To begin, a small digression: Back in 1999, the first Liverpool Biennial included ten works by Doris Salcedo. Made from old wooden wardrobes and plaster, each individual piece combined two or three wardrobes into a single block, the smaller objects partially disappearing into the plaster-filled depths of the larger ones as if into the fog of the past. Displayed in the Anglican Cathedral, the works were lauded as affecting memorials to the “disappeared” victims of oppressive regimes. Yet this posed questions: Why make a series? Wouldn’t a single work, in the manner of the Unknown Soldier, have been more eloquent? The production of a number of sculptural arrangements seemed to undermine the “hot” phenomenological-expressivist rhetoric of pathos and human testimony. They either became a succession of “cool” formal sculptural experiments or – blasphemy! – an exercise in eking out extra profit from a single concept.
The skillful, concentrated, hard-worked little oil-and-acrylic paintings in Günther Herbst’s exhibition are recent additions to a project begun, coincidentally, around the time of the aforementioned exhibition. Conceptually, though, they are its diametrical opposite. Herbst self-consciously collides the antitheses of formalism and social commitment. Their resulting failure to synthesize, and the problems raised thereby, become the focus of the work. At first glance, the show’s seven paintings look, frankly, rather fashionable. Waterloo Road 1, 2, and 3 (all works 2009), for example, hint at a range of contemporary references: hard-edged, zigzagging (Martin Boyce-ish) linear patterns and brightly colored (Sarah Morris-ish) checkerboards sit alongside passages of well-realized (Patrick Caulfield-ish) photo- transcription and (Gerhard Richter-ish) dragged impasto. These elements combine to form tilting perspectives and disorienting (Leipzig School-ish) neither-indoor-nor-outdoor spaces. However, a longer look reveals the transcribed fragments to be images of urban detritus: plastic bread crates, a bulging black trash bag, a stained mattress, and so on. The show’s press release confirms that all seven paintings are extrapolations of Herbst’s long-term preoccupation with photographing the improvised shelters of London’s homeless population. This is made plainer in the other paintings on show, Tottenham Court Road 2, 3, 4, and 5, which are derived from shots of street sleepers’ cardboard-box “nests,” sagging or flattened heaps of corrugated brown panels arranged in the hope of winning their occupants some privacy and protection from the elements.
There is no pathos here, though. Herbst co-opts the visual data quite instrumentally for his formal pursuits. The photographs are cropped, edited, and rotated. Planes and lines are superimposed and colors and textures transformed to follow each individual image’s logic and the artist’s choice of references. A wide variety of painting techniques are deployed convincingly; the compositions are tense and well calibrated; and the range of modernist and contemporary quotes emphasizes and complicates the reassertion of the old autonomy-commitment dilemma in the present.
Gnawing on the same critical bone, Santiago Sierra has sketched art’s political potential in terms of its offering “a narrow margin through which one can convey blame.” However, the “hot” project of delivering chastisement (“You, the privileged gallery-goer, are deriving aesthetic pleasure from the spectacle of another’s exploitation or suffering”) seems random and ultimately futile. In contrast, Herbst’s “cool” project lodges questions rather than accusations. Most pressingly, it asks what we might come to understand from the emulation of the labor of the street sleeper in the artist’s highly focused, sustained, repetitious, and presumably solitary formalist enquiry. Is it grotesque to suggest an equivalence? Is the former simply a function of desperate need, and the latter just a luxury?
Günther Herbst’s work was on show at One in the Other, London, UK between May 17 – June 24 2007
Copyright Rachel Withers & Artforum International Magazine, Inc. 2009