The fractured figure, mirror of our world

f contemporary art is a mirror of the reality which surrounds us, then a visit to the two newly established biennials, in Athens and Thessaloniki respectively – as well as «Fractured Figure – Works from the Dakis Joannou Collection,» an exhibition at the DESTE Foundation – would leave little doubt that this is indeed quite a horrid world in which we live. Pain, pessimism and allusions to a world in crisis, politically, socially, economically (perhaps aesthetically too) has been the predominant feeling, particularly in the biennials. «Fractured Figure» is set in a similar tone. But it also contains a pop element and sense of irony – typical in most exhibitions on the Dakis Joannou collection – that removes some of the pessimism from the overall effect. «Fractured Figure» employs mostly figurative art to paint an image of contemporary man’s condition. In the majority of the works, the human figure appears distorted (for example Ashley Bickerton’s «Torso») or grotesque, beastly (the half-man, half-pig figures of Paul McCarthy) or alienated, tortured or menaced. In his essay written for the exhibition catalog (to be released shortly), Jeffrey Deitch, the exhibition curator (Massimiliano Gioni has also contributed as curatorial adviser) notes: «A new approach to figurative art reflects the real challenges faced by real people. Instead of being idealized or fantasized, the figure is fractured, exploded, and imperfect… It embodies a sense of cultural dysphoria, a state of dissatisfaction and anxiety, the opposite of euphoria.» Man appears powerless and at a loss, or as a caricature. David Altmejd’s «The Giant» is a monumental sculpture of a human figure seen in the pose of classical sculpture but with nothing of the latter’s idealized image. The figure resembles a cross between a human and a tree, with tree trunks for legs, fractured all over and with squirrels in the crevices. Is the work about man being doomed to self-destruction? Not all of the works depict the human figure. Robert Gober’s installation alludes to human presence and evokes childhood traumas. One of the strongest works in the exhibition, it shows the artist’s skill in employing a sparse visual language to put across a gripping, emotional effect. Another non-figural work is Urs Fischer’s «Bread House.» The work evokes an eerie sensation and turns the notion of the cozy, fairy tale-like cottage into a nightmare. Even the pop-like paintings of Jeff Koons (one of the preferred artists in the Joannou collection, he is strongly represented in the exhibition) appear more ominous than usual. Yet, there are also plenty of moments of derision and irony, and at times the viewer senses an underlying mischievousness. Maurizio Cattelan’s works have precisely that impact. A sculpture showing the effigy of the artist peeping from a trapdoor can be taken as mockery against the art establishment and the role of the artist. Although some works are more humorous than others, they are all supposed to share several characteristics. According to Deitch, one is their implicit reference to the performance and body art of the late 1960s and 70s. Another is that they belong to a tendency in contemporary art in which figuration is used with a political subtext. Deitch singles out the current trend from former manifestations of figuration in contemporary art. In his view, during the late 1980s, artists were interested in the «conceptual figure» – as for example in the effects that plastic surgery or genetic engineering had on the human figure – while, around a decade later, the focus shifted to the «fictional figure,» the perception of man through video games and the Internet. This description mostly fits the art produced in the US and the art that is typical of the Dakis Joannou collection. However, the figure appears just as inhuman and alienating as before. Is this indicative of a crisis? Crisis in art or crisis in the world at large? The first question is not tackled by Deitch. The curator does not dispute the language of contemporary art or artistic creativity. «Rather than turning to collective action and public protest to express its fears, the emerging generation has internalized its discomfort. The political has become personal. Artists have also personalized and internalized these concerns. The most compelling new art is not propagandistic or stridently political. It is more reflective of a state of mind and more abstract in its message. It is political in a more profound way…» According to the curator, this is an exhibition that «calls for a renewed embrace of humanity.» Not everybody would agree that shock value and the preposterous are necessary tools to effect this embrace. But ultimately, art is also a matter of taste. Not everybody responds to it in the same way. «Fractured Figure» is an exhibition with a specific curatorial concept and works by some of the most established artists worldwide. It captures an existing trend in contemporary art and can certainly be appreciated for that alone. «Fractured Figure, Works from the Dakis Joannou Collection» at the DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art (11 Fillelinon & Em. Pappa, Nea Ionia, 210.275.8490) through March 29. New works will be added to the existing exhibition in early November.