Why is it that the potential of painting always seems to be something that has just passed? Looking at the massive frieze of 60 x 60 cm canvases on view at neugerriemschneider I felt excited but also saddened. It has been nearly a decade since the untimely death of Berlin artist Michel Majerus at age thirty-five. The exhibition consists of a single grid of paintings that starts in the main gallery, goes through a wall into the smaller adjacent gallery, turns a corner and stretches through the lengthy stylish office (I’m continuously amazed by the interior architectural adaptations Berlin galleries have). This work is vibrant and energetic. It speaks of an endless potential for experimentation and innovation. It also feels extremely contemporary. Like NOW. Like right now. And it was all made between ten and fifteen years ago.
For his second exhibition with the gallery, fertiggestellt zur zufriedenheit aller, die bedenken haben ("completed to the satisfaction of all who have remembered") in 1996, Majerus showed for the first time what became a consistent part of his practice: 60 cm square paintings hung in grids. At the time of his death in 2002, Majerus had created over a thousand. Over the course of making them he rearranged, added and subtracted, and sometimes collected them into groups, which became singular works.
These paintings, and Majerus’ body of work as a whole, reflects a very specific slice of time, a pivotal moment in the evolution of visual and media culture. Between the mid 1990s and early 2000s the world stood with one foot in the physical world and one in the digital world. We only had CD players; the MP3 was something audiophiles and computer geeks knew about. The internet was easily accessible but not on your cellular telephone, if you had one. And if you wanted to get online at a coffee shop you paid to use a desktop computer. Things were increasingly made with digital technology but still experienced and consumed physically or in analogue.
Majerus had a keen eye in selecting the images he would continuously rework and alter. Woody and Buzz Lightyear from Disney and Pixar’s Toy Story (1995) and Mario from the groundbreaking introduction of the Nintendo 64 are treated with the gravity of abstract gestures, swaths of paint, cloudlike graphic marks and simplified versions of Andy Warhol’s Skull Paintings. Added to the mix are screen-printed images of ecstasy tablets with dollar signs embossed into them, pictures of friends, snapshots and a German gingerbread cookie with the message of “Herzlich Grüße” (Warm Greetings) in frosting. This river of images is a portrait of the world at that moment—personal, cultural, universal and commercial.
Early digital technology, 8-bit graphics and music epitomized by video games of the 1970s and 80s is fetishized these days. The retro fascination with the 3-D imagery of late 90s Pixar and Nintendo will have its day too. But right now it is too close. There is something uncomfortable about where those things stand in relation to where we are today in terms of visual and technological culture. Majerus included some of the classic arcade game icons, rendered abstract by the low resolution, like a Space Invader squid. But what to make of the 16-bit and 32-bit era video game texts that read “new comer” or “end”? I wonder if this is what Pop Art felt like when it was new.
Remember, Majerus was placing this stuff into his work exactly as it was being placed into mass visual culture. So I guess this is maybe what Pop Art felt like when it was recent, rather than new. I think what gives these works by Majerus such a strong presence today is their “recent” place in history. The subjects aren’t old enough to be cool (for that you need twenty – thirty years) and they don’t read as a cynical and calculated immediate re-presentation of all the garishness that is all around us. There is a clear sense that Majerus had an affinity and attraction to the images he selected, and his choices were governed by a certain specificity.
Within the 60 x 60 cm square Majerus treated imagery from art history, animated movies, video games, personal snapshots and painterly gestures as equal. Because of that specific moment in history it makes a lot of sense to put these things all together on canvas. While Majerus still bears much influence on painting, his practice was larger than that. His works look outward from a medium that now seems ever inward gazing. Majerus was concerned with images. Painting was a way to examine them and validate them, as opposed to using the images to validate painting. One present impulse is to use images from popular culture as a way to lay claims for painting’s continued validity in contemporary life. Another is to reject the digital modern world in favor of that most analog of mediums.
Phrases like “the end of analog” pop up a lot. This literally has occurred as countries halt analog broadcast in favor of digital. But this is also an affection of subculture. As much as some obsess over the early days of digital, others latch onto cassette tapes, vinyl LPs, letter writing and other forms of “slow media.” There’s nothing wrong with reading books and sending postcards—I love those things. But there is a potential for morbid fascination with obsolete technology. It seems painting is equally threatened by becoming wholly subservient to new forms of image making and by becoming an increasingly small territory dominated by luddites. These square paintings of Majerus’ are tinged with ambivalence and convey a sense of doom. He didn’t just pick any Warhol, he picked the Skull Paintings. An armored mech with cannon arms appears in front of the word “simplicity” and one painting sports the word “bla…” A pixelated text says it best, though: “POP IS TERROR.”
--Erik Wenzel, an artist and writer living in Berlin.
(All images: Michel Majerus, installation view. Courtesy of neugerriemschneider.)