Franzwestite - Franz West – works 1973-2003
at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 09 Sept – 09 Nov 2003
It is always remarkable how certain artists’ work can suddenly fall in line with current sensibility despite the longevity of their project. Something like that happened with Sigmar Polke in the early 1980’s and certainly Franz West’s work, as seen in the current Whitechapel Gallery retrospective, seems to find direct resonance with the current attraction to ‘slacker pop’ or retro 1970’s chic. West might seen as the daddy of all slackers, his art providing a seemingly highly casual musing on advertising, furniture, prosthetics, and more crucially, the social arena of the viewer/participant. This latter emphasis reveals West’s origins and broader context within the Viennese art scene. Born in 1947, West’s early years seemed to be taken up with doing nothing much, and only into the early 1970’s do his early ‘adaptives’ make an appearance, as a kind of social sculpture – inviting the audience to wear vaguely ergonomic forms which in turn become an interactive performance. Their ambiguity as structures in relation to the body invite a sort of contortion, a release of how an individual might negotiate the physicality of their own body in reaction to external structures. West’s furniture pieces further this concern with both inviting participation, and at the same time, uncovering an uncomfortable dimension in the participant’s physicality. Moonlight (2002), for instance, is a particularly effective installation dedicated to Edgar Allen Poe, where everything is painted silver and illuminated by a single dangled light. The two chairs facing each other in this piece have extended seats and shortened backs illustrating the fact that their functionality is slightly undercut by a disturbed proportion. Somewhere here is West’s belief that the work somehow reveals complexes of neuroses – not for nothing has the concern with furniture been linked to Freud’s couch. But some of these references feel as though they are ladled on a little heavily, belying the playful informality that the work seems to aspire to.
Elsewhere in the gallery West’s other – less austere – concerns are apparent. Huge colourful biomorphic forms are made out of papier-machÈ or plaster; others, such as the Three Luminaries - use neon. More successful to my mind are the simpler pieces such as Labstuck (1986), which is an absurd ski-like platform for a used wine bottle (the residue of West’s one-time favourite recreation). Also, at various points in the gallery, the numerous collections of collages where images from junk mail and advertising are re-used to form a strange psychedelic language of references. West in his best work de-familiarises the relationship between the viewer and artwork, and here the various images seem doubly consumed, their stereotypical poses awkwardly restaged in absurd interactions. In a series of works called Homepage (2000) we find minor celebrities, politicians from the Freedom Party, even a bikini clad model holding suggestive gigantic wurst, each of these forming a breathless picaresque assemblage. It is this outlandish mix of implied social communication and an almost nihilist casual approach to making that gives West’s work its current relevance to younger artists. But beneath this faÁade, his actual position seems to evoke a stance common enough amongst European artists of his generation, where the ‘attitude’ of the artist and their way of life provide the centrifugal energy for the work produced. Here, the individual works become rather like remnants, relics, or cast-offs (think of, say Beuys or Kippenberger). In this particular context it appears to give a melancholy tinge or afterglow to the seemingly joyous free play of signification. Once we resist the Freudian platitudes that have surrounded the work, perhaps we are simply left with that ceaseless - and shameless - energy to create something with the memory and experience of the banal and the everyday.
Originally published in Art Papers USA