same collage aesthetic, which in a sculptural form yields fascinating, playful results. On the lower floor there are some films and a huge installation. You can wander through it like you are inside one of Meese’s paintings and feel overwhelmed by his propaganda.
Jonathan Meese, 2011; Photo by Jan Bauer
According to Meese, in the dictatorship of art nothing has any meaning and everything is a personal play toy. He imagery ranges from Adolf Hitler to Scarlett Johansson; they are all equal and all just toys. This way art can make every threat in the world harmless. Meese’s favorite toy seems to be himself, and (excuse the double meaning) he loves playing with himself. According to Meese, his work is not narcissism or self-expression, it’s just an image, paint on canvas. It has no soul itself, and is certainly not the bearer of the artist’s soul. But still his own image is everywhere. The introduction text even calls Meese “modest” and “an artist who effaces himself for art” which is a bit too humbling to my taste. You can see he enjoys to be on the foreground and there are autobiographical elements to be seen throughout.
While Meese’s work propagates the dictatorship of art, there is more in there. You could say his works also revolve around primal emotions like love, lust, hate and violence: good, evil and their personifications in the 21st century. If you look at the painting Martin v. Essenbeck ist Saalgott, for instance, you find a lot of typical Meese imagery: there are iron crosses, swastikas, Hitlers, penises, photos of Meese, and words like “Gott” (god), “Ich” (me) and “Erz” (earth). Also present are the written names of recurring characters in Meese’s oeuvre like Richard Wagner, Martin von Essenbeck (the bad guy in Visconti’s The Damned), Zardoz (the eponymous evil, violent God from the science fiction film) and the movie title A Clockwork Orange (a film full of violence, rape, and Beethoven). The erotic is also present in the painting in the form of huge penises and in the name of Isis, the Egyptian goddess of fertility and love. It’s a painting with lots of references thrown into a jumble of violence and eroticism.
Jonathan Meese, 2011; Photo by Jan Bauer
The result of Meese’s playtime can be impressive, especially in the larger works (the biggest being about 33x10 feet, or 10x3 meters) and in his sculptures. He definitely chooses interesting toys and imagery to play with. The humorous and loose way he treats heavy subjects like Hitler (whom he likes to paint because the Hitler moustache “reminds him of Malevich’s black square”) are intriguing. The joy of creating radiates from the works and that glow is something I like to bask in. The show absolutely fuelled my pleasure in art, but I have to admit that at times I tend to feel like Meese is just messing around too much. In the dictatorship of art it doesn’t really matter what Meese does. The narrative justifies Meese’s playing, resulting in works that sometimes feel a bit too much like every result is good enough, which doesn´t mean they are all good. Maybe this feeling comes from the clean white cube setting, or maybe I’m not the one to decide what makes a good painting. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so critical or judge individual works and focus instead on the dictatorship of art. After all the only thing Meese can do is keep playing, and I hope he does.
(Image at top: Jonathan Meese, Meine Fratze ist harmloser als meine Katze (die freundlichtste DIKTATUR), 2006; Courtesy GEM, museum voor actuele kunst)