CULTURE

Vivid color and urban punch offer humor and speculation

In many ways, expressionism captures something of the essence of German art. Particularly during the early part of the century and then gradually after World War II, the various forms of expressionism became a prevalent artistic style which, although not the only one, is recognizable in the art produced by different generation of artists. The paintings of the German Helmut Middendorf on view at the artist’s one-man show at the Eleni Koroneou Gallery bear traces of this expressionist tradition. A selection of the artist’s work from the past three years, they are bright, colorful compositions with sinuous, nervous lines marking the foreground of each painting’s multilayered and multi-textured surface. Vivid and suffused with energetic gestural movements, the paintings are resonant with a mood of restlessness but also of savvy humor, a strange combination of the sophisticated and the crude, the tragic and the comical, something of a laid-back, «don’t take it too seriously» cynicism. Middendorf uses expressionism not in its dark, insular sense but in a more extroverted fashion, producing in the end a critical, punning and unassuming view of man’s condition in urban reality and mass culture, of which Middendorf is a keen observer. «Humor is so important in art. You see it in a Picasso work, some of the faces he paints seem like a joke. A Goya painting or Velasquez portrait are sometimes so funny. It is this so-called tragicomedy that I like the most in art,» said Middendorf in a phone interview. But what also matters is the act of painting itself, and its formal qualities rather than mere content. The layers of paint that Middendorf applies on his canvas show the artist’s relish in painting – his preferred medium – his interest in producing different textures and visual qualities through the application of paint. «The layers of paint take away the narrative and make the work more abstract, more of an object in itself. There is a lot of humor and sarcasm and some of the latest works are very much influenced by political events such as the September 11 attack. But I hate it when people just illustrate things; you have to find a metaphor for what you want to say, not just illustrate it. In the end, a painting should work by itself,» said Middendorf. The artist, who just came back to Athens – his home for most of the year since the early 1990s – from Berlin, where he was born and raised and also spends much time, is having a busy period. His show at the Eleni Koroneou Gallery is just one of a handful of major engagements, among them a show at «Kunstverein» in Vechta, a city close to Brem, a big retrospective show at Cloppenburg in northern Germany before that, and a forthcoming show with new works at the Suzanne Tarasieve Gallery in Paris. There are also plans for participating in group shows at Berlin’s National Gallery and London’s Tate as well as a show in Vienna that will trace the connection between painting and music, a field that Middendorf is also interested in. For an artist as prolific as Middendorf, these successive exhibitions help reveal a broad-ranging output but also reflect both his international reputation and lifestyle. Trained as an artist in Berlin during the 1970s, Middendorf initially worked with experimental film but soon became one of the pioneers of the neo-expressionist German movement. At a time when minimalism was still important, Middendorf, together with fellow-artists such as Rainer Fetting, gave painting a new impetus and through the «Galerie am Moritzplatz» that they founded, they formed the group of the so-called New Fauves, which soon earned a reputation for their bold, gestural painting. «Back then, there was also the Hamburg group, with people like Martin Kippenberger and Markus Oehlen, and the Cologne group with Walter Dahn and Georg Jiri Dokoupil,» said Middendorf. Moreover, there was the strong presence of an older generation of artists such as Richter, Baselitz, Immendorf and Polke (Middendorf singles out Polke’s influence), many of them earlier advocates of expressionism. In the early ’80s, Middendorf moved to New York. He had a show at the Mary Boone Gallery but just as the hype over neo-expressionism was turning the movement’s original creativity into an artistic norm, Middendorf abandoned his colorful, expressionistic work and turned to black-and-white paintings, for the challenge. «I hated this classification of neo-expressionism and felt the need for change. In the beginning, I thought the huge paintings I did at the time, occasionally 2 to 4 meters, would never work, but somehow, they did,» said Middendorf, who has always avoided being typecast even if that meant taking a risk with new techniques and styles. In his studio in Berlin he then worked on a series of large collages and a few years after he came to Athens he made a series of his so-called «gray paintings.» «The series was a reaction to Athens, but in a very abstract way.» His work of the time was also one more way of overturning yet another cliche. «People always think that Athens is white but what I find in Athens is thousands of kinds of grays, not white,» said Middendorf. Compared to the drab palette of those early «Athens» paintings, Middendorf’s works on view at the Koroneou Gallery explode with color and vivacity. Line is more important than in former works but the multiple layers of paint that are typical of the artist’s work are all there. Although not directly apparent, so is the fascination with popular culture, kitsch and the grotesque. This is perhaps what gives Middendorf’s painting a certain punch and his expressionist style a contemporary, sophisticated and unusual twist. Works by Helmut Middendorf are on display at the Eleni Koroneou Gallery (5-7 Mitsaion, 210.924.4271) to May 15.