The kingdom of animals has disappeared in Ulrich Gebert’s photographs, and those that handled them now look to be engaged with ghosts. Many scenes are just ridiculous; a well-dressed gentleman in a field tossing sticks to a dog looks preposterous if the dog is absent. In another shot, a man in a sailor ensemble leans out over a marine tank holding something presumably edible for a dolphin or maybe a whale, the absence of which opens up a void in the image that calls to mind Yves Klein’s epic leap. Playful as the images may seem, the undercurrent of Gebert’s project is decidedly serious. By systematically removing key elements of the artwork’s subject matter, Gebert’s mixed media pieces seek to expose the domineering characteristics of humanity as it reveals itself in the formation of the relationship between man and beast.
On ViewWinkleman Gallery
June 1 – June 30, 2012
There were 13 works in the exhibition, each of which includes a manipulated silver gelatin print that would fit flat in a hip pocket. The prints are neatly folded around thin backing and set (never centered) into the surfaces of small monotone paintings. The black and white images seem to emerge from the lichen green, slate gray, and sandy tan expanses of the stretched linen. More than framing devices, the paintings become the grounds of the works themselves, which sets up a dynamic interplay between these two long-jostling mediums.
Gebert “found” the images, and though there’s no telling where from, it’s clear the German artist was looking for a particular vintage. His subjects include performers, trainers, and apron-clad domestic masters, none of whose outfits look any more recent than the 1950s. This gives the work a retrospective quality and connects it to the era when painting purged its representational character in favor of a material-driven truthfulness, whose central tenet was that paint should look like paint. The camera didn’t render the paintbrush obsolete; it allowed painting to become something it hadn’t been before, which, in this context, might be compared to the sociological relationship Gebert identifies between man and animal. The question changes from one of domination to one of cohabitation, imploring us to wonder what deep shifts naturally occur in the process of two unique (life) forms evolving together.
Acts of erasure are the commanding gestures of these pieces. They prompt speculation as to which aspects of a wild creature’s nature are lost when its primary function is to serve a human. When you see circus performers doing their bit without the big exotic cats, as is the case with “Negotiated Order #13” (2012), the whole thing looks absurd. If one considers the broader implication of the scene—humans caging creatures for entertainment purposes—it seems needlessly oppressive and barbaric. In this regard, Gebert’s erasure of the animals could also be recognized as a symbolic unshackling. Just as a painting should be a painting, a dolphin should be a dolphin, and no part of being a dolphin naturally involves living in a shallow tank.
Formally, the removal of such a crucial aspect of the image might be qualified as an inversion of the insertion of the photograph into the surface of the painting. Both acts are in keeping with the traditional nature of their respective mediums; photography has long been regarded as a subtractive art just as painting is generally understood to be an additive process. From a procedural and materialistic perspective, Gebert’s work holds to the old line of truthfulness even while it operates within the realm of illusion.
There is no question that a trainer shapes the behaviors of an animal, but it’s also true that the trainer has to accommodate the creature’s fundamental needs. After all, the nature of a negotiation is that it’s not unidirectional. Perceptive pet owners know that an animal can teach you countless things about yourself, so when the animal is removed from the picture it’s as if the negotiation has failed and the opportunity to learn is lost. Only the specters remain and no one has ever trained one of those.
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