IN BRIEF: Read a shorter version of this review and see more works by Henning Bohl at The Painted Word Tumblr.
Henning Bohl could have left his recent exhibition at Casey Kaplan Gallery at just the plush purple carpet, turning the space into a playful recreation of Yves Klein’s famous 1958 exhibition at the Iris Clert Gallery, “The Void.” For Klein, “that immeasurable void in which lives the permanent and absolute spirit freed of all dimensions” was an abstract concept that could only be realized in art. (1) While he first sought this realization through his series of luminous blue monochromes, he soon eschewed visual experience altogether in favor of the physical and mental experience of space.
Today, our complex understanding of a different kind of space–outer space–exemplifies such an “immeasurable void.” The universe as we know it is immense, expanding, and even fathomless. The two bodies of work in Bohl’s exhibition “Namenloses Grauen” take up Klein’s monochrome under a prior understanding of its spiritual inadequacy, particularly in the face of modern science. The title translates generally to “Nameless Terror,” a description that could be applied equally to Klein’s void, outer space, or the feeling one gets when alone with a monochrome canvas. All present the potential for transcendence, but getting there, in all cases, is a scary undertaking. Bohl’s exhibition works to dispel this terror by bringing together these various ideas of transcendence into a single, low-pressure conversation. The white-walled gallery, rather than an imposingly aseptic chamber, becomes a welcoming and comfortable space where these ideas might be reconciled.
While post-war space exploration certainly grew out of a military impetus, the correlation between spiritual transcendence and earthly transcendence cannot be ignored as an equally important, if underlying, motivation. Klein, for his part, made the connection explicit in his series of cratered monochromes called “Planetary reliefs.” Yet the stunning surfaces of these works perhaps best illustrate the ultimate failure of Klein’s IKB paintings, at least to produce the transcendent state Klein claimed to desire. Their hypnotizing color and seductive material are so mesmerizing on their own that they end up grounding the viewer, engrossing him in their particular material presence, rather than transporting him to an immaterial beyond.
Bohl cleverly avoids this pitfall of aesthetic rapture by creating his paintings with a commercial fabric, printed with planets and stars, that signifies the unfathomable expanse of sky that is space rather than evoking or depicting it. The fabric’s child-like facility reminds the viewer of the inaccuracy of its representation in the face of our modern understanding of the universe’s immense size and complex structure (if you could call it structure). But as this recognition is made while standing atop the soft, purple rug, it is accompanied less by an adult’s fear of the universe’s intimidating unknowability than by a child’s wonder at its limitless possibility—a transcendent thought indeed.
Of course, Klein knew that his paintings would never really achieve the results he assigned to them. His 1954 book of “Monochromes” parodically predicted the gesture of one-color painting before he even made it. In his blend of seriousness and humor, the artist embraced the foolishness of his endeavors. Thus, as an early example of self-branding, his oeuvre also points—purposefully—to the potential for art’s commercial exploitation. Bohl takes up this concern as well. He presents his fabric paintings as diptychs, with the symmetrical and thus seemingly intentional pieces displayed next to the stretched swaths from which they were cut. Artistic genius becomes arbitrary at worst and decorative at best. Similarly, the monochrome and dichrome paintings also on view suggest the frivolity of Klein’s quest for transcendence by equating his paintings with what are perhaps the most pointlessly personalized consumer products possible: a range of custom-colored “Scotch tape donuts” that offer a “cool and fun new way to enjoy Scotch® Magic™ Tape.” (2) Yet these paintings–made of spray paint and backpack fabric and adorned with these objects–are so extremely silly that it’s hard to keep a straight face, let alone a critical one. They’re funny in the way of the blue cocktails Klein served at the opening of The Void, which made his visitors pee blue for the following day.
In his review of Klein’s recent retrospective at the Hirschhorn Museum, Blake Gopnick states that “Klein’s art doesn’t rise above [the] contradictions between grandiose goals and their prosaic realization. It revels in them.” Similarly, Bohl revels in the realm between the oft-asserted poles of irony and sincerity; critical painting and pretty painting; and art that’s serious and art that’s fun. Both artists recognize that laughter is its own kind of transcendence, providing an opportunity, if only for a moment, to leave oneself behind.
“Namenloses Grauen” was open at Casey Kaplan Gallery from March 29 to April 28, 2012. All photos courtesy the artist and Casey Kaplan Gallery unless otherwise noted.