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Old School But So Cool



Horst Janssen

at the Chicago Cultural Center, through August 1

"Painting is dead" was the rallying cry of a generation now safely tenured. Still, traditional work is apt to attract little notice. Matted, framed, and placed under glass, drawings rendered in art-class materials like pastels, watercolors, and colored pencils are likely to evoke the outdoor art fair, the interior decorating outlet at the local mall, or the high school art contest. That's why I almost breezed right past the small exhibit of work at the Chicago Cultural Center by celebrated German draftsman and printmaker Horst Janssen, who died in 1995. In fact I'd been at the Cultural Center a week earlier and did breeze past it. I'm lucky to have stopped this time.

Janssen made his deft drawings on tattered, decaying pages, often haphazardly glued together. They seem almost overdetermined in displaying emblems of traditional art-historical genius. Appropriately, then, the first images a viewer is likely to see are the self-portraits. In these the confident but delicate lines of a comic, matronly face emerge from a murky background of softly shifting colors, as well as from a little wattle of jowls and chins. Peering from behind spectacles and wearing an anxious frown, Janssen looks like Benny Hill sketched by Rembrandt. In one image he seems about to smother under the towering hat of Britain's greatest naval hero, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, subject of innumerable majestic paintings. In another self-portrait, also rendered in colored pencil and graphite, the artist's perplexed face shares the page with a tray bearing a fleshy sprig of paprika. In a pastel drawing, bits of a skull are visible through Janssen's face. Self-Portrait as Grab Bag features faces and various items floating like islands in a sea of writing, an important element in much of his work. As part of a series titled "Paranoia," his fear-stricken countenance is partially collaged over by the serene visage of a geisha. "For a self-portrait," he writes, "I lay out in my mirror the 'things,' just as I would arrange the objects in a still life." Along with lampooning his neuroses, these mirror meditations show Janssen presenting his own features as static, dead objects alongside other static, dead objects. "As a still life of this kind combines all features and characteristics of a 'face,' I can paint my face to show that suicide is 'really' long overdue." A maudlin sentiment perhaps, but not the words of an unimaginative pedant.

In his actual still lifes Janssen usually focuses on one enigmatic object: decaying, exposed, and precious. Far more tangible than the self-portraits, these breathtakingly facile pencil drawings include depictions of a rotten avocado, shriveled water lilies, and a meaty artichoke heart. In three of them--Wren, Allah Is Colorful, and Magnificent Crow--Janssen's morbidly comic attitude to both nature and portraiture is embodied in the disheveled feathers, clenched claws, and gaping beak of a dead bird. Colors again are muted, with vivid areas appearing like flashes of fever. The sparse compositions and calligraphic marks betray a Japanese influence, but their clinical accuracy and subtleties recall 17th-century Dutch paintings, ostentatious displays of prosperity countered by allegories of avarice and earthly transience. In his writings, Janssen imagines death as a blessed release: "IT is a safe stronghold! It is the fulfillment of my yearning for security. All depressions are dispelled when I think of IT."

By contrast Janssen's nearly monochromatic watercolor landscapes are much less real, bordering on or wandering into abstraction. They focus on tree forms, depicted with the stunning simplicity of Asian scroll painting. However, rather than the strong, comely branches of flowering trees, Janssen creates impenetrable thickets of thorny bramble. Often these limbs--which imply both meanings of the word--are defined as skeletal white negative space in a ground of densely layered washes, which reverses the atmospheric perspective rule in watercolors about placing the darkest objects in the foreground.

Janssen writes that his landscapes are set in a mythical place called "Bobethanien," whose imagery is based on the country around the Haseldorf Marsh in Germany. "It is my landscape," he says, "where the proverbial shudder runs down my back when a rain shower suddenly and quite inexplicably falls out of a bright, cloudless if Pan were unintentionally and quite arbitrarily tipping out a bucket of water--right here and then nowhere else." Bobethanien is the home of the three-headed turtle in Turtle 'Bobeth', a creature he gives the sleek clarity of a biomorphic Japanese robot. It seems also to be the location of Fallen Tree With House, one of the few intelligible landscape scenes: the fallen tree of the title, silhouetted in twilight, dwarfs a minuscule house. Janssen describes the importance of the half-fantastic, half-nostalgic psychic space of Bobethanien: "It has always been my landscape and runs through all my works, time and again, individually or as a cycle between the cycles of erotica, faces, still lifes, and what-have-you."

In many ways Janssen's drawings are relentlessly stodgy. The genres couldn't be more familiar: landscapes, portraits, still lifes, figure drawings. The stylistic references are clear: classical Japanese and Chinese works on paper and the art nouveau artists they inspired. Northern Renaissance colossi like Bosch, Hals, and Durer and their creepy progeny--the leering, palsied expressionist cartoons of Edvard Munch, Egon Schiele, and George Grosz. The show even includes caricatures of canonical dead white males, among them Friedrich Nietzsche, Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, and Goethe. If this weren't bad enough, there's also an element of the adolescent sketchbook, evident in discombobulated dancing skeletons, a cavorting figure fashioned from a paint spatter, and a faceless couple locked in intercourse, genitals anthropomorphized as the faces of grotesque fiends. What excuse could a contemporary artist have for being so self-indulgent, staring into his navel and behaving as if the art world froze over sometime before World War II?

His excuse is that he's just that good. As eccentric and backward-looking as Janssen's work is, it's not the self-conscious, slumming mannerism of John Currin, nor is it the ponderously edgy postsurrealist formalism of Glenn Brown. Though rooted in technique, it also avoids the banal academic perversion of Odd Nerdrum, Lucian Freud, and Balthus. It seems that today untrained artists--from whom past masters sought to distinguish themselves--have set the standard, however unconsciously, by which fine art is judged. But Janssen's work evokes a time when fine artists weren't afraid to display virtuosity without putting quotes around everything.

Visitors to this show might be reminded of the middle- and lowbrow art forms of tattoos, comic books, and caricature rather than the gods of Western visual culture. Some Janssen images--the portraits especially--recall the gloomy menace of comics illustrations by Bill Sienkewicz and Bernie Wrightson. And Janssen's watercolor It'll Be All Right, in which a mountainous skull towers above a mysterious shipwreck, reminded me of Pushead, an illustrator who designed beautiful Metallica T-shirts and Zorlac skateboards in the 1980s. Back then I was a lot less embarrassed about liking art that was raw yet elegant, complex yet uncluttered--just plain cool. Not cool like the vapid products fetishized by the Gen-X nostalgia for bitmap rainbows and pornographic unicorns, just straightforwardly beautiful.

Janssen says of his self-portraits: "My eye extends beyond my total volume and the shell of my body becomes one enormous retina. Seeing seen." Then, deflating his own attempt at sublimity, he adds, "I still push my right finger up my nose as far as the second joint, leaving the tip of my middle finger resting in the hollow between my nostril and my cheek, which lends an exotic smell to my fingertip." That settles it. Dead white genius or not, Horst Janssen is definitely cool.

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