Klaus Hartmann at Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery New York

Near the entrance to Klaus Hartmann's first solo New York exhibition was a large digital print of a somewhat desolate barn-like structure out of which grew a narrow, three-story square tower topped by a small observation deck. With its surreal appendage, oversize doors, and stucco-covered brick facade, the building appears to be some bizarre yet strangely familiar modern architectural hybrid. (In fact, the edifice is an old firehouse in East Germany.) This blend of the alienating with the nostalgic was a perfect introduction to Hartmann's show, which brought together a peculiar range of aesthetics in photographs, photo collages, and paintings.

In five untitled color photographs, Hartmann began by charting a territory of taste from middle-class banality (an isolated palm tree from a public landscape) to sheer kitsch (figures from the Wild West crafted entirely out of lightbulbs at a country fair). Despite the frequent garishness of his chosen subjects, the images remain oddly nonjudgmental, with a matter-of-fact quality that seems to reflect the artist's ability to maintain a critical distance.

Indeed, the feeling that Hartmann might even share in such a middlebrow aesthetic sensibility was suggested by the photo collages, in which quasi-erotic pictures of bikini-clad female mud wrestlers taken from popular magazines were pasted into otherwise pristine outdoor settings such as billowing grasses or a private garden. The deliberately awkward inclusion of women muddying themselves up in incongruous environments functions as a wry comment on the medium's formal principle of disjuncture, while the figures' ironic return to nature becomes a prelude to the dislocation and conceptual layering evident in the paintings.

In Hartmann's canvases, many of the photo collages' elements - women, nature scenes, and fairgrounds, among them - become further aestheticized as they yield to a medley of pictorial languages taken from the history of art. In the isolated reformulations of the cartwheeling figures in Madchen #4, 1998, we are meant to ponder cyclical motion, which is echoed in the rotation of the Ferris wheel in Huge Wheel Small Wheel, 1999, and in the repeated elliptical tracks of the cloud-home roller coaster in Wilde Maus #2, 1999. Looming against blue-and-gray-streaked skies, these candy-colored amusement rides - recast icons of an "innocent" past - assume a strange and ominous quality. Not quite capable of being ridden (their tracks, after all, are disconnected), they appear as both memory and dream, alternately terrifying and intriguing.

In Palmen, 1998, and Inseln, 1997, the artist depicts, in a similarly saccharine palette, paradisiacal gardens and lush arcadian islands that, though empty of inhabitants, remain eerily inviting if unreachable. In this resurrection of certain traditions in German art, such as historical landscapes, Hartmann reflects the legacy of a generation of painters, from Baselitz to Richter, who have questioned or revived the act and significance of painting, often within the particular dialect of German culture. Yet unlike his German predecessors, Hartmann injects his scenes with scatterings of references to the artistic past, from pointillism (Madchen #4) to Mondrian (Wilde Maus #2) to Color Field (Snow Flakes and Dominos, 1999). And through it all, he remains detached, as if perched on the observation deck that crowns his hybrid barn, observing the postmodern heterogeneity of the fields below. In these sardonic paintings, the loss and uneasy nostalgia that one feels at the millennial close is communicated through such cool, distant views over the ambivalent terrain of late '90s art.


Review by Mason Klein, ARTFORUM September 1999, © Artforum International Magazine, Inc.